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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology

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Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

The American Dream through Fur: An Immigrant's Story in Fashion

fur coat

With its wide collar, large cuffs, and vertical strips of mink fur, Seena's coat exemplifies the height of fashion for women's coats during this decade.

Photo courtesy of Bailey family.

When you see a fur coat, what sort of ideas and emotions does it evoke in you? For many twentieth century Americans, fashion furs were a symbol of luxury, status, and prosperity. My great-grandmother, Seena Fredrickson Bjorkman, was no exception. This mink coat with silk lining and silk embroidery belonged to her and conveyed a message greater than simply making a high-end fashion statement. Rather, this coat signified that after decades of struggle, Seena had made it in America.

The market for fur coats boomed in the early twentieth century, driven by the growth of the automobile. Motorcar passengers required fashions which offered protection from the elements while on the road, and long fur coats fulfilled this function well. Similar to other luxury goods, the fur market reached its pinnacle in the 1920s, as Americans reveled in wealth generated by the stock market bubble. The 1930s saw a downturn in the demand for furs, as the American economy was decimated by the Great Depression. As unemployment soared and the stock market's crash collapsed the seemingly untouchable wealth of even the nation's most elite families, patterns of consumption adjusted accordingly. Unlike the roaring twenties, many American women were not in the market for luxury goods such as a new fur coat.

man and woman with fur coats on

Seena and her first husband, Paul Fredrickson, c. 1925. Her ankle-length robe coat with fur collar was another popular style of the 1920's.

Photo courtesy of Fredrickson family.

Based on its distinct style and the lack of fur manufacturing in subsequent decades, one can surmise that Seena's mink coat was originally made in the 1920s. However, she was not its first owner. Seena Fredrickson Bjorkman entered the United States at Ellis Island in June 1916, a penniless seventeen year-old immigrating from the tiny Baltic Island of Öland, Sweden. After making the transatlantic voyage solo, Seena reinvented herself, working as a domestic servant for a Swedish family in rural Ohio just long enough to relocate to Chicago, a bustling city with a vibrant Swedish community.

custom fur coat

This photo shows the custom embroidery on the silk lining of Seena's mink coat. The use of Seena's second married name indicates the coat's re-lining by York Furriers was done in or after her wedding in 1984.

Photo courtesy of Bailey family.

It would be years later before Seena inherited the coat. She worked at the Elizabeth Arden Salon on Michigan Avenue in 1920, where she washed hair for the salon's wealthy clients, members of the city's social elite. The women who frequented Elizabeth Arden bundled up against the cold of the windy city in the latest fashion of mink coats. Decades later, after two happy marriages, ownership of one high-end children's boutique, and development of many properties, Seena inherited her sister-in-law's mink coat from the 1920's. She brought it to York Furrier in Elmhurst, Illinois to have it remade to her specifications. Seena Fredrickson Bjorkman proudly wore her mink coat in 1980s Hinsdale, Illinois, recalling her journey to and struggles in the new world, admiring similar coats on Michigan Avenue decades earlier, as she dreamed of a day she would wear her own mink, knowing she'd finally made it in America.