The Skin Trade, Then and Now

One writer traces the spatial, bodily, and economic threads that bind modern-day Detroit to its history of fur trading, which prompts her to consider the value of her own skin.


Detroit owes its existence to millions of dead mammals, mostly beavers. In 1701, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac and his group of soldiers, traders and craftsmen located a spot on the Detroit River perfect not only for maintaining the fur trade, but for dominating it. They needed a place they could defend from the British and the Iroquois and saw the strait (“troit” is French for “strait”) as ideal—a place where the river narrowed to a space only “one gunshot” apart from the other side. That a theoretical gunshot should mark Detroit’s beginning seems prescient: Michigan had 1,095 shooting deaths in 2009 alone. This figure actually outnumbered the state’s tally for deaths in car accidents that year, which also seems odd, given the role of the auto industry in the state.

When I had 40 pounds of skin taken off my midsection after losing hundreds of pounds, I considered selling the skin on eBay. While fur traders were the first to use "buck" to mean "dollar," we lack a means of evaluating a large swath of human skin, probably because few humans have any skin they’d consider “spare.”  Even without a way of describing the me-skin hide, I imagined that amateur tanners might enjoy making leather out of my leftovers. eBay forbids the sale of organs, though, and skin is the largest organ in the human body.

Few people ever lose as much skin as I did in that surgery. When I went in for my initial consult, my plastic surgeon photographed me nude from the waist down, clutching the skin like a dancer holding a can-can costume. The red underside wept, and I always felt chafed and raw and dirty. The skin made pants impossible. Even at a newly thin(ner) 360 pounds—down from 600—I still had too much dangling to have anything like a normal appearance in trousers. I stuck to skirts and dresses with “free” hips. I wore a dress to my surgery consult. I wanted to look nice before I stripped and showed my male surgeon the underbelly.

The dangling, empty apron that hung to my knees was easily four square feet of usable hide. I imagine that piece as whole, a slab sitting on a steel surgical table. I wonder what it might look like submerged in a vat of salted water, if the final product would have the dark, tan look of leather, or if it would retain my milky complexion. I think about what you could make with it. Purses? Book bindings? Corsets?

While my skin met a rather ignominious end in a medical furnace in Ohio, much of the skin bought and sold in Detroit’s 18th-century fur trade found its way to Europe. The hard work of Detroit hunters and tanners decorated the bodies of people thousands of miles away, just as the cars and soul music the city produced would eventually become famous in far-off places. Detroit remains French in its deepest heart, from DuMouchelle Gallery, across the street from the General Motors World Headquarters at Renaissance Place; to the corner of Alexandrine Street and Woodward Avenue, where Great Lakes Coffee offers charcuterie plates and individually brewed cups of coffee from Rwanda and Sumatra; to Campau, Beaubien, Riopelle, St. Aubin, Livernois, and Chene—street names that recall an era when Detroit spoke French almost exclusively.

Near Beaubien and Alexandrine, filmmakers constructed a massive pagoda and an urban shopping district with signs in Mandarin, hoping to capture the vibe of Hong Kong after a robot attack for the latest Transformers movie. They did so, ironically, in one of the least ruined parts of Detroit. In fact, my stepfather once took me to dinner near the fake ruins, and we ate at TV chef Michael Symon’s restaurant Roast, a very chichi place in the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. Dinner there runs around $100 a person. I had wild-caught king salmon, summer succotash, and peach cobbler with sweet-corn ice cream.

When the streets near Roast were new, in the early 18th century, fur flowed through the city, making Detroit the largest municipal body between Montreal and New Orleans later that century. In the early days, about 2,000 Indians settled near the new French town, eager to trade with Cadillac and his people. Beaver dominated. Louis wanted that hat, after all.

When historians reflect on this time and on Detroit’s founding, they often consider—and just as often dismiss—the idea of central-place theory. The theory, initially laid out in 1933 by the German geographer Walter Christaller, suggests that economics drive the placement, size, and (ultimately) the sustainability and health of cities throughout the world. Christaller saw cities as almost wishing themselves into existence, called into being by the economic needs of the wider countryside, of places he described as “hinterlands” or “hamlets.” A city exists as a nexus for trade, called forth when the activity in hamlets and other rural communities reaches critical mass and a central marketplace is needed.

Central-place theory sees cities as entirely economic creations. They exist and survive as distribution centers in service to the surrounding areas. But Detroit never serviced hinterlands or hamlets. In fact, only after its founding and after Cadillac moved existing French fur interests there, did orchards, farms and dairies grow to sustain the city—not the other way around. If nearby farms didn’t conjure up Detroit, if the city defies theory, what explains its founding, its growth, expansion, contraction, and continuing narrative?

Writing in the Michigan Historical Review in 2001, Melvin G. Holli, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had an idea about this. After careful consideration, Holli decided “Globalism…called Detroit into existence.” If you move through the city’s history, from 1760, when the British took over, to the Revolution, when fur trading continued briskly, to the advent of the motor car, and the beginning of Ford Motor Company at the start of the 20th century, Detroit’s fortunes have always risen and fallen based on global markets and economies far beyond the ken of the average resident.

Detroit started its exporting life with fur, later moving to cars and culture. You might hear Stevie Wonder on the street in Mumbai, perhaps from speakers attached to a McDonald’s. The White Stripes sell American cars in ads worldwide. Kid Rock lives in California now, but grew up in Romeo, Michigan, a Detroit suburb built on the remains of an Ojibwa village. As of 2010, Romeo’s population is 92 percent white and only 0.2 percent of residents identify themselves as American Indian.

Kid Rock’s father owned Ford dealerships in Romeo. He sold the Lincoln-Mercury lines for decades before selling off his lots in 1999. Edsel Ford created Mercury as a marquee brand for Ford in 1938. Mercury lasted roughly the same amount of time as the ideal biblical lifespan—just a hair over three score and ten. Ford officially ended the Mercury line after 73 years so that the company could focus on its Lincoln line. The last Mercury ever made, a Grand Marquis, came off an assembly line on January 4, 2011. The factory that made this car, the St. Thomas Assembly plant, in Ontario, Canada, was shut down altogether nine months later, after sending its last car, a Crown Victoria, to Saudi Arabia.

This might seem to suggest that Detroit doesn’t build cars anymore—or, at least, doesn’t build Fords. While the company has plants all over the world, they still build thousands of cars in Detroit every year. The River Rouge plant, located downriver from the city proper in Dearborn, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its groundbreaking in 2017. Completed in 1928, the complex, known simply as “the Rouge,” was once the world’s largest factory of any kind. Today, 600 Ford employees still work there, mainly building Ford F-150 pickup trucks.

Many Ford plants line Automation Alley, the chain of Detroit service towns that line I-75 from Toledo to Monroe, and I still see French names on streets, towns and highway exits when I drive through this area. Beaubien, for example, exists in the city as both a street and as the name of an artisanal jam company whose tiny jars of cherry preserves retail for $9.

When I drive on Gratiot, a main artery, my GPS pronounces it "Gratt-eye-ott," though my car, which came from a GM factory, was likely built by people who know how to say the street's name. On Gratiot, I often think about fur, and leather and tanning. Recently, I found instructions for making rabbit fur hats at home. You soak the pelts in a solution of canning salt, water and battery acid, weighting them with a brick or heavy stone to keep them submerged.

Tanning goes back centuries, at least to the Roman occupation of Britain. Early methods called for human urine, animal dung and animal brains. Little children roamed the streets collecting pigeon or dog feces. The classes of dung peddlers had names that went beyond euphemism, hinting at both the sacred and absurd: Children that searched out dog dung were called “pure-finders” and “mudlarks.” They sold these substances to tanners, who had to live at the far edges of town because rotting animal flesh, dog poop, and large amounts of urine tend to stink up a neighborhood.

Tanners soaked skins in vats of dung-water, kneading the sopping hides with their bare feet for three hours or more at a time. Skin has tremendous resilience. The proteins in hides endure after an animal dies, even after solutions of chemicals or acid-rich urine unravel most of them and penetrate the tissue. Tanning dries the hide, removing proteins and residual fats, and transforming the once-living skin into fabric. The process takes days. Today's methods subtract urine, feces, and bare feet from the equation; modern tanneries rely on salt and sulfuric acid.

Reading about fur hats brought taxidermy to mind. Taxidermy relies on some of the same preparation as tanning, but requires far more effort and skill. Victorians liked to pose whole collections of mounted creatures in human poses, the dead animals arranged in tableaux of happy human action.

One famous example, Walter Potter's "Rabbits' Village School," has dozens of rabbits posed behind tiny desks and tables, intent on their studies. Beautifully illustrated world maps in muted blues and yellows hang on the wall behind them. Potter made “Rabbits' Village School” in the late nineteenth century, and he specialized in dioramas of animals enjoying typical English country life. He also made a full wedding party of kittens, mostly tiny orange-and-white tabbies, all in period costume. The kittens’ faces disturb me more than anything else he's done—well, almost anything. I try not to think about how he came into possession of dozens of dead kittens.

The kittens look young and permanently startled. I’m told I have a kind of young, surprised face myself. Because I have a round face, and because fat tends to stave off wrinkles, people mistake me for a much younger person. I’ve lived 41 years, but not really—my functional adult life began after my surgery, at 35. So much time vanished in the haze of my disability, lost to the nearly 15 years I spent weighing five or six hundred pounds, living in my mother’s basement. Functionally, I think of myself as 24. I wonder if I should lie about my age, or simply let people think what they like. In the last year or so, I’ve stopped leading conversations with new friends by telling them how very old I am. I can’t soak my body in salt or acid, but I can stop revealing so much information.

When I floated my post-op idea about selling my skin to a friend who’d had the same operation, she looked at me with contempt and incredulity and told me how disgusting I was. I shrugged. My skin, my choice, I thought, but I never got around to making arrangements. After my surgeon sliced away my skin-apron, it went to the hospital incinerator; smoke drifted into the sky over Cleveland.

I don’t really regret the loss of my skin—either to the scalpel or as a set of peculiar leather objects. What I regret are the lost years. I think of the people I might have loved better, the men who might have loved me. But I have now arrived at a place in life I never would have found if I hadn’t carried that weight.

Still, some aspects of my choice remain mysterious, even to me. I cannot explain them any more than I correctly answer questions about the “why” of Detroit. I know that central-place theory cannot explain this city, that the city called itself into being out of a profound longing. Aristocrats wanted beautiful coats made of buckskin or fox or mink. The world wanted songs about Detroit parties that never stop and the Ford Mercury. Yearning still drives Detroit—not the Catholic mission Cadillac declared, and certainly not a desire for anything made of beavers. The new voyageurs, the young artists, the urban farmers, the longstanding residents who have new ideas for their ancient city, all long for something more, something great. Some might call it a desire to rise from ash, because this idea has been with Detroit nearly as long as Detroit has existed.

With my own rebirth, I’ve had to learn again and again that the only way around is through. I see this in Detroit, too. The city lost a million people. It lost time. It lost houses to fire and neighborhoods to crime, arson and despair. I don’t see the city as lost, though. I see it as slowly arriving at a new and better place.

I can’t put my finger on the longing, the yearning that Detroit draws out of me. I want all of the things—the house, the work, the life—that I contemplate often, and mostly without a lot of hope. Still, if there’s a central place where all these hopes reside, Detroit is that place.