“The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”
Harper’s Bazaar, 1875
One of the most debated accessories used in women’s fashions was the use of birds and bird feathers as a fashion ornament. During the last quarter of the 19th century, feather decoration for hats, fans, and boas was at its peak.
Women’s hats were decorated with wings, breasts and whole birds. According to Harper’s Bazaar, in 1875 the merle, or blackbird, was a favorite, and especially the merle bronzé, a Brazilian blackbird, which was not black, but had blue and bronze shades on its wings and back.
The entire bird was used, and was mounted on wires and springs that permitted the head and wings to be moved about in a bird-like manner. The homely gray swallow was also stuffed and used for ornament; in addition heads of spotted pigeons with their staring eyes; and long mounted pieces from the breasts of pigeons, pheasants, and peacocks were found atop a lady’s hat. One would also see cocks’ plumes of the deepest green shades mounted in thick ruches, long clustered plumes, and in bandeaux that passed around the crown and hung on each side behind. Arrangements of ostrich feathers projected outward from the hat and upward on the crown; left to curl without being tacked in the middle.
Many saw this fashion craze as cruel; nevertheless, there was no question that plume trading became a very lucrative business. To satisfy the enormous world-wide demand for feathers, ostrich farms became an overnight industry. Herons feathers were also a favored plume for millinery trimmings. In 1902, the auctions at the London Commercial Sales Room sold 1,608 packages of herons’ plumes weighing about 30 ounces each. Four herons were needed to make one ounce of plumes; therefore, the sales from this one source alone required 192,960 herons killed.
In 1886, an ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, Frank Chapman, wrote a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting. He brought to their attention a list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York.
Editor Forest and Stream: In view of the fact that the destruction of birds for millinery purposes is at present attracting general attention, the appended list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York, may be of interest. It is chiefly the result of two late afternoon walks through the uptown shopping districts, and, while very incomplete, still gives an idea of the species destroyed and the relative numbers of each. Robin, four. Brown thrush, one. Bluebird, three. Blackburnion warbler, one. Blackpoll warbler, three. Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three. Scarlet tanager, three. White-bellied swallow, one. Bohemian waxwing, one. Waxwing, twenty-three. Great northern shrike, one. Pine grosbeak, one. Snow bunting, fifteen. Tree sparrow, two. White-throated sparrow, one. Bobolink, one. Meadow lurk, two. Baltimore oriole, nine. Purple grackle, five. Bluejay, five. Swallow-tailed flycatcher, one. Kingbird, one. Kingfisher, one. Pileated woodpecker, one. Red-headed woodpecker, two. Golden-winged woodpecker, twenty-one. Acadian owl, one. Carolina dove, one. Pinnated grouse, one. Ruffed grouse, two. Quail, sixteen. Helmet quail, two. Sanderling, five Big yellowlegs, one. Green heron, one. Virginia rail one. Laughing gull, one. Common tern, twenty-one. Black tern. one. Grebe, seven. It is evident that, in proportion to the number of hats seen, the list of birds given is very small; but in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible. Thus, while one afternoon 700 hats were counted and on them but 20 birds recognized, 543 were decorated (?) with feathers of some kind. Of the 158 remaining, 72 were worn by young or middle aged ladies and 86 by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies, or— Percentage of hats with feathers…………………..77 Without feathers……………………………….10 Without feathers, worn by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies……………………………………..12
It was the Massachusetts Audubon Society who planned a feather boycott that infuriated hat makers who labeled them as “extremists” and “sentimentalists.” Politicians criticized and predicted the loss of jobs. Missouri Senator James Reed complained: “Why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps and eats tadpoles.”
 Ehrlic. Paul R. Dobkin. David S. Wheye. Darryl. “Plume Trade.” 1988. Stanford University. [Photographs: Library of Congress] AUTHOR: Joanne Haug