Bird Hats?

Image credit: refer to other image

The first event takes us back to early 19th century (U.S. and Europe).

1860- High status ladies often wore hats topped with single feathers or a display of feathers.  Ostriches were highly coveted for their feathers and it was common for the flightless bird to be chased by hunters on horseback until they collapsed from exhaustion. They were then shot or clubbed to death.

1870-1885- The hat trend only grew more extravagant making it common for women of status to wear hats or all sizes, donned with many feathers and even bird wings! There was an vast increase in the use of feathers to decorate hats and headpieces. Soon, even whole birds were used as decoration. The dead birds were mounted on hats using wires to create the ‘impression of natural movement’ (ironically). Hats continued to grow taller and taller, birds being perched upright or with wings extended. (Sometimes they even tried to imitate nature like adding leaves, twigs, dead mice and reptiles). It was also in this period that taxidermy became commercially popular, reaching its prime the 1880s-1890s.

Images credit:

The feather trade was massive. In the first quarter of 1884, “almost 7,000 bird-of-paradise skins (found around New Guinea) were being imported to Britain, along with over 0.76 million birds from India and Brazil”. London was the trade centre of the feather market, listing more than a million heron and egret skins sold in one auction alone (1897-1911). Birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent— i.e. during mating and breeding seasons. This magnified the problem of bird hunting as it disrupted their reproductive cycle and also left many nestlings orphaned to die. Hunters killed up to thousands of snowy egrets, owls, terns and other birds close to extinction. The worst case was the passenger pigeon which was hunted for other reasons as well, due to the ease of trapping and killing them— they went into extinction in 1914. Commercial farming of the ostrich started in the late 1880s (South Africa) and soon became a word wide industry which developed more ethical methods of collecting their feathers. Despite this, many other birds were still being hunted inhumanely.

“The wings of living gulls were sometimes pulled off, leaving them to die in slow agony in the sea, while young kittiwakes (a small species of ocean-going gull), whose attractive markings were especially admired, suffered a similar fate – their wings hacked off while they were still in the nest. Other fledglings were left to fend for themselves after the parent birds were thoughtlessly killed.”

1889 (U.K.)-The Plumage League was formed to protest against the use of bird skins and feathers in clothing and accessories. They raised public awareness through campaigns and petitions toward the conservation and protection of the birds.

1891 (U.K.)- The Plumage league joined the Fur and Feather League to form the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). They published pamphlets and leaflets to raise awareness. Their two rules were as follows,

“Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection”

“Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.”

The RSPB then consisted mainly of women, with some of the most ardent members consisting of high-ranking society ladies. This is a surprise as they were the type people you would expect to endorse fashionable hats to begin with. The increasing support lead to the spread of their message and increase in membership. Unfortunately, the expansion of the RSPB did not slow the feather trade down.

1897 (U.S.)- In Boston, female socialites rallied together to boycott the feather trade, establishing the Massachusetts Audubon Society. They encouraged women to use ribbons and other decorations instead of feathers. This movement garnered the support of about 900 women which eventually led to a state law that banned the wild bird feather trade in Massachusetts. The Audubon Society didn’t stop there, they pushed for national legislation. Many people in the hat and feather trade opposed their stand, labelling them as extremist and “self-righteous sentimentalists”.  Even some politicians opposed the movement as shut-down of the trade engendered the loss of jobs nation wide. Eventually, the Federal Bird Reservation was passed in 1903 which became National Wildlife Refuge System.

1908 (U.K.) -Aimed at prohibiting import of bird feathers and skins, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was introduced to the U.K. Parliament. It wasn’t until 1921 that the bill was eventually passed and enforced (April 1922)

1913 (U.S.)- Weeks–McLean Act was passed, putting a stop to the cruel trade.

In sum, these events sparked a conservation movement, leading to more efforts to protect wildlife such as the Endangered Species Act (1973). We can all take a cue from the ladies that spearheaded this movement. When they found out about the inhumane practices, they made an effort to spread the message and used their influence to make a stand.