116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Linn County’s original inhabitants — and the pioneers that followed — trapped, wore and traded fuzzy animal coats to protect themselves against the elements.
Fast forward to more recent times, and you may recall reading the obituary of longtime local furrier Al Berger, who died in 2006 at the age of 86.
Those early days and Berger’s passing serve as the fitting first and almost-last chapters of a once vibrant local fur trade that saw tremendous growth and a lot of tailoring before finally falling out of fashion.
In 1885, Nathan Schoen was the first furrier listed in a Cedar Rapids city directory. His typical listings and ads of the time read: “Practical Furrier, all kinds of Fur Garments made to order, made over and repaired. 119 N. 3rd St.”
Various tanners and tailors advertised furs and fur goods before then, but Schoen hung his hat on the notion that a town’s need for furs could sustain a business.
The Mitvalsky fur business grew out Frank Mitvalsky Sr.’s experience as a butcher and cattle buyer dating back to the 1880s.
In 1913, Frank Sr. and his son, Frank Jr. (who had worked for hide producers Ohsman & Sons Co.), hung a shingle as Cedar Rapids Hide & Produce Co., specializing in tanning hides for robes and coats.
F.S. Mitvalsky & Co, better known as Mitvalsky’s, would become a front-of-mind local name for all things related to furs. By 1942, the city directory had category listings for raw fur dealers, fur dealers and furriers, fur manufacturers, fur repairing and remodeling, and fur storage. F.S. Mitvalsky & Co was listed under each heading.
Frank Jr.’s son, Richard J., would own and run both businesses until he retired in 1987. At one point, he was one of the largest raw fur shippers for the Hudson Bay Co. of London. His stepmother, Anna C. Mitvalsky, was also in the family business, serving as its president for decades.
Mitvalsky’s had locations in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and operated its own rendering plants.
Alfred Berger brought his family’s fur trade know-how to the area in 1941. He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1919. His uncle, David Berger, a religion professor at Coe College, was his connection to the area.
Berger worked for the Schoen family before starting his own business at his house in 1945 on Seventh Avenue, just before the big bend after entering Marion from Cedar Rapids.
Berger Furriers started as a living room showroom. It expanded over the years to include a tailoring shop, an office and a storage vault. Berger employed more than a dozen full-time employees at one point, which included buyers and sellers in New York.
Reality coat check
By the 1870s, the Victorians had shed the brute notion of merely wrapping one’s self up in a warm fur. They were wearing silk coats lined and trimmed with fine-haired fur, and this amplified the notion of paying an ultra-premium for rare furs.
By the late 1940s and early ’50s, Hollywood stars were wrapping themselves in fur items like chinchilla hats, ermine gloves, lynx scarves, sable stoles, fox boots and, of course, mink coats.
The ensuing aspirational demand for luxury furs ushered in look-alike furs that came with names like “coney” (rabbit), “lapin” (rabbit), “mountain sable” (dyed bassarisk) and “Hudson seal” (black-dyed muskrat).
A 1952 act of Congress required makers of fur clothing to start using the real names of the animal skins being sold, but the public penchant for penny-pinching pelts would persist until the popularity of mink peaked in the ’80s.
That’s when full-length minks sold for $5,000 to $50,000 and would occasionally make fashion magazine news when sold for $300,000 to $400,00.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Greatest Generation put so much energy into protecting the fur coats from moths.
Local department stores like Armstrong’s and independent furriers like Mitvalsky’s one-upped each other in a newspaper ads for summer storage of furs, boasting of their vault sizes, constant cold temperatures and scientifically proven methods for killing fur-eating bugs.
Recycling grandma’s prized, long fur coat into a new garment more compatible with the next generation’s fashions was always part of the furrier’s trade.
Some of the oldest furrier ads in Linn County newspapers tout the proprietor’s ability to transform old hairy coats into sleek, shaved fur items likes robes and vests.
Technically, the last chapter on the local fur trade hasn’t been written and probably never will be. You’re a Google search away from finding local folks in the business of buying and selling some kind of fur, as well as making garments, blankets and other things with it.
The local fur industry, however, is far from its heyday of having several well-known local furriers running half-page Fur Coat Month ads in The Gazette every August.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org