Eve J. Alfille Gallery and Studio

Birds and Feathers in History

by Ann Covode

Feathers have been in fashion for several hundred years.  Hats with feathers were all the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Feather Hat (2)We all know the iconic mega-feathered hats of the Edwardian era. The Edwardians were particularly enamored with plumage, but unlike their be-feathered predecessors, the Victorians and the Georgians, many a fine species of bird was taken to the brink of extinction by the incredible demand for ladies be-feathered hats.

Throughout history, hats have played a big role in indicating one’s status. We all know the famous scene in “The Duchess,” where Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, sports giant ostrich plumes in her giant hair, and starts a craze that would last decades. For the Edwardians, they took this to a new level, and often added entire birds to their heads, and sometimes these birds were fantastical creations cobbled together from several varying bird parts!GeorgeanaDuchess

Popular plumage for hats extended beyond ostrich, to include heron, peacock, egret, osprey, bird of paradise, pheasant…even vulture. The more “common” feathers for adornment were garden fowl, pigeon, turkey, goose, and coque/rooster. These feathers were made into plumes, pompoms, aigrettes, wings, pads, bands, breasts, and quills, and not by marchandes, milliners, and craftsmen in quaint little shops, oh no, by massive factories employing thousands of women and children, and dealing in hundreds of thousands of feathers per day. In 1900, in North America, the millinery industry employed 83,000 people!

The battle over the commercial trade in bird feathers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “was one of the first times we saw a popular movement coalesce in defense of the environment, and not surprisingly it was to save birds,” says Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California and vice president of the National Audubon Society. American fashionistas were in a frenzy over feather hats. Haute headwear made from real bird plumage was seen everywhere. The delirium was so widespread, in fact, that by 1886, writes Douglas Brinkley in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, “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.” He continues, “Dense bird colonies were being wiped out in Florida so that women of the ‘private carriage crowd’ could make a fashion statement by shopping for aigrettes. Some women even wanted a stuffed owl head on their bonnets and a full hummingbird wrapped in bejeweled vegetation as a brooch.”

By the late 1890s, women conservationists around the country were rallying to protect America’s birds. Like a confusing fall warbler, the national debate darted back and forth — lighting on the women of nature and the nature of women.

Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall were the two-woman dream team responsible for taking down the 19th-century plume trade and establishing the National Audubon Society. Appalled by the number of birds being killed in the name of fashion, Hemenway, an impassioned amateur naturalist, and her cousin Hall, persuaded their socialite friends to boycott the trade and protect the wildlife behind it. Ultimately, they recruited 900 women to join the fight, and gave rise to an establishment that, a century later, has grown to 1 million members and supporters strong.

FlorenceMerriamBaileyAmerican nature writer and ornithologist Florence Merriam Bailey was a jane of all trades. Not only did she work with the National Audubon Society during its early years, she is also credited for writing the first known bird guide, Birds Through an Opera Glass, published in 1889. A true pioneer in the field, Merriam protested the mistreatment, killing, and trade of feathered animals. Her legacy still remains in the form of a subspecies of the California Mountain Chickadee, Parus gambeli baileyae, that was named in her honor.

The Chicago Daily Tribune of Oct. 24, 1897, asked women to save wild birds from extinction by pledging that “they would not wear birds or bird plumage of any kind except ostrich plumes on their hats.” Ostrich plumes, the editor explained, can be gathered without torturing or killing the bird. Such solidarity, the report noted, had forced one large Chicago mercantile company to stop using “the plumage of song birds in trimming hats.” Sara A. Hubbard, director of the Illinois Audubon Society, told the paper: “I expect to live to see the time when the wearing of bird plumage will be a brand of ignorance.”

Feathers were also popular with the sporting crowd.  The popularity of salmon fishing grew through the mid-nineteenth century. This was around the same time that Britain was a powerful colonial nation. Because of this, fly dealers were able to obtain exotic feathers and tie more colourful patterns. Feathers from birds such as the Giant Ostrich from South Africa and the Common Peacock from India were commonly used. Using exotic jungle cock from Africa fly dealers were able to enhance the appearance of their flies. The dull grey patterns of the past were now a distant memory.

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A forward thinking entrepreneur by the name of William Blacker moved to England from Ireland to set up a fly tying and tackle business. His intention was to capitalise on the brisk rise in popularity of Salmon fishing. Blacker was a very talented fly tyer and suddenly started producing flies that resembled works of art. With the boundaries of fly tying now stretched anything seemed possible. Unfortunately, William Blacker died at the age of 42 from TB and his creations were to be no more.

Although the variety of patterns were now on the increase, it was believed that the pattern of a salmon fly was likely to be more successful if it was designed for a specific river. Fly tyers made creations that were only exclusively to be used on a specific river. So the idea that a Tweed fish could be caught on a fly designed for the River Spey was unheard off. This popular theory gave rise to the notion that each river required its own combination of fly tying materials. It was from this era the term Spey; Tay or Tweed flies came from.

We were recently introduced to a fascinating book about a feather heist in England from one of our customers.  Kirk Wallace Johnson’s new book The Feather Thief is a veritable Mental ward of anoraks—explorers, naturalists, gumshoes, dentists, musicians and salmon fly-tyers. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through The Feather Thief, Johnson turns anorak himself, chasing down stolen 19th-century plumes as relentlessly as Herbert Mental stalked the eggs of birders. Johnson’s chronicle of an unlikely crime by an unlikely crook is a literary police sketch—part natural history yarn, part detective story, part the stuff of tragedy of a specifically English kind.  It’s a good read and delves into the history of feathers and salmon fly ties.

Eve’s new Feathers series is an exploration into this beautiful natural shape and an homage to our feathered friends.  It is sure to be a fashion craze as well!  Thank goodness her feathers are in gold and silver with gem accoutrements instead of the real thing!