On a late February afternoon in 1886, journalist and ornithologist Frank Chapman walked down one of New York City’s uptown shopping thoroughfares, eyeing women’s hats. Chapman was on a scientific mission. As he made his way through the fashionable crowds, he was busy identifying the overwhelming variety of bird feathers decorating the heads of the city’s ladies. Over the course of two such trips, Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 different whole birds or their disembodied parts. The more flamboyant ladies flaunted not just feathers but also the eyes, wings, and in some cases, entire bodies of birds carefully arranged with other natural accessories like leaves and moss. In Chapman’s assessment forty different bird species were represented, making uptown Manhattan one the most diverse bird-watching territories in the world. Nineteenth-century fashionistas were ravenous for feathers: the fuller and fluffier, the better. The feathers of woodpeckers, blue jays, waxwings and quails were popular adornments, but most prized were the wings and tails of the North African ostrich as well as those of peacocks, pheasants, egrets, vultures, eagles, swans, herons, and turkeys, all coveted for their dramatic tufts.
Ten years after Chapman’s ornithological survey of the streets of New York, Harriet Hemenway, a prominent Boston society matron, read a description of an egret rookery devastated by plume hunters. Like many of her high society friends, Hemenway had been struck by the plume craze, wearing feathered hats and muffs without restraint. A strong-willed and eccentric woman who would wear white sneakers on future bird-watching excursions, Hemenway came from a long line of social activists and had never shied from controversy herself. (When Booker T. Washington was turned away from a Boston hotel, she famously invited him to stay at her home instead). Outraged by the graphic account of the rookery’s destruction, she called up her cousin and the two went to work tearing through the Boston society register. They invited their well-connected friends to a series of afternoon tea sessions to educate women on the horrific plume trade and to enlist them in a plumage boycott.
Chapman’s account, published in the early conservation magazine Forest and Stream, was part of a growing outcry against the destructive fashion of feathers, which caused the deaths of millions of birds each year. Stories of devastated rookeries horrified women across America and England, and editorial columns became the setting for heated calls for action against the cruel consumption of feathers. Harper’s Bazaar attempted to raise women’s consciousness with an 1896 editorial that tugged at maternal instincts by describing the deaths of mother birds and their orphaned chicks: “The birds have to be shot when they are watching over their newly hatched young, leaving the nestlings to die of starvation.” The editorial called for women to familiarize themselves with the basic economics of supply and demand and to abolish the practice of dressing for men through the approval of other women: “it is just possible that the advance of common sense may bring with it more equality between the sexes in this respect, and possibly by their joint efforts they may at least develop a little independence and save the birds.”
Feathers, like fish scales and mammal hair, are a bird’s protective layer—the horny outgrowth of skin that decorate the flesh. Their dramatic coloring and airy texture have made them a coveted decorative material for thousands of years across world cultures. Before Marie Antoinette’s head was removed from her body, it was often adorned with a tower of feathers, intricately piled atop a mountainous wig. This particular fashion trend refused to die, reaching a fevered pitch with decorative hats in the last quarter of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States.
Bird plumage had been an entirely elite indulgence until fashion went en masse in the era of mail order catalogues, home journalsm and a growing middle class. By the 1880s, the latest fashions had become more accessible than ever. While skins and furs were also popular, it was feathers that seemed to crop out of and envelope every stylish woman. Plumed hats were not only an object of female conspicuous consumption but also a means of female employment. In 1870, millinery was the fourth largest occupation for women in the United States. By the turn of the century it had fallen to fourteenth place but was still employing nearly 83,000 women, including the failed social-climber Lilly Bart from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.
In 1895, Vogue announced that thanks to ostrich farms, women were “bitten with the craze” for feathers. In response, the editors recommended that “a hat to command attention and admiration needs to have as many as five or eight plumes, while a picture hat, that huge affair intended to make or mar the wearer, has no limit whatever.” At the same time, bird-watching and botanizing had become genteel pursuits for middle and upper-class women. The paradox between these two trends soon became apparent.
It takes four birds to produce one ounce of plumes, and the growing feather trade threatened bird species around the world. Some, like the bittern, whose feathers were popularly used for muffs, became extinct entirely. In Florida, bird populations were depleted at a particularly astounding rate. The plumes of native Florida species, such as herons, egrets, cranes, roseate, spoonbills and flamingos, were most prized during their mating and nesting seasons, and harvesting of their feathers meant that their young starved and died, eliminating two generations of birds at once.
In Boston, Harriet Hemenway’s tea meetings grew in popularity as their cause expanded from condemning plumage fashion to saving wild birds in general. By the end of the first year, their society had grown by some nine hundred members, each paying a lifetime membership of one dollar. They named their organization the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Hemenway and her well-connected circle relied on an effective pairing of persuasion and education. Fashionable women were recruited to discourage their peers from wearing feathered hats and milliners from supplying them. In turn, they supported the efforts of female teachers, ornithologists, and naturalists. In 1900, conservationists also attempted to establish “Bird Day,” encouraging young girls to build nests in order to promote an early love of birds as living beings and not fashion accessories. The Massachusetts Audubon Society attempted to steer fashion in a more sustainable direction by promoting the “Audubon hat,” trimmed with ribbons and feathers from non-protected birds in lieu of plumage.
In 1897, just two years after its inception, the Massachusetts Audubon Society gained its first big legislative coup when the state passed a bill outlawing the trade of wild bird feathers. Local chapters continued to sprout up across the country and in 1905 the society was incorporated and renamed the National Audubon Society. Though membership of state Audubon chapters were overwhelmingly female, the cause was also taken up by men, notably George Bird Grinnell, who was the founder of the first and short-lived Audubon Society, named after the painter and ornithologist John James Audubon. But Grinnell, who was the editor of Forest and Stream, could not balance running his new organization and his editorial duties. Just two years later, despite gaining fifty thousand members, Grinnell closed the Audubon Society, though he continued to be an active naturalist and Audubon supporter.
The anti-plumage movement was gaining ground in other quarters as well. Prominent supporters, including Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and naturalist, and Frank Chapman, who continued to publish and became a bird curator of the American Museum of Natural History, began a public outcry against bird carnage and cruelty Society ladies and actresses declared themselves feather abstainers and even Queen Consort Alexandra of the United Kingdom denounced plumage fashion.
Conservationists in the United Kingdom had already made steady progress, passing Sea Birds’ Preservation Act in 1869. In 1900, the Lacey Act was passed in the U.S., criminalizing the trade and transport of certain wildlife, plants, and fish. In 1903, President Roosevelt established the first U.S. wildlife refuge in Florida, creating the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, and in 1910 the state of New York outlawed the sale of native birds The following year the state passed the Audubon Plumage Bill,which banned the sale of native bird feathers and ended the domestic feather trade. Nevertheless, the price for aigrette feathers reached $80 per ounce in 1912, the equivalent of nearly $2,000 in today’s currency. Despite conservation efforts, legislation, and the rising concerns for wildlife, fashion would not waver.
But by 1918 the world was at war. Trade routes were cut off and feathers became a scant commodity, along with most food and clothing. With war came austerity and practicality; women no longer had the money and time to devote to frivolities. Adorning oneself with sumptuous feathers was an unpatriotic statement in Britain—a declaration of a willingness to take up precious cargo space for the sake of vanity.
Practical changes were afoot as well. The popularity of the automobile made it impossible to cram a hat the size of coffee table into the passenger seat. By the 1920s form followed function and women’s hairstyles had been minimized to the point that they simply could no longer support a large hat decorated with a proliferation of plumage and bird parts. Plume fashion made a brief reappearance in the post-war style magazines of the 1930s, but by then the appetite for feathers had largely been satiated.
By the time she died in 1960 at the age of 102, Harriet Hemenway had seen the rise and fall of the plumage craze and the revitalization of many bird species. Though she later turned her attentions away from birds and towards new groups of working and immigrant women, she continued to be an avid birder, wearing her trademark white sneakers and taking pleasure in the knowledge that due to her efforts, the birds she admired would remain in the sky.