Victorian Women: Notorious Bird-Killers

On the London feather market around 1900, an ounce of feathers was worth as much as an ounce of gold. 

That was when it had become especially fashionable for women to wear real bird feathers in their hats, on their dresses, and in accessories like fans and jewelry.  The trend spurred a trade in wild bird feathers that had a devastating effect on native bird populations wherever birds with colorful plumage could be found.

The Laramie Plains Museum has a group of feathered objects in their collection that includes four feather “boas” (long scarf-like neckwear), five feathered fans, artwork made of feathers, as well as 17 of the all-important feathered hats.  Apparently, the fashion for displaying feathers definitely reached Laramie.

These objects in the LPM collection come from many local pioneer families.  There are probably many more stored away in trunks and attics all over Laramie.

Feathers could be dyed bright or dark colors with a premium paid for pure white Egret feathers, easiest to dye.  But birds with natural colors were also prized, including Florida’s pink Flamingo.

One of the first “bird counts” was done on the streets of Manhattan in 1886 by an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History. In that first 1886 count, Frank Chapman, the New York ornithologist, conducted two walks around Manhattan and counted 700 birds in women’s hats alone.  While many were exotic, they included 40 species of native New York sparrows, warblers and woodpeckers that he could easily identify.

Ten years later, two Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, started a woman’s crusade against the trade in bird feathers in America.  Their 1896 crusade instituted a boycott of the trade in bird feathers and persuaded 900 women to join their cause.

Spurred on by their success, Hemenway and Hall formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society that soon spread to other states and became a national society dedicated to the protection of birds.  Since then the annual “Christmas bird count” has been done in the winter all across America under the auspices of the Audubon Society.

John James Audubon himself died in 1851, unaware of how his beautiful bird illustrations would lead to the wholesale slaughter of bird rookeries by plume hunters less than 50 years later. Audubon himself often killed birds—he needed their skins to study for his marvelous drawings. 

A British woman, Emily Williamson, had founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1889.  Today, this society and the Audubon Society work to promote bird conservation through protection of birds and their habitats.  They have petitioned successfully for the establishment and operation of nature and bird reserves throughout Europe and America.

In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, prohibiting transport across state lines of birds taken in violation of state laws.  But the poorly enforced law did little to slow feather hunting.  Getting in the way of the plume trade could be dangerous.  In 1905, in an incident that generated national outrage, a warden in south Florida, Guy M. Bradley, was shot and killed while attempting to arrest a plume hunter—who was subsequently acquitted by a sympathetic jury.

Finally, in 1913, Congress acted with the Weeks-McLean Law, sponsored by Massachusetts Representative John Weeks and Connecticut Senator George McLean, effectively ending the plume trade.

Also known as the Migratory Bird Act, it outlawed market hunting and forbade interstate transport of birds.

However, lest we think the battle is won, recent newspaper photos show Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, wearing a feathered “fascinator” hat, thereby authenticating a style for fashionable women to emulate if they dare.

Also, there is a huge amount of down and feathers going into home furnishings—so it doesn’t look like trade in feathers is ending anytime soon.  The group People for the Ethical treatment of Animals (PETA) is campaigning to stop the practice of “live plucking” down from geese.  They would prefer that people switch to down alternatives—synthetic fibers—or at least get all their down from animals that were slaughtered for their meat, so the down is a by-product.  

Synthetic down can imitate some of the properties of down feathers, but there is nothing that can provide as much insulation for as little weight as down.  The plumules of down feathers lack the stiff central vane that would poke through the pillowcase or jacket fabric.  Instead, they interlock with each other to form a comfortable, fluffy mass that is so good at providing insulation. 

By Judy Knight

Caption:  This delicate Victorian fan was given to the Laramie Plains Museum by its former director, Dan Nelson, who suspects it belonged to his grandmother. She grew up in Lovell, Wyoming.  The peacock feathers at the top are recognizable, but the white feathers below them have been used as a background for paintings of roses and other flowers directly on the feathers.  Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.