11 December 2013

Birds That Go On Hats - An Explanation

A great heap of wide-spread antlers in the window, with a simple black and white sign above them which reads, "Taxidermist," is the only street display of a down town place of business where hundreds of thousands of birds have been flayed and their skins dressed for the ornamenting of hats and bonnets, and hundreds of hides of all sorts of animals, from a mouse to a cinnamon bear or an African tiger, have been mounted for the use of dealers in furs and the decoration of parlors and studies. The chief part of this business is the preparation of birds for milliners. A pretty black-eyed girl behind the counter in the front room said that the business was not very brisk in winter, but with the coming of the birds in spring it would become very lively.

"What kind of birds do you use most?"

"The common sorts — red-winged blackbirds, reed birds, snipes, turtle doves, orioles, yellow birds, thrushes. Any small bird can be used."

"How do you get them?"

"We buy them from men who make a business of supplying us. Most of the birds we handle are from New Jersey, but a good many come from Long Island, and we receive some from the West and South. A few are imported.

"What do you pay for them?"

"That depends on the fashions entirely. Two years ago the demands of the milliners was for red wings and yellow birds. We paid from twenty-five to thirty-five cents apiece, and at one time we had to pay as high as forty-seven cents apiece for a lot. Last year we got all we wanted at from seven to eight cents each. When the hunters have to supply a brisk demand, they can get more, of course, because the supply of birds of each variety does not vary greatly from year to year."

"Do the hunters shoot the birds?"

"I guess not, I do not find any shot in flaying those brought from regular customers."

"How do they catch them then?"

"I guess you could not get them to tell you. There is one man who brings us from 1,500 to 2,000 a week during the warm months. He says he has a partner and no other help. He lives in Red Bank. One would think the woods would be depopulated, or else that he would get rich enough to retire, but he has been working away for years now."

"Where do all these fancy birds that look like pictures of tropical rarities come from?"

"All from Jersey. By inserting a snipe's bill in the place of the bill of a crow blackbird, and then combining parts of the skins of other common birds we produce a monstrosity, but if the colors are well matched the result is attractive to the common eye, however grotesque it may appear to one who knows all about the appearance of birds. It is not uncommon to see in the Grand street windows hats that have half a dozen heads projecting from one mass of feathers that might be the breast of a swan or the pickings from a second hand pillow. The wings that adorn some hats are about as much like wings as a stove pipe is like a lead pencil. But those queer tastes are the making of our business. The portions of the bird's skin which are cut away when mounting a bird naturally for a hat can all be used up in wings by gluing them on a model. I read in The Sun the other day about an Ohio young woman whose nerves were wholly shattered in a millinery store because, as the article said, of her sympathy for the poor little birds she had to handle. I guess there was some error about that. I think the shock must have come a contemplation of some of our combination birds. She has my sympathy."

February 19, 1885. Birds that go on hats. An explanation of some of the mysterious creations that are seen. New Market Church Paper 13(6): 4.