photographs of a Great Egret (top) and a Snowy Egret (bottom) by Rohan Kamath
two walks along the streets of Manhattan in 1886, the
American Museum of Natural History's ornithologist, Frank
Chapman, spotted 40 native species of birds including
sparrows, warblers, and woodpeckers. But the birds were not
flitting through the trees -- they had been killed, and for
the most part, plucked, disassembled, or stuffed, and
painstakingly positioned on three-quarters of the 700
women's hats Chapman saw. The North American feather trade
was in its heyday.
Throughout the preceding 30
years, general economic prosperity of a growing middle class
had provided opportunities to purchase nonessentials.
Emulating the fashionable elite, men selected fedoras with
feather trim and women adorned their hair, hats, and dresses
with "aigrettes" (sprays) of breeding plumage taken from a
variety of birds. Accordingly, women's hats became larger,
hat ornamentation (reminiscent of that found on dress
military headgear) became more lavish, and the feather trade
expanded its enterprise to include marketing the remains of
some 64 species from 15 genera of native birds.
Herons were favored. The Great Egret and especially the more plentiful, more widely distributed, more approachable, and more delicately plumed Snowy Egret, suffered great losses. These birds had evolved extravagant breeding plumage as sexual advertisements to attract their mates. The feathers, apparently, had such a similar effect on 19th-century men that sources of supply began to disappear. So extensive was the decoupling of egrets and their skins that egrets were adopted as the symbol of the bird preservation movement. Writers such as Herbert job began to focus their protests on the robbing of heron rookeries:
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... herons' 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?
There was no question that plume trading had become a very lucrative business. "In 1903," job continued, "the price for plumes offered to hunters was $32 per ounce, which makes the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold." (Later they were to bring $80!) It should not be surprising that the millinery trade, an industry employing 83,000 people (1 of every 1,000 Americans) in 1900, stood fast against claims of cruelty and exploitation and offered the public false assurances. It was carefully explained, for instance, that the bulk of feather collection was limited to shed plumes -- those found scattered on the ground within rookeries. In truth, those "dead plumes" brought only one-fifth the price of the live, unblemished, little-worn ones. To counteract the charges of cruelty, claims were circulated that most feather trim was either artificial or produced on foreign farms that exported molted feathers. The demand for egret feathers, nonetheless, began to slip.
No sooner was the public weaned off egrets than it fixed its attention on seabirds of the Atlantic coast. And harvesting did not stop there. Hunting of West Coast terns, grebes, White Pelicans, and albatrosses for ornamental feathers also expanded.
By the turn of the century many millions of birds were being killed by plume hunters each year. Preservationists struggled to enact laws to prevent the killing, possession, sale, and importation of plume birds and ornamental feathers. They disseminated their information through numerous periodicals (including Bird Lore and Audubon Magazine), many books, and the campaigns of the American Ornithologists' Union (founded in 1883), the Audubon Society, and other conservation organizations. The Audubon Society offered public lectures on such topics as "Woman as a bird enemy" and erected Audubon-approved millinery displays. It also selected regulatory committees to audit the millinery sold in key areas. These actions helped more women to recognize their role in the issue and more men in the millinery trade (whose livelihoods had come from encouraging those women into that role) to change their orientation as interest in feathered fashions subsided.
Thus ended the "Age of Extermination," and by World War I, embellishing attire with breeding plumes had become a thing of the past. How much this change was due to the effects of hunting and trade regulations and how much was the result of rising prices for dwindling supplies is still not clear. Nor is it evident whether changes in the everyday lives of women simply eliminated opportunities to wear oversized, constraining hats, or whether a growing inclination toward promoting humanitarian ideals reduced the allure of feathered garb. Regardless, displaying feathers became, once again, an avian trait.
Birds and the Law;
Helping to Conserve Birds -- National Level.
Copyright ® 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.