The Feather Trade and the Formation of the Audubon Society

In the Farnsworth Art Museum exhibition Elegantly Attired: Victorial Apparel and Accessories inCoastal Maine, there are many examples of feathered fans and hats. Feathered hats made their way to American by way of Europe through the popular fashion magazines of the era. The January 18, 1868, issue of  Harper’s Bazaar mentions, “A few of the feather and fur bonnets, now so fashionable in Europe

Late 19th century fixed feather fan with hummingbird. Gift of Mrs. Fred
Whitcomb, 1966

, 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, while bonnets of dark pheasants’ feathers have a fall of brown lace ... ”

Feathered hats grew in popularity through the end of the nineteenth century. In the fashion literature of the time bird feathers were promoted as being realistic, rare and natural. The more rare a bird, the more valuable were its feathers, therefore giving the wearer greater social standing. During the height of this fashion trend whole birds were stuffed and mounted on hats. The American Ornithologist Union estimated in 1886 that five million North American birds were killed each year for millinery purposes. That same year, Frank Chapman, an avid birder, hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women’s fashion district on 14th Street. He tallied the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women. He identified wings, heads, tails or entire bodies of three bluebirds, two redheaded woodpeckers, nine Baltimore orioles, five blue jays, twenty-one common terns, a saw-whet owl and a prairie hen. In two afternoons he counted 174 birds and forty species in all.

In 1896, Mrs. Augustus Hemenway and her cousin Miss Minna Hall of Boston decided to organize their forces to end the slaughter of birds for hats. The two women invited prominent society women for afternoon teas where the cousins urged participants to boycott bird hats. This was the formation of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Outraged Americans in state after state founded Audubon Societies to combat the feather trade and advocate bird protection. They waged the first truly modern conservation campaign. In 1900, just four years after the women hatched their strategy over tea, the U.S. Congress passed the Lacey Bird and Game Act. This legislation helped bring an end to the heedless slaughter of plumed birds in Florida and elsewhere.