It’s durable, warm, glamorous and striking. And it comes from an animal that is abundant in the wild, easy to trap, and easy to farm. In short, all the right boxes are checked for a great fur. It was also once the height of fashion. Yet today it’s rarely seen in stores, and a pelt sells for the price of a coffee.
This is the conundrum that is skunk fur. Are the fur trade and consumers turning their noses up for no good reason?
Tale of the Tape
Let’s start with the end product.
Skunk fur is durable – less durable than beaver, but ahead of the pack and on a par with mink.
Skunk fur is warm. It’s no caribou, but unless you live in the Arctic, it’ll work fine.
Skunk fur is glamorous and striking. The guard hairs are long (1-2″) with a glossy lustre, and are held erect by thick underfur. And the colouration is unmistakeable: deep brown or black, usually with white striping and cream patterns.
The most prized pelts have solid black backs with a blue sheen, and come from colder regions where pelts are thicker, hairs are finer, and the black is blackest. (No fur is blacker than northern skunk.) If there is one white stripe, and it’s long and wide (hooded skunk), this may be retained in a garment, while pelts with two stripes (striped skunk) are normally dyed a uniform black.
So what’s the downside? Not much.
The guard hairs are slightly coarser than fox, the most luxurious long-haired fur.
The black guard hairs, if not dyed, fade to a dull reddish-brown if exposed to sunlight for too long a time. (Just store your fur in a closet.)
Skunk fur is reputed to have an odour, especially when wet, but this should never happen today. If an animal sprays itself before being dispatched, the pelt should be discarded. But if there is only a vestigial smell, a skilled fur dresser can remove it.
And last, but perhaps not least, it’s called “skunk”.
Skunk Fur Production
So how easy is it to produce skunk pelts? Pretty easy. Let’s start with trapping.
First, skunks are abundant. The striped skunk, the most commonly traded species, has a conservation status of “Least concern” with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico, co-exists with humans, and in many parts of its range is growing in numbers.
Second, skunks lack caution and cunning. A box trap works great for nuisance skunks, but is too costly and bulky for fur trapping. Foothold (restraining) traps or bodygrip traps are better.
Farming skunk is also easy. Indeed, skunk farms were once seen as a stepping stone for beginners looking to graduate to more challenging and valuable furbearers.
Reasons why farming is easy include: Skunk are easily tamed, and at feeding time just come running. They’re poor climbers and have few natural predators, so pens are open-topped. They’ll eat just about anything – table scraps are fine. And selective breeding produces all-black skunk in just three or four generations.
So why aren’t we all dressed from head to toe in skunk fur? Its curious history may shed some light.
For the longest time North Americans had no interest in skunk fur, but it wasn’t a case of singling it out. They weren’t crazy about fox either. And even when skunk was “discovered” in the mid-1800s, demand was not at home but from Europe.
Skunk quickly became America’s second most valuable fur harvest after muskrat, with almost all pelts being traded in London and Leipzig. To meet demand, the first farms emerged in the 1880s, but unreliable pelt prices forced most pioneers to close. Then the farms sprung up again at the turn of the century as European demand surged. In 1911, pelt sales in London peaked at just over 2 million.
And that’s how things stayed right up to World War I. The domestic market remained tiny, a fact historians attribute to a lack of Europe’s deodorising skills. Or perhaps it was that American dressers had to work with pelts so pungent, European brokers wouldn’t take them.
Whatever the case, 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.
Seeing the potential, the US Department of Agriculture published the Economic Value of North American Skunks, in 1914 and again in 1923. “Skunk fur is intrinsically of high value,” it stated unequivocally. “The propagation of skunks for their fur promises to develop into an important industry.”
Skunk trapping also helped countless rural families weather the Great Depression, mailing their pelts to Sears, Roebuck in return for a check or store credit. Through its annual newsletters and radio shows, Sears (aka “Johnny Muskrat”) created a whole new generation of trappers, and became one of the largest fur buyers in the US.
All in the Name?
And then the age of skunk was over. World War II ended and fur fashion shifted dramatically. Long hair was out and short hair was in. Skunk pelts were almost worthless, red fox pelts were “unsaleable”, and even silver fox was scorned. Mink was the new king, a position it has not relinquished to this day.
But a change in fashion was not the whole story. If it had been, skunk would have rebounded along with fox, which still has a loyal following today.
Some observers blame skunk’s demise on stricter labelling laws. In the 1930s, the fur trade often took considerable liberties when it came to labelling. Women of all social classes wanted fur, but with the Depression raging, few husbands could afford the premium stuff. What they could afford was humble rabbit, but that didn’t sound very glamorous. Enter creative marketing.
“Minkony” was rabbit dyed to look like mink. “Ermiline” was white rabbit, sometimes with black spots for that authentic ermine look. Then there were totally fictitious species like “Baltic black fox”, “Belgian beaver”, “French sable” and “Roman seal” – all rabbit!
Other furs got the creative treatment too. “Hudson seal” was one of the most popular sellers, though it was actually sheared and dyed muskrat. And no fur, of course, needed a new name more than skunk. Why tell Ma’am she was swathed in the skins of foul-smelling critters when you could sell her “American sable”, “Alaskan sable” or “black marten”?
Finally the US Federal Trade Commission cried foul. From 1938 on, the true identity of the furbearer had to be given, though the name of the animal being imitated could stay. Goodbye “American sable”, hello “sable-dyed skunk”.
In 1952 it went further with the Fur Products Labeling Act. Explaining the need for the new law, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Mrs. Eskimo, who cures the pelt brought to her by husband, has no trouble telling a mink from a muskrat. But Mrs. Housewife, shopping for a fur coat, finds herself in a quandary. There are so many furs and so many names!”
Henceforth, only “the true English names for the animals in question” should appear, “or in the absence of a true English name for an animal, the name by which such animal can be properly identified in the United States.”
The trade resisted, and some unusual new names were approved. “Rock sable”, for example, became “bassarisk”, even though most people called them ring-tailed cats. But it spelled the end for furs like “China mink” and “Japanese mink” (both weasel).
As for skunk, in a few short years it had gone from being “American sable” to “sable-dyed skunk”, to plain ol’ “skunk”. Was it too much for consumers? Are we really that shallow? Apparently yes. A rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!
Skunk Fur Today
The last skunk fur farms closed decades ago, and offerings of pelts at auction today are small. Prices, meanwhile, seem frozen in time.
The largest seller today of skunk fur is North American Fur Auctions, in Toronto. At its wild fur sale last June-July, 2,332 pelts were offered (compared with 310,667 muskrat), of which 70% sold. Average price was $5.97.
From time to time, skunk has made small comebacks. In the early 1970s, in particular, it was considered quirky and cool, but it soon went the same way of Afros and bell bottoms.
Popular designers and fashion houses are still willing to give skunk a try. Just recently, America’s darling of the gossip columns, Kim Kardashian, caused a stir when she stepped out in a fabulous skunk coat from Lanvin.
Can Kim bring skunk in from the fashion cold? Or will it remain forever sealed in a 1930s time capsule?
Could a kick-start campaign bring this remarkable, but under-appreciated, fur back into the limelight? What do you think?