“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” On View April 6 – July 15, 2018
Unidentified maker. Accessory set, including muff and tippet, 1880–99, United States Herring Gulls, feathers, silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009.300.2050a-c. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds. Gulls are and were great scavengers, and continue to be instrumental in cleaning our shorelines. The 19th-century fashion for their feathers and bodies, however, nearly drove them into extinction.
The New-York Historical Society presents a special exhibition that melds fashion, activism, and the history of the groundbreaking Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, on view April 6–July 15, 2018, examines the circumstances that inspired early environmental activists—many of them women and New Yorkers—to champion the protection of endangered birds. The exhibition showcases bird- and plumage-embellished clothing and accessories. It also features original watercolors by John James Audubon of birds endangered before the passage of the statute, models for The Birds of America, from the Museum’s renowned collection. The exhibition is part of the Year of the Bird, a centennial celebration of the Act organized by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International. Recordings of bird songs from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—together with objects on loan from other institutions, books, ephemera, and photographs—animate the narrative.
John James Audubon (1785–1851), Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus), Study for Havell pl. 411, 1838. Watercolor, graphite, oil, black ink, black chalk, and white gouache? with touches of pastel and glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.411 Swans’ down, the soft, fine, under-feathers, of swans were used for trimming clothes—as in the evening dress on display—and for cosmetic powder puffs. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than 100 remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.
Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was one of the first federal laws to address the environment, prohibiting the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds. It also regulated the nation’s commercial plume trade, which had decimated many American bird species to the point of near extinction.
“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife commemorate the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by delving into history and examining the economic and social circumstances that inspired the early environmentalists and activists who lobbied for this consequential legislation,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president, and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As New York was the center of the nation’s feather trade, the exhibition also investigates how the act impacted the city’s feather importers, hat manufacturers, retailers, and fashion consumers—as well as how New York women played an important role in pushing for the legislation.”
John James Audubon (1785–1851) with Maria Martin (1796–1863), Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), Study for Havell pl. 379, 1836–37. Watercolor, graphite, black ink, and gouache with touches of pastel and selective glazing on paper laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.379. Audubon painted three species of North American hummingbirds. He never saw the western Rufous Hummingbird alive, but painted it from specimens sent to him by the naturalist Thomas Nuttall. While naturalists always admired the hummingbirds they studied, the larger public’s appreciation of these sensationally beautiful creatures resulted from exposure in public arenas. Many pieces of hummingbird jewelry, like the Red-legged Honeycreeper earrings seen in the exhibition, were produced in England by Harry Emanuel, who in 1865 patented a process for insetting the heads in silver and gold mounts.
John James Audubon (1785–1851), Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), Study for Havell pl. 321, ca. 1831–32; 1836. Watercolor, graphite, gouache, and black ink with touches of glazing on paper laid on Japanese paper. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.321. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking, wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. Plume hunters invaded colonies to slaughter the birds for fans sold in the tourist trade. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.
The first gallery of the exhibition, “A Fancy for Feathers,” presents examples of the late 19th- and early 20th-century fashion including feathered hats, boas, fans, aigrettes, jewelry, and clothing. Highlights include a gold and diamond aigrette hair ornament (1894) featuring the wispy feathers of a Snowy or Great Egret, which were scornfully called the “white badge of cruelty” by activists; a muff and tippet accessory set (1880–99) composed of four adult Herring Gulls created during a craze for gulls that nearly drove the sea birds to extinction; a folding brisé fan of swirling white feathers (1910–29); and a pair of earrings inset with hummingbird heads (ca. 1865). Painted miniatures on view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries portray women adorned with bird plumes, such as one professed bird lover, wearing a hat decorated with dyed ostrich feathers while holding an American robin and surrounded by caged birds. Feathers also adorned men’s regalia and hats.
Unidentified maker. Red-Legged Honeycreeper hummingbird earrings, ca. 1865 Probably London, England Preserved bird, gold, metal. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Z. Solomon and Janet A. Sloane Endowment Fund, 2013, 2013.143a, b. Animal parts and insects decorated late 19thcentury jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins, and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans.
George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938) From Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Diary of the Washburn Expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole Rivers in the year 1870, n.p. St. Paul, MN: Yellowstone National Park, 1905 New-York Historical Society Library. Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. He lived as a youth in Audubon Park in upper Manhattan, previously the estate of the legendary naturalist-artist John James Audubon. There Grinnell was tutored by Lucy Bakewell Audubon, who encouraged his lifelong passion for wildlife and the natural world. After a later expedition to Yellowstone, his report included what may be the first official statement in opposition to the excessive killing of big game. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”
Florence Merriam Bailey (1863–1948) From The Condor: A Magazine of Western Ornithology, volume 6, number 5 (1904), page 137 Courtesy American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, Bailey studied and wrote about bird species in numerous books and articles for The Auk, The Condor, and Bird-Lore. Many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides.
The second gallery, “Activists Take Flight,” introduces several of the activists who pushed for protective legislation. As the center of the nation’s feather and millinery trades, New York played an important role in influencing the Act. New York City activists included George Bird Grinnell, a prominent conservation polymath and protégé of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, who was inspired by her husband to found the first Audubon Society in New York in 1886; Mabel Osgood Wright, an influential author and founder of the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Connecticut; Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithologist whose bird books became important field guides; and Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, who campaigned passionately against wearing feathers while in residence with the Metropolitan Opera.
R. H. White & Co. (1853−1957). Evening dress with swans’ down accents, 1885 Boston, Massachusetts. Silk satin, swans’ down, feathers. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.1803a, b. This ice-blue satin evening dress, with an elegant back bustle and lavish paisley velvet underskirt, is adorned with the diaphanous under-feathers, or down, of a swan. Intended for formal winter events, the regal, body-hugging dress is ornamented with down accents at the neck and along the train. Swans were an attribute of the Roman Goddess Venus. A dress decorated with swans’ down connoted wealth, status, and mysterious sensuality.
John James Audubon (1785–1851) with George Lehman (ca. 1800–1870). Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), Study for Havell pl. 291, 1831. Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black chalk, and black ink with touches of gouache, white lead pigment, and glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.291. The gull accessory ensemble on view in the exhibition contains four Herring Gulls harvested near their breeding season. The Herring Gull is among the most familiar member of its family, especially in the northeast, although numbers declined sharply during the 19th century when it was hunted for its eggs and feathers. With protection, the population has increased greatly, and its breeding range has extended toward the South.
John James Audubon (1785–1851), Great Egret (Ardea alba), 1821 Watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, white lead pigment, black ink, and black chalk with selective glazing on paper, laid on card. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.30. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early 20th century. In 1902 alone, about a ton and a half of Great Egret plumes were sold in London, a quantity that must have required the slaughter of around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs). With conservation laws, the species has rebounded
The exhibition concludes with 14 watercolors by Audubon of life-size avian species saved by these conservation efforts, drawn from New-York Historical’s unparalleled collection, the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world, which includes the 435 watercolor models created by the artist-naturalist for the world-renowned, double-elephant-folio edition of The Birds of America (1827–38) engraved by Robert Havell Jr. Highlights on view include the Roseate Spoonbill, whose pink wings and feathers were used in fans sold in the Florida tourist trade, and the Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters that became the symbol of the Audubon Society.
Folding brisé fan of swirling down feathers, ca. 1910. Mother-of-pearl, feathers. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Robert Blake, 1986, 86.101.16. Women who favored feathered hand fans during the 19th century considered them as essential as the “right” shoes or gloves for evening wardrobes. Feathered fans, for example, were recommended when attending the opera or theater. Plumes were generally affixed to mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, or ivory sticks, guards, and mounts.
Mme. Fauchère, New York (dates unknown) Trade card, Mme Fauchère, Manufacturer of Ostrich & Fancy Feathers, ca. 1894. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection. Numerous feather traders, importers, and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa, and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas, and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers.
This year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International have joined forces with more than 100 other organizations and millions of people around the world to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” This effort aims to heighten public awareness of birds as creatures of beauty—and because they symbolize nature’s interconnectedness and the importance of caring for our shared planet.
Jos. W. Stern & Co., New York (1894–1919). Arthur J. Lamb (18701928) and Alfred Solman (1868– 1937) Sheet music, The Bird on Nellie’s Hat, 1906. Lithograph on paper New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection. The vogue for wearing birds, wings, or feathers— demonstrated here on the cover of sheet music from 1906—decimated many bird species and threatened them with extinction. This dire situation galvanized environmental activists, who ardently campaigned for ground-breaking federal controls.
To get started, visitors to BirdYourWorld.org can discover simple but meaningful steps that anyone can take to help birds each month by joining a pledge to participate. Through 12 months of storytelling, science research, and conservation efforts, Year of the Bird examines how our changing environment is driving dramatic losses among bird species around the globe and highlights what we can do to help bring birds back. Visit nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird to learn more, and follow #YearoftheBird and #BirdYourWorld on social media.
Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife is organized by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings, and Dr. Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts.
New-York Historical is grateful for the partnership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NYC Audubon. Generous support for the exhibition is provided by The William T. Morris Foundation. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is a media sponsor.
On Monday, April 16, visitors can explore the exhibition on a curator-led tour. For nature lovers, several walking tours in Central Park bring Audubon’s paintings to life: On Saturday, May 5, wildlife artist and illustrator Alan Messer leads a journey into the Ramble to discover both resident and migrating birds—like colorful warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers, and thrushes; and on June 2, a visit with Leslie Day to Central Park explores its diverse ecosystems and the relationships between its plants and animals. For young visitors, the popular family program Meet the Fledglings returns on May 12 as the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) visits the Museum to teach children all about birds and their habitats and allow participants to feed a baby bird in the WBF’s care.