“Feathers will be used largely this season, at which we rejoice.” - Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, 1869
"A corpse is never really a pleasing ornament." - Belgravia: a London Magazine, 1887
Elaine Caldwell worked as a milliner in Wisconsin before she married William Caldwell in 1884 and relocated with him to Kentucky. In the Victorian Era, millinery was one of the few acceptable trades that allowed women to oversee their establishment without the help of a man. As such, it was a predominantly female profession. Milliners of the Victorian Era were primarily working-class women who catered to the upper classes, stocking their stores with hats and embellishments that reflected society's dynamic fashion trends. One of these trends, popular during the time Elaine would have engaged in the trade, was the accessorization of ladies' headwear with bird’s feathers and, often, the entire bird. In fact, Elaine herself excelled at this application, winning multiple feather-working contests in Wisconsin during the early 1880s.
Feather Hat owned by Elaine Caldwell
The origins of the trend of exhibiting avifauna atop one's head, whether it be a whole bird or its appendage, are debated. However, the trend migrated to America in the mid-Victorian 1860s, growing in popularity until a posthumous plume curled above the head of almost every fashion-conscious woman at the turn of the century. Victorian ladies' magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book and Harper's Bazaar featured stylish examples of this trend. Demorest's Monthly Magazine, a Victorian fashion periodical co-authored by a milliner and her husband, included a segment in its 1868 edition detailing the process of stuffing whole birds at home, instructing brave readers to "impregnate" the hollow body of the bird with "a mixture of salt, alum, and pepper" until it closely resembled "the exact form of the bird in life." Milliners and their customers favored no one specific species for this exploit; songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of paradise alike adorned the heads of London and New York's high society, perched stiffly amongst silks and artificial blooms. Not many, though, suspected the coming controversy of the following decades over the ethics of this practice.
A fashion plate in 1899 depicts a woman wearing a feathered hat with a whole bird on it. Taken from "Fine Millinery", a Victorian hat catalog. Public Domain.
Birds started becoming endangered. In Florida, the nests of egrets, spoonbills, herons, grebes, and gulls were pillaged indiscriminately by plume hunters. The men and boys who engaged in these killings were paid handsomely for their efforts, and the results of their rampages sold to milliners. An 1887 edition of the Audubon Magazine, an early proponent of bird protection first founded by ornithologist George Bird Grinnell alongside his brainchild, the Audubon Society, in 1886, spurned advertisements in Floridian newspapers that called explicitly for the skins of egrets, saying of Florida, "Her egrets will be gone, but her regrets will never die." William L. Finley, an American ornithologist known for his support of bird conservation efforts, recalled the devastation plume hunters wrought on a grebe nesting site in Florida, noting the "sickening stench" of a "whole village" of plucked, "dead grebes…scattered about." He counted "100 carcasses in one place." Eggs from these sites would often remain unhatched without the heat from their mothers to incubate them, and young birds starved without an adult to feed them. In other parts of America, too, entire flocks were annihilated.
Largely due to the plumage trade, Kentucky's Carolina Parakeets and passenger pigeons would eventually become extinct. The Audubon Magazine wrote in 1887 that "a single [American] collector brought back from a three months trip 11,000 skins" and that "from one small district on Long Island about 70,000 birds were brought to New York in four months' time." It was not only in North America, however, that birds suffered this fate. In South America, plume hunters decimated droves of hummingbirds for their striking, hat-worthy plumage; in Paris, "100,000 African birds [were] sold by one dealer in one year." America imported and exported bird skins and feathers, fueling domestic and international bird trades. "These figures," the Audubon Magazine concluded, "tell their own story."
The last surviving Passenger Pigeon which died in the Cincinnati Zoological Park in 1914. Picture taken by R. W. Shufeldt found in Birds of America
Other consequences of plume hunting, aside from extinction, were a new overabundance of insects and an increase in the failure of American crops. Birds were a natural pesticide, and their absence disrupted ecosystems that depended on that function. Crops started dying, their roots devoured by the insects that vermin birds could no longer dispose of. Property values plummeted where crops consistently failed, forcing farmers to sell for less. Forests suffered where birds were unavailable to mitigate harmful parasites and distribute seeds. Eliminating birds in the name of fashion meant the simultaneous destruction of many finely tuned ecosystems.
Not all Victorians supported the plumage trade. Conservation organizations, individuals, and eventual Federal legislation worked tirelessly into the 20th century to prevent widespread extinction and protect birds rapidly becoming endangered. The Audubon Society was one such group. Dedicated to bird conservation efforts, the society sought to educate women on the horrors of the plumage trade, hoping they would boycott avian hat styles and diminish the slaughter of helpless birds. In the beginning, its primary vehicle for this change was the magazine, in which ornithologists and amateur bird watchers shared heart-wrenching accounts of bird genocides, deliberately emphasizing the cruelty wrought on hatchlings to appeal to mothers who may find themselves tempted to wear the results of these ravages. An early magazine edition vividly described the plumage trade: "Fashion in New York slays her millions in the remotest corners of the globe. Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are today full of blood, torn feathers, and screams of anguish that staring little corpses may cry for vengeance from the bonnets of what we satirically term the 'gentler' sex." The magazine succeeded in reaching its target audience. Women and girls around America began chapters of the Audubon Society in their homes and universities throughout the late 1880s, leading "birding" expeditions to introduce the public to the delights of the animated bird.
By 1889, however, the magazine reported that membership levels were not high enough to financially sustain future issues. Both magazine and society collapsed that year, and feathered hat sales soared anew. Luckily, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, a young American socialite, revived it in 1896 with a Massachusetts chapter. The revitalized Audubon Society grew even more extensive than its predecessor, boasting among its officers the future president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. It was Hemenway's Audubon Society that would, with support from the American Ornithologists Union and the American Federation of Women's Clubs, garner enough publicity for the movement to pass the Lacey Act, America's first national wildlife protection statute. The society sponsored initiatives such as bird reserves guarded by deputized wardens and education programs designed to teach the younger generations conservation values. They also attached their name to others' initiatives, such as the Audubon hat, which the magazine advertised as a featherless alternative to hats of the day. It later joined with new and former chapters of the Audubon to create the National Association of Audubon Societies in 1905, which continues as the National Audubon Society to this day.
An ‘Audubon Hat’ advertised by the Audubon Society as a featherless alternative to avian fashions, taken from Bird-Lore, Public Domain.
While the Lacey Act was an excellent start to ending the plumage trade for good, it was limited and did not prevent the killing of many species of birds. An essential step in solving this problem was the creation of the first Federal bird reserve, Pelican Island, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Roosevelt was an avid bird protection advocate and established 50 additional Federal bird sanctuaries during his two presidential terms. His contributions, especially on a federal level, prompted other significant acts of legislation that would help end the horrors of the trade for good, such as the Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act in 1913, which succeeded for a short time in protecting insectivorous birds but was later found unconstitutional. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which replaced it in 1918, marked a great victory for conservationists. It officially protected all migratory birds, making it a federal offense to divest one of its life or feathers without a government-issued permit.
Although the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act effectively concluded the Victorian trend, its accomplishments did not entirely curtail the smuggling of then-banned bird products or the destruction of many nonmigratory species. Congress has passed several amendments and additional acts since the end of the Victorian Era to safeguard birds further; however, it is an ongoing battle. In 2017, the presidential administration redefined the 1918 act to preserve the interests of industries that accidentally harmed birds amid otherwise legal activities. Despite this setback, the Audubon Society and other conservation organizations continue to invest significant resources into educating the public on the value of the bird and the necessity of conserving its habitats.
If Elaine Caldwell were practicing millinery today, she would not use the vibrant plumage of migratory birds in her work. Instead, she would imitate their bold, natural colors with synthetically dyed feathers sourced from legally hunted game birds such as ducks, geese, and turkeys. She might also include ethically obtained chicken feathers- byproducts of the poultry industry. The modern milliner has increased access to many synthetic dyes and materials, an advantage that prevents the endangerment of the innocents who have historically supplied them.
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