Monday, November 12, 2018

Contemplating Skunks

Last week, Peter Jung posted on Facebook this photograph of a skunk, with a remarkably wide white stripe, making its way along Prison Alley.

Photo: Peter Jung
The picture elicited lots of comments, including one from me, telling how that same evening, driving home, I had to come to a full stop in the 200 block of Warren Street to allow that same skunk to meander across the street. The mostly white skunk also reminded me of an ad I found a while back, in the Hudson Evening Register for January 13, 1914, and gave me the perfect excuse to share it.

Although the almost white skunk seems something of a rarity today, a hundred years ago, its value was only a fraction of that of an all black skunk. Of course, this raises the question of what skunk fur was used for in the early years of the 20th century. The answer is: coats. 

According to an article called "Skunk Fur: Why Have We Forsaken You?" which appeared on the blog Truth About Fur, skunk fur was "discovered" in the mid-19th century, and by that 1880s it was America's second most valuable fur harvest. The market for skunk fur, however, was not in this country; it was in Europe. By the turn of the century, the European demand for skunk fur had surged, but the demand was interrupted. To quote my source: "World War  I changed everything, not just for skunk but the entire fur trade. With shipments to Europe disrupted, the age of major American auction houses began, first in St. Louis in 1915, then in New York in 1916. Demand for skunk in North America finally took off, and when the European market came back on stream in 1918, the golden age of skunk had arrived."

In 1914, the year the war began in Europe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a pamphlet called "Economic Value of North American Skunks," promoting the benefits of skunks and providing instructions for raising skunks.       

The introductory comments include this paragraph:
The skunk indirectly conserves the food supply by preying upon insects and other enemies of crops, and the excellent fur it produces offers a valuable material for warm winter garments. Among fur animals it is second in importance in the United States, the muskrat alone exceeding it in total value of fur produced.
The pamphlet was first published in June 1914 and reissued in June 1923. 

The ad for skunk fur that appeared in the Hudson Evening Register ran in January 1914, several months before the war started in Europe, so it's likely the pelts being solicited by Sterling Coon were destined to be shipped overseas, but their first stop was this building, where, in the storefront at the right, Sterling Coon ran a cafe. (In 1914, the blocks of Columbia Street from Sixth Street, where Elihu Gifford's home was located, to the intersection with Green Street, where the Gifford Foundry was located, were known as Gifford Place.)

Anyone squeamish about dining at the eatery where raw skunk pelts were being received and maybe also stored was probably not a patron of Sterling Coon's cafe. A further hint about the cafe's cuisine and ambiance is provided by this notice, which appeared in the Hudson Evening Register on August 16, 1913.


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