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Feathers Part 2 - The Plume Trade

Feathers: Part Two- The Plume Trade

By Jon Friedman

Part one, published in the January 2016 issue of this newsletter, focused primarily on providing scientific information about feathers. What are feathers? What are they made of and how are they constructed? How do birds use them and what features are unique to feathers? What does the fossilized record inform us about the origins of feathers? These were some of the types of topics I focused on in the introductory article.

In this article I focus on the historical, social, financial and political aspects of feathers that come together well, especially when we examine a period in history referred to as the plume trade years. This period in American history begins around the time of John James Audubon and ends soon after the turn of the last century – from approximately 1840 until shortly before the beginning of World War 1.

Fashion Designers Discover Feathers
By the beginning of this period, Americans had become familiar with the qualities that feathers possessed; understanding that the downy feathers of birds, particularly ducks and geese, were suitable for adaptive use by humans in the making of pillows, blankets and spreads, and clothing (particularly jackets in cold climates and regions). However, when fashion designers of the time noticed that ceremonial and military headgear often featured bird feathers, they were quick to introduce the use of feathers as ornamentation in women’s fashion, particularly millinery. The world-wide popularity of using feathers in the ornamentation and design of women’s hats, accessories and clothing fueled a commercial industry that erupted like a volcano, quickly becoming a multi-million dollar, long-term trend that caused the destruction of hundreds of millions of birds and causing the extinction and near extinction of many bird species. Although feathers of many species birds were used, the most popular of feathers, used for decades, were the “aigrettes” (sprays) which were the long plumes of breeding display feathers of herons and egrets, especially.  The term “aigrette” is thought to derive from a French word for egret and first gained popularity in the Cajun-speaking regions of the Gulf Coast.

Abundance of Species Used in Fashion Trends
In 1886, the American Museum of Natural History’s ornithologist, Frank Chapman, decided to do some research on the streets of Manhattan. He took two walks in mid-town to discover for himself how many and what species of bird feathers were used in women’s hats. The North American feather trade was in its heyday at that time. Chapman counted over 700 women wearing hats on those two walks and noted that over three fourths of those hats had ornamental feathers decorating them. Knowing his birds well, he observed over 40 native species of bird feathers on the hats. Aside from the showy egret and heron plumes, he noted feathers of sparrows, warblers, cardinals, orioles, woodpeckers, grebes, terns, grouse, quail, jays, bluebirds, waxwings, buntings, tanagers, grosbeaks and many others. He noted that while the abundance of feathers were used in women’s fashion, men’s fedoras used many of the smaller feathers that weren’t used in women’s fashion. Everyday hats didn’t use much of large, showy egret feathers that high society demanded in the more formal and showy dress hats.

Hunted into Extinction
Even in Hawaii, far from the fashion capitals in the United States and Europe, feathers were used in creating the traditional and ceremonious long, flowing cloaks of Hawaiian kings. The Kauai ‘Akiola, a now extinct honeycreeper formerly native to the islands, was hunted for the largest of its bright yellow flight feathers, in the making of the cloaks. Only a single flight feather, one from each wing was used to create these extremely long ceremonial robes. Each robe, or cloak, required many thousands of birds killed, as no other feathers were used in creating these robes.

The Trade Expands
Throughout the country, after the Civil War, the United States saw a general rise in economic prosperity. The growing middle class emulated the fashionable elite. Fashion designers were aware of the plumes that traditionally were incorporated into dress military headgear and the trends that emerged in France and Italy. As a result, women’s hats became larger, the feather ornamentation became more lavish and the feather trade expanded exponentially resulting in the drastic diminishment of at least 64 different species of native birds from 15 genera.

Egrets and Herons

Great Egret by Doris Evans

Herons were favorite birds in the millinery industry. The display plumes of breeding male Great Blue Herons were extremely highly prized. The all-white feathered egrets suffered great losses, nearly becoming extinct. The Great Egret and especially the more plentiful, more widely distributed, more approachable, and more delicately plumed Snowy Egret became favorites for the larger hats that fashionable women preferred. These birds had evolved extravagant breeding plumage as sexual advertisements to attract their mates. By the turn of the century it was questionable whether these species would be permitted to exist at all. They were nearly hunted out of existence. The Audubon movements adapted the egret as its symbol of the preservation efforts.

The Public Becomes Informed
In the beginning of this decades-long fashion frenzy, the public-at-large was mostly unaware of the devastation humans were causing bird populations. The 19th century’s leading hunting and fishing publication, Forest and Stream, was published and edited by George Grinnell. Grinnell was writing and publishing hard-hitting editorials and articles about the slaughter of wild birds; he became a leader in the campaign that outlawed market hunting and the mindless killing of birds to meet fashion demands for bird plumes – even entire birds – to decorate hats, clothing and coiffures. In the February, 1886 issue of his publication he encouraged his readers to join him in forming the Audubon Society for the protection of wild birds and their eggs. Named in honor of the ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist John James Audubon, whose widow was an early teacher of Grinnell, membership was open to everyone refusing to wear bird feathers as ornaments and willing to work to prevent the killing of wild birds not used for food and the destruction/collecting of their eggs. A year later, the organization emerged and began publishing the Audubon Magazine. So successful was the initial campaign to protect wild birds that over 39,000 individuals and businesses became members. Grinnell, and the staff at Forest and Stream, were so overcome with the response from the public that correspondence and administrative duties lagged far behind their ability to keep up. He disbanded the group in 1888. But, other members spread out throughout the country and began local chapters in their home states and towns.

Widespread Conservation Efforts Begin
The Coconut Grove Audubon in Florida and the Massachusetts Audubon groups became early leaders in the conservation effort, now underway nationally, to protect wild birds from plume hunters and egg collectors. Their stated, written mission was to discourage “the buying and wearing, for ornamental purposes, the feathers of any wild birds and to otherwise further the protection of native birds.” Members published and distributed leaflets with this aim to educate schoolchildren and the public. They wrote articles for publication, letters to newspaper editors and lobbied politicians. They supported a Bird Day in the schools, with the aim to introduce students to bird study in their curriculum and to have students promise their support by signing a pledge card that simply read: “I promise to not harm birds or their eggs, and to protect them both whenever I am able.” Schoolchildren began forming clubs, calling themselves Bird Defenders. With this simple start, the Audubon Society, by 1899, had nearly 20 state organizations in existence and operating at break-neck speed in the race to save entire species from extinction at the hands of plume hunters.

First National Protection Law

U.S. Senator Hoar and Representative John Lacy, both of Massachusetts, focused on passage of a national law to protect wild birds and Congress passed the Lacy Act in 1900. In addition to national law, by 1905, 37 states had incorporated similar state laws.

Conservation Efforts Continue To Expand
In 1899 ornithologist Frank Chapman’s publication, Bird Lore magazine, helped unify Audubon’s message nationally. In 1900, Chapman sponsored the first national Christmas Bird Count. More than 42,000 birders participated in the annual census, providing much-needed data that became very valuable to ornithologists – and remains so to this day! Audubon found a staunch ally in Abbott Thayer, an artist whose book about the protective coloration of birds and animals inspired the new art of camouflage during World War 1. Thayer provided a trust as a financial means to take forceful action against bird killers and the public donated generously. Early monies generated and funded the first warden system to enforce conservation laws. 1n 1883, the American Ornithological Union was founded to combat the widespread slaughter of wild birds for their feathers. But, once the Audubon chapters became organized, they were much more aggressive in their pursuit of protection and conservation.

The Birth of Eco-Tourism
The Florida society published leaflets that were widely distributed to promote the cause. One such publication, written by Kirk Munroe in 1901, was Florida Birds Worth Their Weight in Gold. In it, he described the economic importance of birds in Florida with respect to the eating of pest insects which caused extensive damage to the state’s crops and fruit groves. He also promoted the idea, novel at the time, of using the state’s great diversity of birds to encourage and attract bird watching and nature tourism. In a real sense, this may have been the earliest example of eco-tourism.

Plume Trade = Big Business
From its beginning, there was no doubt that the plume trade was big business. By 1900, the millinery trade was already employing more than 83,000 people (1 in every 1,000 Americans). Writers at the time, such as the investigative reporter Herbert Job, gave the public a glimpse of the impact this business had on the value of the trade and its devastation to the populations of wild birds. He wrote: “Here are some official figures of the trade from one source alone, of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms during 1902. There were sold 1,608 packages of …heron’ plumes. A package is said to average in weight 30 ounces. This makes a total of 48,240 ounces. As it requires about four birds to make an ounce of plumes, these sales meant 192,960 herons killed at their nests, and from two to three times that number of young or eggs destroyed. Is it, then, any wonder that these species are on the verge of extinction? The price for plumes paid to plume hunters was $32 per ounce, which makes the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold!” Later the price ballooned to nearly three times that amount, and that’s just the dollar figure that the plume hunters received. After wholesaling, manufacturing, and retailing the price was worth several times more!

Industry Fights Back
The millinery trade, being big business and very protective of their profits, stood fast against claims of cruelty, exploitation and greed. They offered the public false assurances, such as they only used shed feathers found scattered on the ground within the bird’s breeding rookeries. In truth, found feathers were only a tiny percentage of the feathers collected. Found feathers were usually worn and/or molted, not in the best condition, damaged, or simply too dirty for use. The reality is that these such feathers were basically frowned upon by the trade, brought only a small fraction of the price of better feathers, and were rarely used for those reasons. But the public didn’t necessarily know that. The fact remains that in order to gather the best quality product, the birds had to be killed and feathers freshly plucked to insure high-quality, non-blemished and little-worn feathers worthwhile of the reputation of hat makers and fashion designers. To counter the charges of cruelty, the industry claimed that most feathers used were either artificial or produced on foreign farms that exported only molted feathers. The demand for egret and heron feathers began to slip after 1915, primarily due to educational efforts to inform the public about the truth of the trade by conservation groups and birders.

Age of Extermination

Theodore Roosevelt by Wikipedia

No sooner than the industry tapered off their heavy dependence on certain species, especially the display plumes of egrets and herons, it focused its attention on the feathers of seabirds of the Atlantic coast. Soon the heavy hunting expanded to the West Coast, and along the way, to wading and other shorebirds found along water sources in the interior of the country. Terns, grebes, ducks, White Pelicans and albatrosses replaced the egret feathers in popularity. Preservationists struggled to enact laws to prevent the killing, possession, sale, and importation of wild bird plumes and ornamental feathers. The passage of laws banning the wholesale killing of birds and the plume trade marked the beginning of what came to be known as the “Age of Extermination”.

President Roosevelt’s Early Conservation Efforts
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a charter member of the first Audubon chapter, was so impressed with the group’s conservation and protection efforts (which became stalled and bogged down in the Florida legislature – sounds familiar?) that it inspired him to take matters into his own hands by issuing an Executive Order to create the country’s first National Wildlife Refuge on the Indian River’s Pelican Island. This was an important breeding rookery for Brown Pelicans, along with herons and egrets and set in motion the creation of other national refuges, wilderness areas, parks and monuments.

Mrs. Mary Barr Munroe
In 1915, the Florida groups filed suit in court to stop the plume trade. They won, but the Florida legislature reversed the law, which lasted for several years. A news article from the largest Miami newspaper quoted Judge Barco’s opinion on the subject: “The women who wear aigrettes (display plumes from herons and egrets) in their hats are as much violators of the law as are the men who sneak into rookeries of the birds and shoot the harmless creatures down for the sake of a few dimes…” A leader of the suit and the movement for bird protection, a Mrs. Mary Barr Munroe, had her own way of dealing with the situation. In Miami, perhaps more so than any other location in Florida, the wearing of aigrettes was omnipresent. Mrs. Munroe would follow anyone she saw wearing ornamental feathers, cornering the wearer – be it on the streets, in a crowded hotel lobby, on the beach, at church, or at parties –compelling her subject to listen to the story of cruelty and murder to which her vanity was the contributing cause. And, Mrs. Munroe was eloquent and convincing. It was not unusual for women to be reduced to tears, whether of anger or humiliation or repentance, and several were known to have taken off their hats and destroyed their aigrettes as a result of their encounter with Mrs. Munroe. Due in part to her efforts, her home town of Coconut Grove became the first town or city to designate itself as a bird sanctuary.

Use of Feathers Today
While many hats today still use display feathers, they are not taken from wild birds. They are either artificial; or have been cut, shaped, and dyed from domesticated birds such as turkeys and geese; or are from non-protected species such as pigeons; or are from non-native birds such as ostriches; or come from the pet trade, as exemplified by macaw and other parrot feathers. It remains illegal for anyone to possess feathers from protected native species, especially endangered species. A notable exception is that Native Americans, with the necessary permit, can possess raptor feathers. Tail feathers from Bald Eagles are very important for certain ceremonies and anyone otherwise keeping such feathers is subject to federal law, which calls for heavy fines and prison time.

Feathers Where They Belong
So with the advancement of knowledge and education; the persistence of conservationists; the public’s understanding, acceptance and encouragement; the laws passed to protect wild birds; the plethora of wildlife and avian organizations; and the growing interest in protecting the natural and the wild on our fragile planet – the displaying of feathers has returned to being an avian trait.

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