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Early Female Conservationists Promoted Bird Friendly Fashions

Despite fake news stories to the contrary, the magnitude of the later Victorian Era plume trade continued to escalate. By the 1900s an estimated five million birds worldwide were slaughtered yearly in the name of fashion. The industry, which made fortunes for a few men at the top, argued that a few birds could be sacrificed since the plume trade provided jobs for thousands of people at the bottom in both America and Europe. Although women were blamed for creating the industry, many early female conservationists worked to reverse the horrific trend by changing public attitudes and promoting bird friendly fashion.

Early Female Conservationists Vs. Feather Heads

As early as the 1890s environmentalists publicly shamed women who wore feathers. A New York Times article titled “Murderous Millinery” stated that women deserved to be shunned for exhibiting themselves in the “relics of murdered innocence.”

On May 14, 1892 Punch published this cartoon titled “A Bird of Prey.” It depicted a woman as a “fashion-mad harpy” preying on birds for their feathers.

In 1905, George Bernard Shaw complained bitterly about a woman in a large feathered hat sitting in front of him at the opera. He asked, “Why should a woman be allowed to commit such a public outrage?”

In Puck, May 24, 1911, The Woman Behind The Gun depicted a well-dressed woman wearing a beautiful picture hat adorned with feathers while shooting birds in a rookery.

Following are a few of our favorite Early Female Conservationists.

Early Female Conservationists #1: Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey

Unlike most ornithologists and naturalists of her time who studied skins of dead specimens, Bailey preferred observing living creatures in their real habitats. In her many books and field guides, she managed to bring living birds onto her pages.

In 1889, Bailey collected articles she had written for the Audubon Magazine into her first book, Birds Through an Opera Glass. She refused to assume a nom de plume, which was customary at the time for female writers. (Even Nellie Bly a.k.a. Elizabeth Cochrane bent to that custom.)

One of the great Early Female Conservationists, Bailey’s conviction shone in her description of a female warbler:

“Like other ladies, the little feathered brides have to bear their husbands’ names, however inappropriate. What injustice! Here an innocent creature with an olive-green back and yellowish breast has to go about all her days known as the black-throated blue warbler, just because that happens to describe the dress of her spouse!”

Born in 1863, Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey’s scientific reasoning and personal passions developed during a time when feathered Victorian hats were in vogue. Bailey abhorred all use of feathers in fashion. In 1885, while still a student at Smith College, she wrote a series of newspaper articles. Her goal was to persuade women to stop providing a market for the plume industry by wearing feathers.

In 1886 she collaborated with naturalist Georg Bird Grinnell and classmate Fannie Hardy to form the Smith College Audubon Society (SCAS), a local chapter of Grinnell’s National Audubon Society. Famed naturalist John Burroughs lead the group in a series of nature walks in 1886.

Bailey was a founding member of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia in 1897. One of her first projects was assisting Lucy Warren Maynard in preparing ‘Birds of Washington and Vicinity.” It was published in 1898 and became a textbook for the District of Columbia schools.

That same year she participated in organizing the first of the Society’s famous bird classes. They were aimed primarily to furnish basic instruction in both field and laboratory ornithology at the normal-school level to teachers of nature study.

Among her many other achievements:

1885: first woman associate member of the American Ornithologists’ Union

1908: A California mountain chickadee was named Parus gambeli baileyae in her honor.

1929: first woman fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union

1931: first woman recipient of the Brewster Medal for Birds of New Mexico.

Early Female Conservationists: Harriet Lawrence Hemenway; Minna B. Hall

In 1896, Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway learned about the inhumane practices of feather hunters.  She and her cousin, Minna B. Hall, combed their blue books and organized a series of tea parties for the wealthy women of Boston. After tea was served, they urged their guests to boycott the use of feathers in fashion. Some women walked out, but others listened.

They rallied more than 900 women to turn their backs on feathered fashion in support of helping bird populations. Since they did not have the right to vote, they lacked the political power to advance their cause. Hemenway’s husband, shipping magnate Augustus Hemenway was also passionate about preserving the environment. With his help Hemenway and Hall rallied scientists and businesspeople to their cause.

Hemenway and Hall recruited leading ornithologist William Brewster as the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s first president. But half of the organization’s officers were women who served as leaders of most of the local chapters.

Eventually Hemenway’s and Hall’s tea parties resulted in the Massachusetts Audubon Society named after bird painter John Audubon.  Their efforts resulted in the establishment of the National Audubon Society and the following laws that ended the feather trade:

1897–Hemenway and the Society applied enough pressure to the Massachusetts legislature for them to vote to outlaw the wild bird feather trade.

1900—the Lacey Act was established to prohibit interstate shipment of animals killed in violation of local laws.

1905–The national committee of Audubon societies was organized.

1913–The Migratory Bird Conservation Act was passed.

1918–They were instrumental in the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty. With these acts, the feather trade was virtually halted.

Early Female Conservationists: Lilli Lehmann, German Opera Singer

Lilli Lehmann, famed German opera singer abhorred the fashion of wearing feathers. She campaigned passionately against the practice, offering her fans autographs in exchange for their promise not to wear feathers.

Early Female Conservationists: Society For The Protection Of Birds

British legislation including the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880 did little to stop the slaughter of birds. Many early female conservationists established organizations that ultimately made significant changes.

1889-According to the RSPB, Emily Williamson started the Plumage League from her house in Manchester to protest the slaughter of great crested grebes and kittiwakes. In that same year Eliza Phillips, Catherine Hall and others founded the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, also for the protection of wildlife.

1891-The two groups combined forces to form the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) in London. Membership required a pledge to fight the plume industry and to commit to a featherless wardrobe. British humanitarian and animal welfare activist Winifred Anna Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland became the first (and longest serving) president of SPB. She was also vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

1904-The society was granted a royal charter and became the Royal Society For The Protection of Birds (RSPB). The organization continues to operate today.

Featherless Hats Emerge

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 marked the end of the Victorian Era. With the secession of her son, the Edwardian Era began until his death in 1910. Much was changing in the world, including women’s expanded roles and evolving freedoms.

A new generation of hats emerged to accommodate the changes. The Audubon Society urged people to boycott feathered hats and garments. Instead, they suggested that women should wear bird friendly hats like the “audubonnets” decorated with ribbons, fabrics and feather-free ornaments.

Among the most popular new styles were the automobile bonnets and sailor’s hats for tennis matches and other activities. Hairstyles were shorter and bobbed and hats were smaller to allow more freedom of movement.

Eventually the idea of featherless fashion became the norm. In a “Special Cable to the New York Times from London–April 22, 1913:

Now For Plumeless Hats.

Tyrant Man Responsible for “Murderous Millinery,” Says Mme. Grand

Featherless hats provided one of the features of the exhibition and conference opened in London to-day for the purpose of bringing together societies and individuals interested in the suppression of cruelty to animals.

The millinery exhibits are intended to prove that women’s hats may be both beautiful and fashionable without the aid of feathers and plumes, the plucking of which, it is said caused unnecessary pain to the birds.

A hat with a large plume made of grasses, stiffened and colored, won general approval from fashion experts. Ribbons played a great part in the trimmings. Other exhibits fashioned in the shapes of plumes and feathers proved most effective.

Mme. Sarah Grand, acting as first Chairman of the series of conferences, dealt with the question of “murderous millinery.” Man, she said, was at the bottom of the whole mischief. Behind the evil traffic in birds’ plumage was the commercial organization. She appealed to women to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of being dictated to by men as to what they should wear.”

Thanks Largely To Early Female Conservationists

1900: Congress passed the Lacey Act prohibiting transport of birds across state lines. Poorly enforced, did little to slow the commerce in feathers. Getting in the way of the plume trade could be dangerous. (In 1905, Florida warden Guy M. Bradley, was killed while attempting to arrest a plume hunter. A sympathetic jury acquitted he hunter.

1913: Weeks-McLean Law, sponsored by Massachusetts Representative John Weeks and Connecticut Senator George McLean, effectively ended the plume trade.

1918: Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, declared that the protection of birds was in the “national interest.”

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2 Responses

  1. to whom it might so interesting is this early history of Migratory Bird Treaty Act also interested in any further explanations on, to quote: British legislation including the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880 did little to stop the slaughter of birds. Many early female conservationists established organizations that ultimately made significant changes close quote. Thank you Susan Chaple

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