Fur, Cotton, Celluloid
This fur muff was made by the Lutz Fur Store around 1920. At that time, middle-class Americans had rising disposable incomes. They were looking for ways to show off their wealth, but they could not afford the most expensive goods. This muff contains a unique mix of natural and cheaper man-made materials. The bracelet attached to the muff is made to look like tortoise shell but it is actually an early plastic called celluloid. The fabric lining is made to look like silk, but it is actually cotton. The only genuine material is the mink fur, which would have been expensive and required over 15 mink pelts to make!
According to Sigmund Freud, fur symbolized pubic hair. Such popular vernacular as “muff,” “pussy,” and “beaver” support this connection. This double entendre surrounding the fur muff associated it with femininity and sexuality. Mrs. Anna Orwell received this as a gift from her husband, Mr. James Orwell. Muffs tended to function as statements of intimacy between a couple. They identified women as unavailable sexual beings to the outside world - which would be on display every time a woman slipped her hands into a muff.
Ariel Marie Reker is from southwest rural Minnesota/southeast South Dakota. She is a double Major in Archaeological Studies and Public & Policy History at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. Her research interest is medieval archaeology and public history projects.
Mixed Media: Sterling Silver, Steel, Brass, Mink Fur, Ceramic
The context of materials determines the aesthetics of adornment. Associations we make with particular objects, like the mink muff, help define the social status of the women who wore them. This functional accessory masks the true value of women. This object traps the progression of gender equality in the same way that fur traders trapped the animal used to create it.
Brad Nichols is an Associate Professor of Metalsmithing at the UW-La Crosse. He creates objects from jewelry and hollowware to architectural ironwork and sculpture.