The fashion of wearing bird feathers in women’s hats began in the court of Louis XVI of France when Marie Antoinette appeared in a headdress with feather plumes (Doughty 1975).
The fashion gradually spread in Europe and later in the colonies of the United States. By 1850, the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds in many parts of the world. Egrets were a prime target, especially birds in breeding plumage when their most elegant plumage was displayed. Hunters killed adult birds, leaving the chicks to die in the scorching sun. Sometimes feathers were pulled from wounded birds, which were left to die of exposure or starvation. Herons and other wading birds along the east coast and in the Everglades were slaughtered in huge numbers. Songbirds were also popular, and entire birds were stuffed and exhibited on the hats of Victorian women. The plumage of terns and gulls was commonly used, and entire breeding colonies numbering more than 10,000 birds were killed. One New York woman negotiated in 1884 with a Parisian millinery to deliver 40,000 or more bird skins; she hired gunners to kill as many terns as possible at ten cents a skin (Doughty 1975 (1)).
In America The Lacey Act was passed in 1900. The Lacey Act enhanced existing laws by prohibiting interstate commerce in wildlife protected by state statute. Fines of $500 for “knowingly” transporting wildlife or products protected in another state, and $200 for “knowingly” receiving such articles, were at first assessed. Many states had protected their native birds from the feather slaughters and banned the sale of feathers, but bird hunters would transport the feathers to states where the birds were not native to sell them. The Lacey Act prohibited this interstate commerce in protected species. If, for example, egrets protected from killing by Alabama law were shot and their feathers shipped across state lines to New York, a Lacey Act violation would have been committed. The Act ended most of the commercial plume trade in Native American birds. The failure of some states to enact laws to protect their wildlife kept the Act from being 100 percent effective. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 closed these loopholes by protecting all native migratory birds.
Following some usage in the 18th and early 19th C, more extravagant use of feathers in women’s hats became commonplace in the last decade of the 19th C. Colin McDowell in Hats: Status, Style and Glamour mentions the case of a London feather dealer in 1892 receiving a consignment of 6,000 bird of paradise feathers, 40,000 hummingbird feathers, and 360,000 feathers from various birds in the East Indies. Large numbers of American birds were killed annually to provide for the millinery trade.
A public outcry against the slaughter of birds for millinery use was denounced as ridiculous by the Milliner and Dressmaker*, “as the result of any ban on the use of feathers would simply be to deprive hundreds of respectable young women of their livelihood in the trade.”
In 1885, a New Jersey bill was passed forbidding the killing of non-game birds and the Audubon Society had a key principle of prevention of wearing of feathers as ornaments, or dress trimmings.
Acceptable feathers in the late 1890s included those from domestic birds, geese, ducks, cockerels, pheasants and ostriches (which can be plucked without harm to the bird).
NEVER have hats been more attractive or so generally becoming, and while a great deal of lace and other trimming characterizes some of the smartest importations, so cleverly is it employed that, in most instances, a simple effect results. Plumes are to have a triumphal career during the entire season. They are shown in all lengths, from tips to long plumes formed by joining two invisibly. There is a variety of ways in which to arrange plumes, but the preference is to place them low at the back; they start underneath the brim or on its upper side and are bunched at one side of the front, or fall low over the left shoulder in Cavalier fashion. A single plume may be used or one starting from each side of the front and drooping low at the back.
Wings and cock feathers are also adjusted in this becoming fashion. Bird of Paradise plumes distinguish many of the best creations, and little other trimming is used with them. They are shown in exquisite colors, some shading from the palest tone to the darkest. Purple is especially favored, and when used to trim a hat of dark purple velvet or chenille is wonderfully pleasing.
(From ‘The Deliniator’ 1903 reproduced in Victoriana Magazine – Edwardian Hats, Winter 1903)
In 1886 Frank Chapman hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women’s fashion district on 14th Street, to tally the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women. Chapman, who would later found the first version of this magazine, was a talented birder. He identified the wings, heads, tails, or entire bodies of 3 bluebirds, 2 red-headed woodpeckers, 9 Baltimore orioles, 5 blue jays, 21 common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he counted 174 birds and 40 species in all.
America’s hat craze was in full swing. In the 1880s trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles. Birds were by far the most popular accessory: Women sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, and whole hummingbirds; a single hat could feature all that, plus four or five warblers. The booming feather trade was decimating the gull, tern, heron, and egret rookeries up and down the Atlantic Coast. In south Florida, plume hunters would nearly destroy the great and snowy egret populations in their quest for the birds’ long, soft dorsal spring mating feathers. “That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible,” Harper’s Bazaar reported on the winter hat season in 1897.
(See full article in Audubon Magazine)
In 1911, the feathers of 129,000 egrets; 13,598 herons; 20,698 birds of paradise; 41,090 hummingbirds; 9,464 eagles, condors and other birds of prey; and 9,472 other birds were sold at auction in London for the millinery trade.
The conservationist American Audubon Society was founded in 1886 and the English Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds in 1889.
The English RSPB charity was founded in 1889 by Emily Williamson at her house in Didsbury, Manchester (now in Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden), as a protest group campaigning against the use of great crested grebe and kittiwake skins and feathers in fur clothing. Originally known as “the Plumage League”, the group gained popularity and eventually amalgamated with the Fur and Feather League in Croydon, and formed the RSPB.
- That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection
- That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.—RSPB rules, 1899
The grebe was almost exterminated in the acquisition of its silky breast plumage, chic trimmings for muff and collar as well as hat.
In 1906 the preservation of birds campaign gained the patronage of Queen Alexandra (wife of Edward VII) who agreed to ban the use of osprey plumage at court.
An important, longstanding and influential member of Emily Williamson’s RSPB circle was social reformer Winifred Anna Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland. She became the RSPB’s first and longest President, commiting to the society for 65 years and until her death in 1954 at the age of 91.
* The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was founded in 1852 by Samuel Beeton and by 1860 was publishing colored fashion plates created by the well known Parisian fashion illustrator Jules David. Beeton published hand colored fashion plates throughout the existence of the magazine, which merged with The Milliner, Dressmaker and Warehouseman’s Gazette in 1877. The magazine ceased publication in 1881.
1. Doughty, R.W. 1975. Feather, Fashions and Bird Preservation. A Study in Nature Protection. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.