Dubuque and its residents are no stranger to fur and fur fashion. This mink capelet from 1910 belonged to the fascinating and fashionable Bertha Lincoln Heustis. Born in 1870 to Molly and Charles Perez Lincoln, a federal official and 4th cousin to President Lincoln, she led an exciting social life and had the fashion to match. Through her family connections and her own talents, Heustis received invitations to the White House from every administration from President Grant through Franklin Roosevelt. Among her many accomplishments, Heustis was a talented soprano singer and traveled throughout the United States to perform. One famous performance occurred in Dubuque when President Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1903 for a few hours. He specifically requested a performance, and she sang the song “Iowa” which she popularized at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. After the performance, President Roosevelt nicknamed her “Iowa.” Despite her frequent travels, Heustis’s home was Dubuque, and she was involved in the local music scene. She performed often, taught music lessons, and directed the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Yet, her talents extended beyond her voice. She wrote poems, short stories, and content for newspapers including the local Telegraph Herald and Dubuque Enterprise. Notably, she served as a White House correspondent during President Wilson’s administration. In recognition of her writing, she was elected as president of the National League of American Pen Women. Later, while living in California for a short time, she dabbled in the film industry, writing, producing, and directing motion picture shorts and a silent film titled His Busy Hour (1926). At the time, this film was the only one to feature an all-deaf cast. Heustis’s lifestyle afforded her the ability to own luxurious items, like this mink capelet and several others as fashionable and warm accessories. Mink clothing especially was expensive due to its combined softness and durability, and due to the small size of minks which meant more were needed for larger clothing items.
Heustis could have bought the cape during her travels or from one of Dubuque’s many fur businesses. Like many other places in the upper Mississippi River Valley, Dubuque’s fur history started early. Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples trapped local animals for the lucrative fur trade. Our city’s namesake, Julien Dubuque, even tried his hand at selling fur. The earliest official furrier businesses opened in the city in the 1860s. According to the Telegraph Herald in 1910, Dubuque had one of the largest fur trades in Iowa. The previous year, $15,000 (over $472,000 today) worth of fur was bought by Dubuque fur dealers, many of the animals trapped within a 60-mile radius of the city. These furs included mink like Heustsis’s cape and fox, wolf, racoon, skunk, muskrat, badger, and opossum. By the late 20th century, fur fashion declined due to the costly upkeep and increased emphasis on animal welfare. The museum actively supports animal welfare today, but we’re grateful for clothing items like these in our historic collection that help share the history of local individuals and our natural history.