Late Victorian Era ladies and gents had a fetish for feathers. More than 5 million birds were being massacred yearly to satisfy the booming North American millinery trade. Along Manhattan's Ladies' Mile — the principal shopping district, centered on Broadway and Twenty-Third Street — retail stores sold the feathers of snowy egrets, white ibises, and great blue herons. Once dense egret bird colonies were wiped out in Florida . Some women even wanted a stuffed owl head on their bonnets and a full hummingbird wrapped in bejeweled vegetation as a brooch. And fly fishing - Fishermen caused ruffled feathers too.
As Daisy explained the fad, "The hairstyles all needed to flatter the dress and the hat or ornament. Hats were worn directly on top of the head, and they grew in height becoming taller and narrower every year. This new millinery style was elaborately trimmed with ribbons, flowers, lace, and a ridiculous number of feathers or entire stuffed birds. It was during this time that bird populations began to disappear in such numbers, that the American Audubon Society was founded in 1886, and the English Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds formed in 1889. No matter the fashion, Mother saw the number of feathers on a hat as a direct corollary to a woman’s lack of intelligence, so we wore simple hats with man-made trim."
The statistics were staggering. Good Housekeeping 's 1886-1887 issue reported: "At Cape Cod, 40,000 terns have been killed in one season by a single agent of the hat trade." On Cobb's Island along the Virginia Coast, an "enterprising" New York businesswoman bagged 40,000 seabirds —at 40 cents apiece — to meet the demands of a single hat-maker. The magazine questioned the sense — and sensibilities — of such inhumane behavior. "Humanitarians and reformers may labor to save the birds," observed the Norfolk Virginian on Sept. 29, 1897, "but these labor in vain and will so long as fashion says to womankind wear wings, and mirrors tell the fact, fatal to birds, that feathers are becoming."
By the late 1890s, women conservationists around the country were rallying to protect America's birds. In Boston, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the longest-lived organization dedicated to bird conservation and public education. After reading about egret hunting practices, the two women were determined to persuade and convince other prominent women that they were committing a deadly and tragic wrong by wearing birds or bird feathers on their hats.
Through a boycott and tea parties, they convinced women not to wear feathered hats, and to work with their new group to promote bird protection. These ladies and leagues in every major city, made "wearing feathers" unfashionable literally putting an entire industry out of business.
Flys for Fisherman
And now we come to the world of fanatical fly-tyers. Gentlemen fishermen in Victorian Britain created an art form tying salmon flies. It was less about what caught salmon than about making something exotic. They wrote books and detailed the many species of bird feathers necessary for each named lure. Today modern-day equivalent tiers spend tens of thousands of dollars on feathers to decorate their lures. And not because it catches more fish - but because they are rare and protected. More than rare, most are acquired from illegal sources. There is a lucrative trade in forbidden feathers online today. At first feathers were foraged from old victorian ladies hats, but as those became scarce, thieves realized there was a bounty of feathers in natural history museum collections. One of the biggest heists is detailed in a great book called The Feather Thief.
The Feather Thief, published today by Viking .
Top Row (from left): Red Bird-of-Paradise; African Eagle Owl; Mandarin Duck; Blue Jay; Green Peacock; Little Spotted Kiwi; Sun Chicken; King Bird-of-Paradise; Golden Pheasant; Superb Starling; Blood Pheasant; Golden Pheasant. Second Row: Blue-fronted Amazon; Red-winged Laughingthrush; Painted-Snipe; Common Swift; European Jay; Blue-and-Yellow Macaw; Golden Pheasant; Indian Roller; Gray Peacock Pheasant; Blue –fronted Amazon; Northern Flicker; Green Woodpecker; Lilac-breasted Roller. Third Row: Southern Cassowary; White-crowned Parrot; Superb Bird-of-Paradise; Superb Starling; Golden-headed Quetzal; Scarlet Macaw; Downy Woodpecker; Red-shafted Flicker; Common Swift; Lilac-tailed Parrotlet; Trogon; African Eagle Owl; Laughingthrush. Fourth Row: Blue-fronted Amazon; Red-crested Turaco; Lilac-breasted Roller; Papuan Frogmouth; Gray Peacock Pheasant; European Jay; Southern Cassowary; Red-billed Blue Magpie; Fork-tailed Woodnymph; Gray Peacock Pheasant; Superb Lyrebird; North American Three-toed Woodpecker; Golden-breasted Starling Photo: Photograph by Robert Clark from www.audobon.com
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