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.