Feathered Victorian hats were gorgeous creations thanks to the millions of birds slaughtered in the name of fashion. Feathers had been used in clothing for centuries, but the plume trade escalated from the 1870s through the early 1900s until the most popular species were hunted to the verge of extinction. Thankfully, conservationists came to the rescue. Leading the flock were many prominent women in both Europe and America.
The most beautiful birds were targeted first as exotic feathers became a highly coveted status symbol. Women sported feathers, wings and other bird parts on their hats. Tiny hummingbird bodies were worn as jewelry.
Harper’s Bazaar, 1868: “A few of the feather and fur bonnets, now so fashionable in Europe, have just been imported. The feathers used are those of the grebe and pheasant. The white and pearl gray grebes are bound with green, scarlet, or blue velvet…”
Feathers became the must-have decoration on garments, parasols, muffs, boas and fans. As the craft of taxidermy advanced, entire birds were displayed.
Harper’s Bazaar, 1875: “The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”
By the late 1800s, the plume trade had decimated several species of birds including flamingos, birds of paradise and roseate spoonbills. Topping the endangered list were snowy and great egrets. At one point their pure white feathers were worth more than gold. Hunters decimated rookeries because feathers are most resplendent during mating season. They often skinned parents and left babies in nests to die.
Conservationist and director of the New York Zoological Society, William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937) said that it was common for plume hunters to destroy rookeries of several hundred birds in just two or three days.
If one believed the news stories of the day, birds were a limitless natural resource and hunting practices were humane. Promoters of the feather trade held that wearing feathers and whole birds brought the burgeoning numbers of city dwellers closer to nature. They claimed it improved people’s awareness and knowledge of bird species.
Many people saw through the fake news slant and fought hard to bring truth to the consuming public. Hornaday was one of the strongest critics of the feather trade. In his 1913 book, Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation, he wrote:
“It is high time for the whole civilized world to know that many of the most beautiful and remarkable birds of the world are now being exterminated to furnish millinery ornaments for women’s wear. The mass of new information that we have recently secured on this traffic from the headquarters of the feather trade is appalling. Previously, I had not dreamed that conditions are half as bad as they are.” (Chapter XIII, p. 114)
Fake news stories were concocted to hide the gory truth about bird hunting from the public. To combat false information, Hornaday hired an agent to find proof of the true scope of the industry.
“…in order to throw a spot-light on the most recent transactions in the London wild-birds’-plumage market, and to furnish a clear idea of what is to-day going on in London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, I will set out in some detail the report of an agent whom I engaged to ascertain the London dealings in the plumage of wild birds that were killed especially to furnish that plumage. As one item, let us take the sales in London in February, May and October, 1911, because they bring the subject well down to date.”
The sales reports listed 61 birds including gulls, terns, macaws, toucans, owls, emerald-breasted humming birds, condors, peacocks, pelicans, herons and egrets.
“If the feather dealers had deliberately attempted to form an educational list of the most beautiful and the most interesting birds of the world, they could not have done better…That the very choicest birds of the whole avian world should be thus blotted out at the behest of vain and heartless women is a shame, a disgrace and a world-wide loss.” (p. 120)
“The total number of bird corpses auctioned during these three sales is as follows: 129,168 Egrets; 13,598 Herons; 20,698 Birds of Paradise; 41,090 Hummingbirds; 9,464 Eagles, Condors etc.; 9,472 other birds. Total number of birds: 223,490.” (p. 121)
“It is to be remembered that the sales listed above cover the transactions of four firms only, and do not in any manner take into account the direct importations from Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam of manufacturers and other dealers.”
“The full extent of England’s annual consumption of the plumage of wild birds slaughtered especially for the trade never has been determined. I doubt whether it is possible to ascertain it. The information that we have is so fragmentary that in all probability it reflects only a small portion of the whole truth…” (p. 122)
Many people opposed the decimation of bird species for feathered Victorian hats long before any laws were enacted. To counteract the wave of opposition, news stories often downplayed the actual magnitude of the use of feathers. In 1886, ornithologist Frank Chapman from the American Museum of Natural History attempted to debunk these stories by taking a simple “head count” in Manhattan.
He wrote a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting:
“Editor Forest and Stream: In view of the fact that the destruction of birds for millinery purposes is at present attracting general attention, the appended list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York, may be of interest. It is chiefly the result of two late afternoon walks through the uptown shopping districts, and, while very incomplete, still gives an idea of the species destroyed and the relative numbers of each.
Thus, while one afternoon 700 hats were counted and on them but 20 birds recognized, 543 were decorated (?) with feathers of some kind…
Percentage of hats with feathers… …..77
Among the many species of birds he counted were 7 Grebes, 5 Blue Jays, 21 Common Terns, 23 Cedar Waxwings, and 9 Northern Orioles.
In 1900 Chapman changed the tradition of the Christmas Side Hunt in which people competed for the highest number of birds slaughtered. Instead he proposed the Christmas Bird Count in which people counted birds Instead of killing them. The first Victorian Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was a huge success with 27 volunteers counting birds in the United States and Canada. It continues every Christmas season to this day.
As opposition to feathered Victorian hats escalated, people in the plume trade promoted an interesting news campaign. First they tried to mitigate the magnitude of sheer numbers of feathers being sold. When that was obviously false, they claimed that birds were no longer being killed to obtain feathers. Instead, hunters were picking feathers up off the ground.
Once again, Hornaday refuted this fake story. In Our Vanishing Wild Life, he interviewed a man in the plume industry who worked in Venezuela from 1896 to 1905.
“My attention has been called to the fact that certain commercial interests in this city are circulating stories in the newspapers and elsewhere to the effect that the aigrettes (egrets) used in the millinery trade come chiefly from Venezuela, where they are gathered from the ground in the large garceros, or breeding-colonies, of white herons…
The birds gather in large colonies to rear their young. They have the plumes only during mating and nesting season. After the period when they are employed in caring for their young, it is found that the plumes are virtually of no commercial value, because of the worn and frayed condition to which they have been reduced. It is the custom in Valenzuela to shoot the birds while the young are in the nests. A few feathers of the large white heron (American egret) can be picked up…but these are of small value and are known as “dead feathers.”
Many opponents held women responsible for creating and maintaining the plume trade. Some, including Virginia Wolf, argued that it was men who ran the industry, hunted the birds and profited from their slaughter. Nevertheless, women were considered the villains in feathered Victorian hats.
After attending an Opera, George Bernard Shaw wrote on July 3, 1905:
“At 9 o’clock (the Opera began at 8) a lady came in and sat down very conspicuously in my line of sight. …I wish she had come later and gone earlier. For this lady, who had very black hair, had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if someone had killed it by stamping on its breast, and then nailed it to the lady’s temple, … I am not, I hope, a morbidly squeamish person; but the spectacle sickened me. I presume that if I had presented myself at the doors with a dead snake round my neck, a collection of black beetles pinned to my shirtfront, and a grouse in my hair, I should have been refused admission. Why, then is a woman to be allowed to commit such a public outrage?”
Despite fake news and industry spin on the truth, the magnitude of the plume trade was astounding. But the backlash against the slaughter of birds escalated. Many women were at the forefront of the nascent conservation groups and promotional efforts to change social attitudes.
Next up: a few notable conservationists, historical moments and the Audubonnet that saved birds worldwide.
Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future