3. Murderous Millinery


“From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce. “ (W. T. Hornaday 1913) [1]

Millinery prepared Metallic Starling (Aplonis metallica)  native of New Guinea.
Photo © Merle Patchett/UACTC
Millinery prepared Metallic Starling (Aplonis metallica) native of New Guinea.
Photo © Merle Patchett/UACTC

1600 HUMMINGBIRD SKINS AT 2 CENTS EACH. Part of Lot Purchased by the Zoological Society at the Regular Quarterly London Millinery Feather Sale, August, 1912.

At the height of the “Plume Boom” in the early part of the 20th century the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world as W. T. Hornaday’s quote above, taken from his opus Our Vanishing Wildlife, underlines.

London was the centre for trade in exotic feathers, however in North America the Heron family was favoured due to its indigenous abundance. By the turn of the 20th century, this trade had nearly eliminated egrets in the US, and populations of numerous other bird species around the globe were also approaching extinction.

Reports of these atrocities led to the formation of the first Audubon and conservation societies, who sought to ban the trade and persuade ladies not to use plumage for their own adornment. Campaigns against ‘murderous millinery’ by the Audubon Society in the US and the RSPB in the UK initiated wildlife protection acts which eventually prohibited both national and international commerce in protected bird species.

This section of the exhibition seeks to outline the extent of the business of killing birds for the millinery trade and to evidence the efforts of various individuals and groups to bring an end to the international plumage trade.


While Paris and New York were the manufacturing centres of feather trimmings and ornaments during the Plume Boom (as Fashioning Feathers details), London was the international centre of for the plumage trade. In the periodic (monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly) feather sales, held in the Commercial Sale Rooms, traders and feather merchants were able to bid for “the “skins” and “plumes” and “quills” of the most beautiful and most interesting unprotected birds of the world” (Hornaday 1913: 145).

W.T. Hornaday complied a list of all the birds being exterminated by the growing number of ‘plume-hunters’ harvesting birds for the London feather markets in almost all parts of the world:

List Of Birds Now Being Exterminated For The London And Continental Feather Markets:



American Egret Venezuela, S. America, Mexico, etc.
Snowy Egret Venezuela, S. America, Mexico, etc.
Scarlet Ibis Tropical South America.
“Green” Ibis Species not recognizable by its trade name.
Herons, generally All unprotected regions.
Marabou Stork Africa.
Pelicans, all species All unprotected regions.
Bustard Southern Asia, Africa.
Greater Bird of Paradise New Guinea; Aru Islands.
Lesser Bird of Paradise New Guinea.
Red Bird of Paradise Islands of Waigiou and Batanta.
Twelve-Wired Bird of Paradise New Guinea, Salwatti.
Black Bird of Paradise Northern New Guinea.
Rifle Bird of Paradise New Guinea generally.
Jobi Bird of Paradise Island of Jobi.
King Bird of Paradise New Guinea.
Magnificent Bird of Paradise New Guinea.
Impeyan Pheasant Nepal and India.
Tragopan Pheasant Nepal and India.
Argus Pheasant Malay Peninsula, Borneo.
Silver Pheasant Burma and China.
Golden Pheasant China.
Jungle Cock East Indies and Burma.
Peacock East Indies and India.
Condor South America.
Vultures, generally Where not protected.
Eagles, generally All unprotected regions.
Hawks, generally All unprotected regions.
Crowned Pigeon, two species New Guinea.
“Choncas” Locality unknown.
Pitta East Indies.
Magpie Europe.
Touracou, or Plantain-Eater Africa.
Velvet Birds Locality uncertain.
“Grives” Locality uncertain.
Mannikin South America.
Green Parrot (now protected) India.
“Dominos” (Sooty Tern) Tropical Coasts and Islands.
Garnet Tanager South America.
Grebe All unprotected regions.
Green Merle Locality uncertain.
“Horphang” Locality uncertain.
Rhea South America.[Page 120]
“Sixplet” Locality uncertain.
Starling Europe.
Tetras Locality not determined.
Emerald-Breasted Hummingbird West Indies, Cent, and S. America.
Blue-Throated Hummingbird West Indies, Cent, and S. America.
Amethyst Hummingbird West Indies, Cent, and S. America.
Resplendent Trogon, several species Central America.
Cock-of-the-Rock South America.
Macaw South America.
Toucan South America.
Emu Australia.
Sun-Bird East Indies.
Owl All unprotected regions.
Kingfisher All unprotected regions.
Jabiru Stork South America.
Albatross All unprotected regions.
Tern, all species All unprotected regions.
Gull, all species All unprotected regions.

Table: reproduced from Hornaday (1913) Our Vanishing Wildlife. http://www.gutenberg.org

One catalogue from a Commercial sale room, covering the period between December 1864 and April 1885, included 404,464 West Indian and Brazilian birds of various descriptions, 356,389 East Indian birds, 6,828 Birds of Paradise, 4,974 Impeyan pheasants and 770 Argus pheasants. W. H. Hudson, a representative of the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB,) recoiled with horror as he witnessed the sale of 80,000 parrot and 1,700 Bird of Paradise skins late in 1897:

Spread out in Trafalgar Square they would have covered a large proportion of that space with a grass-green carpet, flecked with vivid purple, rose and scarlet”.[2]

At the height of “feather fashions” in the UK (around 1901-1910) 14, 362, 000 pounds of exotic feathers were imported into the United Kingdom at a total valuation of £19, 923, 000.[3] A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer (either a plumassier or a milliner) included 6,000 bird of paradise, 40,000 hummingbird and 360,000 various East Indian bird feathers. In 1902 an auction in London sold 1,608 30 ounce packages of heron (including the great heron and egret varieties) plumes. Each ounce of plume required the use of four herons, therefore each package used the plumes of 120 herons, for a grand total of 192, 960 herons killed.[4]

As time passed little seemed to change as this table compiled again by Hornaday in his 1913 publication Our Vanishing Wildlife underlines. The table details the number of feathers and skins being sold in the month of February at London’s busiest commercial sales rooms (Hale & Sons, Dalton & Young, Figgis & Co. and Lewis and Peat) in 1911


Sold by Hale & Sons

Sold by Dalton & Young



ounces Aigrettes




  “ Herons


Birds of Paradise


skins Paradise



Sold by Figgis & Co.

Sold by Lewis & Peat



ounces Aigrettes




  “ Paradise




skins Eagles




  “ Trogons




  “ Hummingbirds






Sold by Hale & Sons

Sold by Dalton & Young



ounces Aigrettes




  “ Herons




skins Paradise


Red Ibis


  “ Golden Pheasants









Sold by Figgis & Co.

Sold by Lewis & Peat



ounces Aigrettes




  “ Herons




skins Paradise


Falcons, Hawks


  “ Trogons






Sold by Hale & Sons

Sold by Dalton & Young



ounces Aigrettes




skins Heron




  “ Paradise




quills Condors





Sold by Figgis & Co.

Sold by Lewis & Peat



ounces Aigrettes




  “ Herons




skins Birds of Paradise



Table: reproduced from Hornaday (1913) Our Vanishing Wildlife. http://www.gutenberg.org

The egret, supplier of the so-called ‘osprey’ feathers, were widely fashionable and therefore hugely in demand in both Europe and in North America from the 1890s onwards. The London feather trade required six egrets to yield one “ounce” of aigrette plumes. This being the case, the 21,528 ounces sold over a nine moth period, as above table states, translates as 129,168 egrets killed for the London plume markets alone.

On the quantity of egret and heron plumes offered and sold in London during the twelve months ending in April, 1912, Hornaday offer the following table:

Offered Sold.
Venezuelan, long and medium 11,617 ounces 7,072 ounces
Venezuelan, mixed Heron 4,043   “ 2,539   “
Brazilian 3,335   “ 1,810   “
Chinese 641   “ 576   “
————– ————–
19,636 ounces 11,997 ounces
Birds of Paradise, plumes (2 plumes = 1 bird) 29,385 24,579

The overwhelming majority of egret plumes (at their finest during the breeding season) were obtained by shooting the birds as they nested, with the inevitable result that the young slowly starved to death.

NOWY EGRET, DEAD ON HER NEST Wounded in the Feeding-Grounds, and Came Home to Die. Photographed in a Florida Rookery Protected by the National Association of Audubon Societies. Photograph: Hornaday 1913.

By the turn of the century, this trade had nearly eliminated egrets in North America, and populations of numerous other bird species were also approaching extinction.  Accumulating evidence was suggesting that plumage hunters were threatening the very existence of the emu in Australia, while the rhea, slaughtered at the rate of 3-500,000 annually was rarely to be seen on the Argentinian campo. Similarly trade in Huia feathers (a bird once native to New Zealand) increased to such an extent that the bird was declared extinct by 1907. Only taxidermy specimens of this once prized species remain.

Another casualty of the “plume boom” was the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). Considered a serious agricultural pest it was slaughtered in huge numbers by wrathful farmers. This killing, combined with forest destruction throughout the bird’s range, and hunting for its bright feathers to be used in the millinery trade, caused the Carolina Parakeet to begin declining in the 1800s. The bird was rarely reported outside Florida after 1860, and was considered extinct by the 1920s.

Millinery prepared dyed black skin, possibly of the now extinct Carolina parakeet in UACTC. Photo © Merle Patchett/UACTC

Carolina Paroquet (Conuropsis carolinensis) specimen, from GM Gray’s collection, collected in Florida.

Close up of millinery prepared dyed black parakeet skin showing natural green colour – further evidence that this skin is that of the Carolina parakeet shot to extinction though the plume trade.                                              Photo © Merle Patchett/UACTC

Even with mounting pressure from conservation lobbies, the plume industry stood fast against claims of cruelty and offered the public false assurances. For instance industry officials claimed that the bulk of feather collection was limited to shed plumes, however in truth, those ‘dead plumes’ brought only one fifth of the price of the live unblemished ones. To counteract the charges of cruelty, claims were circulated that most feather trim was either artificial or produced on foreign farms that exported molted feathers. 

In reality throughout Australia, India and the Orinoco and Amazon Basins, the quantity of plumage gathered during the moult was minute and the majority of feathers arriving in London were virtually all from shot birds.

As long as the ‘harvesting’ of feathers was providing a lucrative income to plume hunters and feather merchants (the trade was worth some £2 million annually) they would continue their bloody slaughter:


Condor skins




Condor wing feathers, each


Impeyan Pheasant



Argus Pheasant



Tragopan Pheasant


Silver Pheasant


Golden Pheasant



Greater Bird of Paradise:
  Light Plumes: Medium to giants



Medium to long, worn



Slight def. and plucked



  Dark Plumes: Medium to good long



12-Wired Bird of Paradise



Rubra Bird of Paradise


Rifle Bird of Paradise



King Bird of Paradise


“Green” Bird of Paradise



East Indian Kingfisher



East Indian Parrots


Peacock Necks, gold and blue



Peacock Necks, blue and green


Scarlet Ibis



Toucan breasts



Red Tanagers


Orange Oriels


Indian Crows’ breasts


Indian Jays


Amethyst Hummingbirds


Hummingbird, various

3/16 of .01


Hummingbird, others

1/32 of .01


Egret (“Osprey”) skins



[Page 125]

Egret (“Osprey”) skins, long


Vulture feathers, per pound



Eagle, wing feathers, bundles of 100


Hawk, wing feathers, bundles of 100


Mandarin Ducks, per skin


Pheasant tail feathers, per pound


Crown Pigeon heads, Victoria



Crown Pigeon heads, Coronatus



Emu skins



Cassowary plumes, per ounce


Swan skins



Kingfisher skins



African Golden Cuckoo


Table: reproduced from Hornaday (1913) Our Vanishing Wildlife. http://www.gutenberg.org

Yet it was not just feathers from tropical and subtropical territories that were in demand. In an essay entitled ‘Feathered Women and Persecuted Birds’ (2000) R. J. Moore-Colyer outlines that plume hunters were also active within British shores:

“Birds were trapped for the cage trade and limed, shot, bludgeoned or poisoned by the thousands of underemployed rural poor who provided raw materials for the milliner. Few species were spared the unwelcome attentions of the plumage hunters. Seabirds were especially in demand, and populations of gulls and kittiwakes were decimated to sustain the fashion for birds’ wings in women’s hats. As London and provincial dealers offered one shilling each for the wings of ‘white gulls’ in the 1860s, excursion trains left London for locations as far apart as Flamborough Head and the Isle of Wight carrying beer-swilling plumage hunters and their rook rifles towards the killing grounds. Some hunters abandoned any notion of ‘sport’ and contrived to catch gulls and kittiwakes on their nests. Subsequently, as one observer put it, ‘cutting their wings off and flinging the victim into the sea, to struggle with feet and head until death came slowly to their relief’”.”

Such was the demand for feather in Victorian times, that pressure was placed upon both domestic birds (Herons, Egrets, Great Crested Grebes) as well as those from the British colonies. Towards the end of the Victorian era in Britain, several waterfowl birds were seriously threatened with extinction due to the demands of feather fashions. For example, the skin and soft underpelt and head frills of the great crested grebe’s feathers (Podiceps cristatus ) were particularly in demand by the millinery trade to decorate ladies’ fancy hats and ruffs.

“Hunting Cape”, modelled on specimen of great Crested Grebe, from a jewellery collection created for birds almost made extinct by the Plume Boom by environmental artist Kate Foster. THE BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE (2000) Photo © Kate Foster/ Hunterian Museum, Glasgow


The wholesale destruction of such native birds as great crested grebes and kittiwakes for their plumage, lead to such early legislation as the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the trigger which led to the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Birds (the SPB soon to be the RSPB) in 1889 was the continued wearing of ever more exotic plumes.

However early forms of legislation did nothing to halt the carnage and pillage for millinery purposes, of tropical and sub-tropical birds, to which the SPB was drawing attention regularly from the the 1890s onwards.

Founded in 1889 and chaired briefly by the naturalist and writer W. H. Hudson, the Society argued that the only feasible way to stop the slaughter of egrets, lyre birds, birds of Paradise and others was to destroy the plumage trade itself by persuading women to refuse to wear feathers.

Not surprisingly there was no shortage of men to line up and condemn female vanity. In a pamphlet titled “Feathered Women” the president of the SPB W. H. Hudson painted women as ‘bird-enemy’ and sought to persuade ladies to refrain from wearing feathered fashions by arguing they would never attract a mate:

“no man who has given any thought to the subject, who has any love of nature in his soul, can see a woman decorated with dead birds, or their wings, or nuptial plumes, without a feeling of repugnance for the wearer, however beautiful or charming she may be”.[5]

‘A Bird of Prey’, Punch, 14th of May 1892. Taken from Moore-Colyer (2000)

What Hudson’s campaigning failed to reflect was that in its earliest days RSPB membership consisted entirely of women who were moved by the emotional appeal of the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the Society reflect its female membership and their active involvement in campaigning against the plumage trade:

  1. That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection
  2. That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.

Sandwich-men Employed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that Patroled London Streets in July, 1911.


Campaigns against ‘murderous millinery’ by the RSPB and others culminated in the 1920 Plumage Bill that was put to the parliamentary vote.  On the 10th of July 1920 H. W. Massingham (1860-1924), writing under the nom de plume of ‘Wayfarer’, made the following comments concerning the failure of the 1920 Plumage Bill in the House of Commons:

What does one expect? They have to be shot in parenthood for child-bearing women to flaunt the symbols of it, and, as Mr Hudson says, one bird shot for its plumage means ten other deadly wounds and the starvation of the young. But what do women care? Look at Regent Street this morning![6]

Virginia Woolf in her reply essay ‘The Plumage Bill’ responds to Massingham’s sexist charge with the creation of the character “Lady So-and-So”. Woolf proceeds to paint a harsh portrait of the unthinking, self indulgent woman of fashion – the buyer of a ‘lemon coloured egret’ – presenting her in a way that seems astonishingly to corroborate Massingham’s view. But in another twist, she renders a far more devastating portrait of men: the hunters and merchants that turn killing into a commodity, and the male parliament that fails to pass the plumage Bill prohibiting the trade. Woolf prompts her audience to question the social code that unconsciously condemns women’s pleasures – the love of beauty and fashion – as sin whereas men’s pleasures – their lusts for hunting, women, money – are accepted even valorised:

“Can it be that it is a graver sin to be unjust to women than to torture birds?”

However, while Lady So-and-So is a creation of a patriarchal system of male production and wealth and a patriarchal aristocracy, she is also a reflection/product of patriarchal society as produced and consumed by women. Lady So-and-So’s existence as a consumer, and a flawlessly finished consumer icon at that, was at least partly the work of women producers of luxury goods or services. For example the ‘lemon coloured egret’ was almost certainly dyed by female hands; in 1889, in London and Paris over 8000 women were employed in the millinery trade and the majority of the 83,000 people employed in New York City in 1900 in the making and decorating of hats were women.

A class-bound Woolf may have been ignorant of this point, or, more likely, intentionally ignored it so she could highlight the male producers and profiteers controlling the trade. Whatever her reasons, the lasting point she makes in her essay is that, with cash in hand, Lady So-and-So had every right to buy the beautiful complementary accessory for her opera ensemble, an accessory deemed by the fashion press to be worthy of Lady So-and-So and the occasion, as Wolf so cuttingly observes:

“Lady So-and-So was looking lovely with a lemon coloured egret in her hair”. 

Sound familiar? 

Kate Middleton has apparently employed famed milliner Phillip Treacy to make fascinators for the wedding party.

The Plumage Act entered the Statute Book a year later in 1921. A bill “to prohibit the sale, hire, or exchange of the plumage and skins of certain wild birds”, The Plumage Act was celebrated as the factor that brought an end to the “Age of Extermination”. How much this change was due to the effects of the Acts’ hunting and trade regulations or that a growing inclination toward promoting humanitarian ideals reduced the allure of feathered garb is not not clear. What is clear is that dwindling feather sales had as much do, if not more, with changes in the everyday lives of women which simply eliminated opportunities to wear oversized, constraining hats.


During two walks along the streets of Manhattan in 1886, the American Museum of Natural History’s ornithologist, Frank Chapman, spotted 40 native species of birds including sparrows, warblers, and woodpeckers. But the birds were not flitting through the trees – they had been killed, and for the most part, plucked, disassembled, or stuffed, and painstakingly positioned on three-quarters of the 700 women’s hats Chapman saw in New York.The North American feather trade was in its heyday:

Frank Chapman’s 1886 Feathered Hat Census







Blue Jay


Green-backed Heron


Eastern Bluebird


Virginia Rail


American Robin


Greater Yellowlegs


Northern Shrike




Brown Thrasher


Laughing Gull


Bohemian Waxwing


Common Tern


Cedar Waxwing


Black Tern


Blackburnian Warbler


Ruffed Grouse


Blackpoll Warbler


Greater Prairie Chicken


Wilson’s Warbler


Northern Bobwhite


Tree Sparrow


California Quail


White-throated Sparrow


Mourning Dove


Snow Bunting


Northern Saw-whet Owl




Northern Flicker




Red-headed Woodpecker


Common Grackle


Pileated Woodpecker


Northern Oriole


Eastern Kingbird


Scarlet Tanager


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher


Pine Grosbeak


Tree Swallow


(Modified from Strom, 1986.)

While London was the centre for trade in exotic feathers, in North America the Heron family was favoured due to its indigenous abundance. By the turn of the 20th century, this trade had nearly eliminated egrets in the US. The Great Egret and especially the more plentiful, more widely distributed, more approachable, and more delicately plumed Snowy Egret, suffered great losses.

Egret ‘pom-pom’ dyed black in the UACTC. Photo: Merle Patchett

Areas like the Florida Everglades, a primary wetland habitat of egrets and herons, became a primary hunting ground of US plume hunters seeking to make their fortune by plundering the area largest egret rookeries. At these large rookery sites they could kill the greatest number of birds at one time and harvest the largest number of plumes. Hunters left behind the skinned carcasses of adults. They also left the living young to fend for themselves, and many young birds died of starvation.

Ornithologist T. Gilbert Pearson recounted tales of the bloody heron and egret slaughter in their breeding colonies in the Florida he had witnessed in an attempt to bring the practice to national attention:

“A few miles north of Waldo, our party cam upon a little swamp where we had been told Herons bred in numbers. Upon approaching the place the screams of young birds reached our ears. The cause of this soon became apparent by the buzzing of green flies and the heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding… Young Herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish from exposure and starvation.”[7]

YOUNG EGRETS, UNABLE TO FLY, STARVING The Parent Birds had Been Killed by Plume Hunters. Photograph: Hornaday 1913.

Plume trading had become a very lucrative business. In 1903,the price for plumes offered to hunters was $32 per ounce, which made the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold. As a result at the the turn of the century many millions of birds were being exterminated by plume hunters each year.

In an attempt to conserve certain wild bird populations, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation beginning in 1900, restricting the harvest and possession of egret bird skins and feathers and employed federal agents to confiscate banned egret skins when intercepted.

US federal agents with confiscated egret skins, 1930s. Photograph by H.B. Thrasher, © David Hall.

However, like in the UK, it was women, rather than the plume hunters, that were chastised in the press, as this short article entitled “Murderous Millinery” published in the New York Times on July 31 1898 demonstrates:

“A women in Paris or London may discover that the tail of a bird “set her off”. She walks forth, and lo! tails are the rage, and millions of birds have been slaughtered for the mere gratification of tender-hearted woman.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in whatever part of the world beautiful birds are found there will be found also the agents of the draper and milliner. The part they play is that of supplying the demand. Women wants.

The striking expression “murderous millinery” is current in speeches and writing on the subject. “Feathered-headed women”, as indeed they are in more ways than one, is a term which might be used more frequently than it is with much advantage . Surely they invite such public stigma by exhibiting themselves as they do in the relics of murdered innocence.”

In an attempt to stop the plume trade in the US, 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.


Reports of “murderous millinery” atrocities led to formation of the first Audubon societies. The Audubon Society offered public lectures on such topics as “Woman as a bird enemy” and erected Audubon-approved millinery displays. It also selected regulatory committees to audit the millinery sold in key areas. And by 1912, the National Audubon Society had seasonal wardens in place in Florida swamp areas to protect the then nesting colonies of wood storks, egrets, and other wading birds.

In certain of its districts the Society also offered bird and conservation classes to its members and gradually extended its instructional programs to the wider public.

The Normal School Bird Class, about 1900, Audubon Society of the District of Columbia. Photograph © Smithsonian Institution.

This came on the heels of the first wave of bird hat boycotts initiated by Audubon Society members. These boycotts were lead by Harriet Hemenway, a prominent Boston society woman, and her cousin Minna Hall. An 1896 description of the bloody mess hunters made of egret rookeries spurred them into action. At a series of afternoon teas Hemenway convinced 900 society women to boycott the wearing of feathered hats, encouraging the use of ribbons and other millinery decorations in place of feathers.

Soon, many American women wore “audubonnets”, the term given to the non-feathered hats that the Audubon Society ladies encouraged milliners to make as an alternative. Audubonnets did allow for the use of  ‘acceptable’ feathers, which included only those from domestic birds, such as cockerels, geese, or ducks.

A hat fashioned from pheasant feathers would have made an acceptable ‘audubonnet’, UACTC. Photo: Merle Patchett

Hemenway and Hall also convened a group of prominent men and women to create the Massachusetts Audubon Society. According to Price (2004) women made up the majority of Audubon Society members:

“On average, women accounted for about 80 percent of the membership and half the leadership, and almost all the “local secretaries,” who organized members in each town”.

Thus much like in the UK , women were often the most active society members and conservation activists. Women Audubon members, following Hemenway and Hall’s example, hit the pavement, garnered support and members, organized fundraisers, etc while their male counterparts toured and gave lectures on the importance of conservation.

Thanks to their campaigning the wearing of hats with dead bird parts became understood as a fashion faux pas, at least in upper class circles. Lower and middle class women, however, delighted at the new found affordability of these icons of fashion. These women were quickly targeted and chastised for wearing the hats by Audubon members. However what the ‘audubonnets’ failed to recognize was that these women couldn’t afford memberships to upper class societies, and often had more pressing issues to worry about than the origin of the feathers on their hats.

Yet, as absurd as it may sound, it was really a fashionable new hairstyle that ultimately saved the birds. In 1913, the bob and other short hairstyles were introduced—cuts which would not support large extravagant hats. Plain slouch hats and ‘cloches’ became very popular, and it was for this reason that most plume-hunters were forced to abandon their trade. Thus ended the “Age of Extermination” and the possession and displaying feathers became, once again, an avian trait.

Text by Dr Merle Patchett

Creative Commons License
Muderous Millinery by Dr Merle Patchett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

[1] Hornaday, W. T (1913) Our Vanishing Wildlife: Its Extermination and Preservation. e-book available http://www.gutenburg.net.

[2] Moore-Colyer, R. J. (2000) ‘Feathered Women and Persecuted Birds; The Struggle Against the Plumage Trade c. 1860-1922’, Rural History, 11/1, pp. 57-73.

[3] Figures from Doughty, R. W. (1975) Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: a Study in Nature Protection. University of California Press.

[4] Figures from Doughty, R. W. (1975) Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: a Study in Nature Protection. University of California Press.

[5] Moore-Colyer, R. J. (2000) ‘Feathered Women and Persecuted Birds; The Struggle Against the Plumage Trade c. 1860-1922’, Rural History, 11/1, pp. 57-73.

[6] Abbott, R. (1995) ‘Birds Don’t Sing in Greek: Virginia Woolf and “The Plumage Bill”‘, in C. J. Adams and J. Donovan’s (eds) Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations.  Duke University Press.

[7] Extract from a paper read at the World’s Congress on Ornithology, Chicago, 1897. Quoted in Doughty, R. W. (1975) Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: a Study in Nature Protection. University of California Press.

7 Responses to “3. Murderous Millinery”
  1. nature works says:

    you have put together a phenomenal blog/site . . well done – are you going to put it all together in a book one day? I came across your blog while putting together my own blog as I have just written a short article on the Racquet-tailed Drongo . . and – as an aside – believe that the tail feathers of this species adorned one of the hats worn by Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ . . you can visit my blog and the drongo article here: http://duncanbutchart.wordpress.com/ . . . duncan butchart, nelspruit, south africa

  2. If each living being that appears in our life is a symbol, a message, to guide us on our Path while living on Earth, what is the message with wearing a dead bird? The skins of the hummingbirds shown in your photo a reminder that the joy associated with the appearance of a hummingbird seen in nature can so easily be obtained by us all when we “Walk Gently on Mother Earth’s Back”.

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  1. […] on ‘feather farms’, to the crafting of feathers by plumassiers and in plume sweatshops. Muderous Millinery – this space seeks to outline the extent of the business of killing birds for the millinery […]

  2. […] the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the U.K. For more on this topic, visit this extraordinary site: http://fashioningfeathers.com/murderous-millinery/ Are these drongo tail racquets on the hat worn by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in […]

  3. […] “plume boom” wasn’t just a fashion craze in America.  An exhibit in the Fashioning Feathers installation at the Royal Alberta Museum states […]

  4. […] of the exploding middle class at the end of the nineteenth century (Figgis and Co. shift 1,580 Condors’ worth of hat in 1911 alone). In the same period the sight, sound and smells of the cars of wealthy motorists led to this […]

  5. […] fashion industry in the 1900s; I don’t remember that specific article but I found another one here. I found it interesting how women were portrayed both as conservationists and as […]

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