Mystery of the Old Fur Stole
By Jan Mathew –
Hands stroke its soft coat and fingers touch the smooth, satin lining — lingering on the embroidered initials, “WHF.” Eyes study the rich brown striping, the intricately stitched seams, and the familiar local label, “Singer and Lucas, Quality Furs, Decatur, Illinois.”
Each channels the sum of clues offered by the “mystery stole,” and takes his or her best guess.
“I don’t think you have a mink,” says Ed Walker, Millikin University Associate Professor of Art and an accredited fine arts and antiques appraiser. “The striping and quality tells me this is a muskrat stole — or a ‘poor man’s mink.’ It was probably worn over another coat or jacket and was just one step up from a fur collar.” Walker speculates the stole might even date to 1938-1942.
“I’m guessing this is mink,” counters Kim Aukamp, owner of Wabash Depot Antiques. “It was probably bought in the late 1950s for maybe $200 to $300. Looks like it’s still in good shape.” Given the local label, she adds, it might fetch about $60 at Wabash Depot.
Joan Gluck Young, one of Decatur’s longtime furriers, engaged in the fur stole mystery, too. Young’s grandparents, Manuel and Blima (Schaffer) Gluck immigrated to Decatur from Poland with their son, Henry, in the 1920s. Her grandfather joined two cousins and an uncle, who started Schaffer and Gluck. Eventually, the Schaffers left the business and Young worked for decades with her father, Henry, and husband, Jim, as co-owners of Gluck’s Furs. Singer and Lucas were among their local competitors; in fact, furriers Ben Singer and Earl Lucas worked for Shaffer & Gluck until 1955, when they opened their own shop.
“This is squirrel fur, and I would bet it’s a remodel — maybe made from a coat that originally fell below the knees,” says Young, referring to the length of the stole’s skin. The color and curve of the stole’s striping indicate it’s natural, not dyed, and a slightly thinner and faded section around the back of the neck suggests it was worn frequently.
“It’s in good shape,” Young adds. “Ben or Earl did a nice job on it.”
Re-make or original; valuable or low-end; mink, muskrat, or squirrel: Only a woman with the initials, “WHF” and Singer and Lucas know for sure. And neither is talking.
Despite its “antique” status, the tale of the mystery stole actually began only a few months ago. Browsing at the Second Mile Thrift Shop in Berea, Ohio, Decatur Magazine subscriber Diane Scaletta was drawn to a rack of furs. The first and only fur she looked at was a stole with the “Singer and Lucas” label.
“My heart started to race and my imagination ran wild!” Scaletta recalls. “How did this cape end up in Berea, Ohio, some 474 miles from Decatur? Who is the woman behind the ‘WHF’ embroidered on the lustrous lining? Did she wear the fur to dinners, dances, theatre productions?
“My heart told me I had to return the cape to its former owner . . . but how would I find her?”
Perhaps, Scaletta thought, with a few clues and a little luck, fellow Decatur Magazine readers might help solve the fur stole mystery.
Except for the relatively unusual first initial “W,” the pool of possible Decatur owners would have been large — particularly in the 1940s through the 1960s.
“It was very important for a woman to have a fur,” recalls lifelong Decatur resident Babs Hazelrigg. “I remember wearing a hat, gloves, dress, and fur just to go to a Junior Welfare noon meeting, or to go shopping downtown.”
Hazelrigg’s inventory of furs included a full-length rabbit coat, which she bought and stored at Modlins; a curly lamb long coat with mink collar, a gift from her husband; and a small mink stole that she wore as a collar. “It still had its paws, tail, and mouth, and looked just like a little animal,” she says.
“Furs were just part of women’s wardrobes,” adds longtime Decatur resident Mary Ann Groves. “We’d wear them out to dinner, church, cocktail parties. Ladies always had their initials embroidered on the lining, and they’d store their furs in the summer. If the pelt dried out, the coat was ruined.”
Newspaper advertisements from the late 1950s suggest a strong local demand for furs, and plenty of competition. In addition to Gluck’s and Singer and Lucas, local fur shops included Newman’s and Block & Kuhl Company. Women’s dress stores, such as Van Law’s and Modlins also carried, or could special order, furs. Jane’s Dry Cleaning boasted, “furs cleaned by a new exclusive Orchid Fresh Process.”
Fur shops offered a wide range of options and styles. Squirrel was considered “mid-range,” with muskrat and rabbit on the lower end, and mink and ermine on the high end. Most fur shops also offered cleaning, repair, storage, and re-styling on the premises. Gluck’s, which had a large fur drum for cleaning, first used finely ground peanut shells to clean furs, and later switched to finely ground cornmeal. Temperature-controlled basement vaults stored furs through the summer.
Such would have been the mystery stole’s local life: Worn frequently and, judging by its appearance at age 40 or 50-something, well cared for. The Singer and Lucas label also helps pinpoint the timeframe of its purchase — between 1955 and 1971. (Singer and Lucas opened in late 1955 at 190 West Wood, and moved to 223 N. Main Street in 1964. From 1971 to 1978, it was called Lucas Fur Store, following Singer’s retirement.)
But from that point, its trail goes a bit cold. Managers of the Ohio thrift store have no idea who brought in the Singer and Lucas fur. And, as Young suggests, if the fur is a re-make, it may not even have originated with Singer and Lucas. Many furriers did re-models of other manufacturer’s furs, and then sewed in their own label.
Even the initials, “WHF” are puzzling. In a monogram, the last name initial is in the center, and is larger than the first and middle initial. But because these initials are all the same size, they could stand for first, middle, and last names. If “F” is the last name, it is most likely a married name, rather than maiden.
“Diamonds and furs have always made a woman feel elegant,” says Young. “And, women being women, someone likely noticed this stole. Somebody’s bound to know something.”
We hope this story will help re-unite the stole and its owner, or owner’s family. If you have any answers to the mystery of the old fur stole, please let us know!
Contact Decatur Magazine at 423-0422; or email@example.com.
If fashion still dictated gloves, hats, heels, and furs, Contributing Editor Jan Mathew wouldn’t get out much . . .
This article originally appeared in the August / September 2014 issue of Decatur Magazine.
It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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