A fashionable accessory for women of the 1880s was a fine hat which expressed the latest in style as especially recognized by the couture mavens of New York.
Using colorful feathers plumes, or perhaps an entire skin of a bird were all the rage for milliners, responding to the demands of their women customers.
A short perspective conveys some of the details for this distinct topic associated with the known record of historic ornithology.
This account focuses on a time of change during the mid-1880s. The use of bird items was prominent. There was also a fledgling opposition.
At some unknown time, a bird feather was used to adorn a hat, placed upon prominent display in shop window. It attracted the discriminating eye of a female buyer. Her adornment garnered attention, and others wanted the same.
An early indication of feathers' importance for fashion was expressed in a perspective of current trends for the autumn millinery, from a New York City point-of-view by an anonymous author well versed in the descriptive terminology of the trade.
"Fancy feathers will be the leading feature of the trimmings of winter bonnets. Merchants call these fancy feathers because of the fanciful shapes in which they are mounted, but the feathers themselves are of natural colors not dyed and are plucked from rare birds. These feather ornaments combine many rich colors, and are mounted in flat pieces that conform to the shape of the bonnet. Occasionally the whole bird is placed in a natural poise on the front or side of the hat, but far oftener one bird is made to do service for two hats by being split in halves from bill to tail, and having a spirited little top-knot or some tail feathers added. The beautiful Brazilian humming-birds that glisten like jewels are more used than the larger birds. Sometimes an ornament consists of five or six of these tiny birds clustered together as if in a nest, their heads and long bills crowded as if pushing each other from the nest, and thus showing their upturned throats with their beautiful plumage. There are coronets with two heads meeting in the centre, a number of tiny wings stuck next in fan shape, and tail feathers at each end; these are to be set between the crown and brim, and will serve to trim the bonnet. The object seems to be to combine as many brilliant colors as can be massed together in one of these clusters. Sometimes an Alsacian bow is formed of birds, or else of their wings, and there are feather butterflies and foliage similar to those used last year. Golden pheasants' feathers, especially the small 'eyes' of the feather, and guinea-hen feathers on borders, are shown for turbans. Bits of tinsel, of jet, and many jet beads are added to make the feather ornaments. The pompons are in great variety; one of the prettiest is the rose pompon, with feather petals tipped with tinsel; among these are black pompons and bronze with gold edges, also amaranth, plum, white and blue. Natural gray long ostrich plumes are imported, and all the new shades are shown in the tips, demi-long and Mercutio plumes, some of which are tipped with jet, or else they are waved and curled like willow plumes. Feather fringes and borders are made of the tiniest tips closely curled. Odd little tufts of white feathers like snow-flakes are dotted about in dark feather borders. Solitary birds are mounted to show their feet, and sometimes the feet are stuck in pompons or in the flat ornaments; on other pompons a dragon-fly is poised, while still others have either black or white herons' feathers standing stiffly erect in the centre." August 1879, Harper's Bazaar, though it was the "Harper's Bazar" when published
In 1883, a newspaper article about the latest in New York fashions, included this particular indication that the color and presentation of bird parts could create a prominent statement for a fashionable urban woman.
"Feathers are in immense demand and in every gradation from the entire hat or bonnet of them will take an important rank in millinery. Feather bands will give a coveted finish on felt, velvet or other material, a feathered crown may serve as a offset to lighter surroundings, while there is an abundant supply of wings, heads, breasts and entire birds among which swallows are particularly sought after. Grotesque little imitation birds are made up of feathers and the eye rests amusedly on such small burlesques as a rooster not three inches long, pea fowls scarce larger, displaying with natural vanity a genuine plumage, etc."
During the mid-1880s, based upon a limited extent of source material, bird advocates were very much opposed to the millinery industry use of bird parts to establish their fashion.
"The destruction of millions of birds annually results from the present fashion of wearing birds on hats and bonnets. The women who wear them, and give countenance to the fashion, have doubtless done so thoughtlessly, as regards the serious destruction of bird-life thereby entailed, and without any appreciation of its extent or its results, considered from a practical stand-point. Until recently, very rarely has attention been called to the matter, or the facts in the case adequately set forth. They have therefore sinned, for the most part, unwittingly, and are thus not seriously chargeable with blame. But the case is now different, and ignorance can no longer by urged in palliation of a barbarous fashion." Science, February 26, 1886
These words were among a multitude expressed in a special supplement to this journal, urging the protection of birds. The newly created American Ornithologists' Union added their support.
One article entitled "Destruction of Birds for Millinery Purposes" presented facts and figures on the topic. Recognition was given to an outdoor sports publication, Forest and Stream for coverage that occurred in 1884. One South Carolina dealer had prepared more than 11,000 skins for the trade.
Cobb's Island, Virginia, was prominent as well, since an "enterprising woman" had a contract to deliver at least 40,000 birds skin to a Paris millinery firm, and would receive 40 cents for each one. Species being taken included gulls and terns.
"Similar butchery has been carried on along the sandy shore of Cape Cod ... it being reported that 40,000 terns were killed here in a single season by one party for the hat-trade."
Egrets and herons were also subjects, obviously "annihilated" in "supplying the exhaustless demand for egret-plumes." The "soft, furry plumage" of grebes, also made them a target. Among the smaller birds, the birds with brighter plumage were of particular interest, including orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and flickers, as well as warblers, cuckoos and other woodpeckers.
The focused view of an "ornithological friend" provides an inventory of species represented by the "hat embellishment" of eleven women among a group of thirteen riding in a Madison Avenue horse-car. The tally was:
"(1) head and wings of three European Starlings; (2) an entire bird (species unknown), of foreign origin; (3) seven warblers, representing four species; (4) a large tern; (5) the heads and wings of three shore-larks; (6) the wings of seven shore-larks, and grass finches; (7) one-half of a gallinule; (8) a small tern; (9) a turtle-dove; (10) a vireo and a yellow-breasted chat; (11) ostrich-plumes."
This exhibition was not considered as being exceptional.
Another article in this special supplement, presented details of the "destruction" of the bird-life in the vicinity of New York. There was an especially great demand for "sea-birds of white or delicate shades of color." This included terns, and they were said to have been practically exterminated in the vicinity of Moriches, Long Island. A thousand cedar-birds have been shot by one gunner. A single New York taxidermist had 30,000 birds skins in his shop.
Spare the BirdsInscribed to the Audubon Society, New York.
An observant Frank M. Chapman a pioneer of ornithology during these times gathered further specifics by a couple of walk-about jaunts through the uptown business districts of the metropolis. The "native birds seen on hats born by the ladies" were summarized in a detailed list.
- Robin, four.
- Brown thrush, one.
- Bluebird, three.
- Blackburnian warbler, one.
- Wilson's black-capped flycatcher, three.
- Scarlet tanger, 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 lark, 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.
Some of the species could not be identified, as they had been mutilated, Chapman said. Of the 700 hats noted, 542 were decorated with feathers of some kind, or more than 75 percent.
One reporter suggested that an effective measure to abandon the practice of wearing dead bodies to bedeck garments, would be enforcement of the already existing laws. "Every one of the ten thousand women in Rochester who has a stuffed song bird on her hat is liable to imprisonment for a year or a fine of $25," E.R. wrote in the Rochester Post-Express, and which article was reissued in Forest and Stream. "If the satisfaction you derive from wearing a glass-eyed bird perched in an unnatural position on your hat, is equal to the pain you would undergo in the hands of the law, ..., then, according to one of the maxims of an ancient philosopher, you may take the risk." The state game constable and city game constable were going to "prosecute a vigorous spring campaign" against the practice.
A vivid account of the feather industry of New York city was written by a representative of Forest and Stream, then printed in the March 25, 1886 issue. The most famous "feather foundry" was operated by A.H. Alexander, in West Hoboken. "Millions" of bird skins had passed through his establishment during its 35 years in business.
"It is a trade of many turns and sudden whims; but I find that it runs in a cycle say of seven years. Now it is this bird, now that. Once we had a run on seafowl, and the sea swallow, as they were called, was on every hat. Then we hunted the seashore. Then, perhaps, humming birds were in demand, and down into South America we went. Just now it is whole birds for hat fronts or set pieces for turbans. What it will be next fall the Lord only knows, I don't.. It may take a sudden turn back to ostrich. A feather fancy runs about three years. In the first year the fashion is set by the best people, who pay the best prices. There willowy aigrettes are now the fashion, and so the long, slender egret points sell for $40 per ounce. The man who foresaw the fashion and has a supply makes a fortune; the man who is loaded up with stock which is not the style cannot give it away." A.H. Alexander
The business man said that about 10-15% of the feathers came from the United States, mostly from Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
"As the feather maker talked he drew out drawer after drawer, opened tin boxes by the dozen, drew out the wrapped skins, until every section of the earth had contributed its quota. Down below stairs were coops of ring doves, sleek and coy, and genuine white doves, too, not the ordinary white pigeon. Strutting about the yard outside were peacocks in all the glory of full strut, waiting the day when in height of plumage, a severed vertebra should give them the happy dispatch and give their feathers to the adornment of some elaborate screen. Chinese pheasants too were in other coops, and all about were evidences that Mr. Alexander was an ornithologist, and differed from the ordinary feather dealer in knowing his stock in trade; for with a single feather as a text the genial tradesman could preach of family and genera, of habitat and habits, of past and present trade history, and tell, too, of trips into every nook of the world in feather quests." Forest and Stream reporter
An especially expressive statistic was presented by C. Burton Rouse, editor of the Millinery Trade Review. He thought that $10,000,000 per year would represent the feather trade, with about 40% of that representing the amount paid to the "bird killers."
Some of the feathers used were taken from legally hunted game birds, which at the time included the prairie chicken and sandpiper, as well as various species of waterfowl.
The story ended with an indication that the feather dealers were each in favor of protection for "home birds" that could be a success through local efforts and law enforcement.
There was an active dialogue on the topic at this time. Forest and Stream editors had garnered widespread support for creating a society to protect native birds. It was named in recognition of John James Audubon. Issues of the periodical in early 1886 included letters of support and news of efforts to reduce the use of bird material by milliners.
Taxidermists expressed their opinion. John Burroughs wrote a letter of support for the bird protection group.
Dramatic changes were underway which were an essential part of the history of North American birds, though it was a period when fashion eclipsed conservation. Wild birds had attracted numerous advocates who that would actively pursue measures for their protection and conservation of habitat.
Description of Plate.
No. 1. Black felt toque, with black velvet brim, a gauze scarf crossed behind and brought forward and tied in a bow under the chin, trimming of black velvet around the crown with bows on rear right side, drooping feather on left side.
No. 2. Velvet bonnet, navy blue shade, twist of velvet in front, with gold and steel ornament for face trimming. Outside trimming, fancy Spanish cock plume ornamented with jets; red bird and navy blue bow.
No. 3. Black velvet hat, high crown, trimmed with sulphur colored ribbon and black ostrich tips.
No. 4. Beaver hat with large rough brim. Two ostrich plumes are fastened in front with steel ornaments, and fall back over crown.
No. 5. Gray felt hat with cock feather trimming around the crown. Blue green bird fastened on front the long tail feathers falling behind the hat over the crown.
No. 6. Ivory colored beaver hat, trimmed with seal brown plush, right side trimming of cream and scarlet blossoms with chenille twigs. Fancy green bird of brilliant plumage on top of crown, strings of brown plush.Description from Millinery Trade Review 1(12): 1. Issued December 1876. Additional images are certainly in other issues, but this year and 1889 are the only two of the period found online.
Reference resource available online: A Woman's Nature: Attitudes and Identities of the Bird Hat Debate at the Turn of the 20th Century, a thesis by Amelia Birdsall.