Lester Wainer hasn’t worked in what was once his family’s fur business in decades, but he still knows a great deal about it. Fur was at one time a major Louisiana industry: “Hides? Hides are from cows. We dealt mostly in muskrat and we handled pelts.”
By 1925 there were 15 or so firms dealing in wholesale fur, and they were clustered near the river in the French Quarter, just a few blocks above Canal Street.
Wainer’s father started the business in the 1920s. “I began going down to the warehouse when I was just a kid, 12 or 13,” Wainer recalls. After Fortier High School, studies at Tulane University and some time working at Higgins Industries before joining the U.S. Navy in World War II, Wainer joined his two brothers at the family firm in ’46.
“The warehouse was on the corner of Iberville and Decatur streets. It was upstairs, with an open area,” he says.
“There were individual bins set up for different grades and qualities of muskrat, which is what we mostly handled.”
“We only handled the raw pelts; we didn’t cure them. They were put into bales, very large bales, in the fur house,” he says. “The size and quality determined the number in the bale: The best ones would have 2,500 pelts to the bale.
The smaller ones were as many as 10,000 to the bale.” The bales were covered in burlap, strapped with rope and shipped to New York.
Charlotte Steinberg Gottesman (Mrs. Fred Gottesman) never worked in her family’s Steinberg Company fur business, but she was familiar with it. “The warehouse had a lot of windows and a lot of lights. You needed to see the pelts and to feel them; they were graded by touch, how thick they were, did they have any damage.” Their building, on Decatur Street, now houses the Crescent City Brewhouse.
Gottesman says her father would sometimes work all night. “It was only in the winter that the fur would come in; they would work to get them out in a hurry.” Quick shipping to the fur market in New York was a necessity because of the climate, too. “You couldn’t leave them in the heat.” Another effect of the seasonal nature of the fur business was finding work for the employees in summer. “My father always tried to find them work for the rest of the year,” she says.
The furs shipped out of New Orleans to New York at the end of winter. As Wainer explains, Manhattan was where the fur dealers were located and where fur items were manufactured. Gottesman’s father kept an office in New York.
Although the main fur coat makers were in New York, Wainer’s father manufactured muskrat coats in New Orleans in the late 1930s. “He brought some people in from New York to make them, and my brothers went out and sold them to specialty shops around the state. The price to the stores was $80 to $100 a coat then.”
Another family fur business chose a musical sideline.
Mares Brothers was located on St. Louis Street just off Decatur Street. Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, had an unpleasant introduction to the smellier aspects of a fur warehouse when he helped load memorabilia and recordings from Joe Mares’ Southland Records label that had been stored in the building.
According to Raeburn, Mares had hoped to make a music career playing clarinet, but when he heard his brother Paul’s bandmate Leon Roppolo on clarinet, Joe decided he needed to make another contribution to jazz – he founded Southland Records.
“It was established about 1949; they recorded both black and white musicians, and they made the only known recording of jazz pioneer Papa Jack Laine. Southland was one of the first indigenous record labels, and they had a good catalog.” Raeburn spent a day loading boxes of 78-RPM records, but hope for a vast music library vanished when they discovered there were numerous copies of very few discs.
One bonus to Raeburn’s unpleasant warehouse searches: visitors to the jazz archives might be able to take home a copy of “Congo Square” (theme song of the old New Orleans Jazz Club radio show) by Johnny Wiggs’ group with a flip side of Dr. Edmond Souchon’s rendition of “If Ever I Cease to Love.”
The New Orleans fur business wasn’t for the faint of heart. “Handling fur was a speculative business: We bought from trappers in the winter and the market didn’t open in New York until spring. We were buying the skins at a price we speculated we could sell at a profit,” explains Wainer. “We bought furs from East Texas to the Mississippi line, all of coastal Louisiana was marshland,” Wainer says.
By the 1930s a new animal was moving into the marshes and replacing the muskrat: Nutria, the South American rodent called the coypu, had been brought into the state at several locations. They seemed useful for eating invasive water hyacinths and providing a new fur source, but no one suspected that they would thrive alarmingly in the Louisiana wild.
Today there’s a program paying trappers a bounty to bring in nutria – because the animal is so destructive to habitat, denuding marshes and gnawing at canal walls.
But the main cause of the decline of the Louisiana fur industry is public opinion. Many people today believe it’s wrong to wear animal skins, a point made by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Making fur profitable again might depend on making wearing nutria environmentally correct.
Environmentally sound fur?
“Save Our Wetlands: Wear More Nutria” is the slogan of Righteous Fur (righteousfur.com), a platform for local environmental activist and fashionista Cree McCree. “We had three nutria style shows; we sold a lot at auction and we had a full page write-up in The New York Times,” she says proudly.
Besides making jewelry from nutria teeth, she’s applying for grants to send out press kits and nutria skins to designers and “big outerwear companies that have a strong green component.”
Nutria is still a difficult sell. “People are more politically correct outside of Louisiana,” McCree admits.