Birds’ feathers advertise health and fitness to potential mates. This message was not lost on humans who took to adorning themselves with feathers. The Mayan chiefs, who declared themselves gods, wore a head dress of three-foot-long Quetzal plumes. The most powerful Plains tribes of Native Americans wore war bonnets of eagle feathers which they considered sacred. In the late 1800s, the European fashion centers adopted feathers and eventually whole birds into ladies’ hats. The craze soon reached New York, which quickly had a millinery row of its own. The use of feathers and birds in hats was promoted in all types of advertising and cultural media.
Mass merchandising and mass production brought extraordinary pressure on at least 50 species in the United States, especially the colonial-nesting egrets and terns. Birds were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands to meet the demand. Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History publicized the threat. In 1896 two Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, read an article about the barbaric destruction wrought by the millinery trade. The ladies were moved to organize a boycott of feathered hats within Boston social circles. They were successful, and along with 900 other ladies who supported the boycott, formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Their success was followed by Audubon Societies being established in 16 more states. Utilizing their husbands’ influence, (women would not have the right to vote until 1918) they managed to get a Massachusetts congressman to introduce legislation banning market hunting, and the Lacy Act was passed in 1900. That success was followed with the Weeks-McLean Law, also known as the Migratory Bird Act, passed by Congress on March 4, 1913. This act was eventually found unconstitutional but before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against it, the Migratory Bird Treaty between Great Britain (for Canada) and the United States was signed and ratified.
This year marks the centennial of the Convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds. The so-called the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed on Aug. 16, 1916. This was a hallmark for bird conservation and led to a series of acts that codified the protection of birds. Today almost all bird species are protected, yet feathers are still prominent in women’s fashion. The feathers utilized are chickens and other domestic species and therefore of no threat to wildlife anywhere.
If you would like to learn more about this fashion craze and the acts that eventually protected the birds, visit Commissioner Steve Radack’s Cypress Top Historic Park at 26026 Old Hempstead Highway. We will have an exhibit at the park about the topic during August with a special open house from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, August 6. Cypress Top Historic Park is open daily from dawn to 7 p.m. The museum buildings are open on Tuesdays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. To arrange a special tour, contact the park at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-357-5324. The park is home to the Cypress Historical Society, which is housed in the yellow train depot in the back of the park. The Society’s hours are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m.. The Society offers genealogy and historical information for the Greater Cypress area. You can contact them at email@example.com or 281-758-0083. If you have questions or comments about this article, contact Fred Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historical facts courtesy of Cypress Top Historic Park Collection & Cypress Historical Society: Preserving Cypress History for Posterity.