If you want to get ahead and get noticed, get a hat
The gold rushes of the nineteenth century are familiar to us all, but have you ever heard of a plume rush? The craze of avian hats begun in 1870 became so widespread that by the middle of the 1880s, five million birds a year were killed by the millinery industry to keep up with the demand.
Egrets and herons provided the most popular feathers, especially the “bridal feathers” grown during mating season. But even tree sparrows and woodpeckers weren’t safe from plume hunters.
Things became so bad that when ornithologist, Frank Chapman, walked down the streets of Manhattan in 1886, he documented forty species of birds—not in the trees or sky—but perched upon women’s heads.
Milliner: A designer who creates geometrical shapes unknown to mathmaticians.
than five hundred dollars in today’s currency). This increased to $32 an ounce during the start of the twentieth century, which made them worth twice their weight in gold. “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
The feather trade wasn’t confined to the east. Much of it occurred in the American west and Oregon, California and Texas were prime hunting grounds.
Her hat is a creation that will never go out of style; it will just look ridiculous year after year. – Fred Allen
Women were called a “bird’s worst enemy” but in time they became advocates. Alarmed by the decimation of birds Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway held a series of teas to discuss the problem. She then organized a boycott of feathers and helped form the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the oldest in the nation.
Eventually, the society was able to get the feather trade outlawed in Massachusetts and the first wild life protection movement spread across the country. Hats still remained high and wide, but they were trimmed with ribbons, lace and flowers instead of feathers.
Why did women go overboard with hats?
According to a recent news release, hats make women feel more powerful. Historians credit the World War for making large, outrageous hats go out of favor. But one can’t help but wonder if the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote might have lessened the need to show power through headgear.