E11 THE PLUME AND FEATHER TRADE
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Fads for plumage date back to the fifteen and sixteenth century when dorsal plumes of herons were worn in upstanding sprays, and noblemen sported peacock feathers and the elegant wing feathers of ostriches, especially at jousts and tournaments. Bird plumage was prized as a symbol of rank and authority.
Marie Antoinette, nicknamed “featherhead,” is credited with starting the fashion for wearing plumed hats in the 1770s.
Fashion trends and feather wearing was a tradition in western Europe but became more wide-spread after the Civil War, when capes, collars, bonnets, and hats decorated with bird feathers were in style among women living in cosmopolitan centers of Europe and America. In a letter dated in 1865, just after the Civil War, ornithologist John Gould wrote when he was trying to obtain birds for taxidermy that “The Ladies have so stripped us of birds for their bonnets that but few are now in the market, and these of course are high priced.”
The January 18, 1868, issue of Harper’s Bazaar in the “New York Fashion” section stated: “A few of the feather and fur bonnets, now so fashionable in Europe, have just been imported. The feathers used are those of the grebe and pheasant.”
The trend spread quickly, aided by the proliferation of fashion and home magazines, speedier transportation, and the emergence of the middle class. The birds most in demand were egrets, herons, white ibis, cranes, roseate spoonbills and flamingos. If a stranger to modern ways of doing things had strolled through our northern cities during the late 1870s and 1880s, he might well have asked, “Did not the birds go south last year?”
Demands of the feather millinery trade of London, Paris and Berlin were felt in the most remote and inaccessible corners of the world. It was the demands of fashion for plumes and feathers for hat trimmings which placed before the hunters the temptation to kill. The birds which they were after gathered in large rookeries during the nesting season and were therefore much easier to capture then than at other times. Most of the plume-bearing birds were hunted and killed for the plumes alone, or, at most, for a very small part of the whole plumage. The part wanted was taken, while the bird’s body was tossed aside and never used for anything.
At first, “plumers” used a shotgun, but this drove the birds away. Then a small caliber rifle, or a wholly noiseless air gun replaced it. The rifle made no more noise than the snapping of a twig, and would therefore not frighten the birds. By remaining concealed, the hunter had the potential of killing every bird that was within range.
It required six egrets to yield one ounce of egret plumes and egrets bore their best plumes in the breeding season, when the helpless young were in the nest and the parent birds had to be killed to obtain the plumes, which is an ornamental tuft of upright feathers that extended from the head and reached to or just beyond the end of the tail.
Plumage birds in the U.S. only had marketable plumes during the mating and nesting season, about five to six months, the height of the nesting season being April, May, and June. That was when ornamental feathers were profitable goods only then were they rich in brilliancy, while, at all other times, the feathers lacked luster, smoothness, and elasticity.
After the period when they had finished caring for their young, it was found that the plumes were virtually of no commercial value, because of the worn and frayed condition to which they had been reduced.
The fashion trend had by the 1880s reached super-stimulus proportions. The plume and feather hunters who engaged in this business knew that to obtain a good supply with little trouble the birds had to be taken during those five to six months. During the greater part of the year, the egret lived singly, in pairs, and in small flocks, but when nesting they formed communities, like rooks, gulls, and herons. It was only in the nesting season that the plumes were grown.
Egret’s nest were formed on low trees or bushes, or on reeds growing in the water, and the nests, sometimes to the number of three or four hundred, were placed close together. The feather hunters considered it a rare piece of good fortune when they discovered one of these breeding places, when the birds that at other seasons live scattered over a wide expanse of country were found massed together.
The best time to take them was when the young birds were fully fledged, but not yet able to fly. For at that time, the attentiveness of the parent birds was greatest, and, forgetful of their own danger, they were most readily killed. When approached, they took wing and hovered in a cloud over the hunter’s head, their boldness, broad wings, and slow flight made it easy to shoot them down. And when the killing was finished, and the plume and few handfuls of coveted feathers had been plucked out, the slaughtered birds were left in a white heap to fester in the sun and wind in sight of their orphaned young, that cried out and soon died from starvation, with the stench of the area becoming unbearable.
As the birds were wiped out in one Gulf coastal area, the professional plume hunters traveled to another plumage site along the Gulf Coast and then, for some, on to Mexico and Central and South America.
Now, I will take up a professional plumer from the West. His name was David Bennett, who was from Pomona, California. He was typical of most plumers who traveled to Mexico and Central and South America for plumes.
It was said that he was the most experienced and famous hunter in the world for wild egrets and herons, who lived in his orange grove in the San Gabriel Valley. He first hunted egrets off the coast of Mexico and Central America beginning in May. Once every year, he traveled to New Orleans with his great egret and heron feathers and other bird feathers to meet by appointment with Parisian millinery buyers, while n average sale of feathers on his semi-annual trips to San Francisco amounted to $2500 to $3000. This extraordinary amount is attested by Bennett’s bank stock and valuable real estate in Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley.
Bennett said, “I have been shooting egrets and herons exclusively since 1874. Along in the summer of 1873, I was prospecting for silver mines off the coast of Yucatan. I shot a dozen or so herons that were wading about a marsh or lagoon, and the long white plumes were so delicate and filmy-like that I took them to my sisters in New Orleans a few months later. Our next-door neighbor was a wholesale milliner, and he said he would buy such stuff for $5 for each plume and take all I could get. I could have easily got and brought home over 500 such heron plumes, and. of course, I resolved to go back to Central America the very next year to hunt egret feathers. That is how I came to get into this business.
“The first two years I was hunting down in Yucatan and Honduras I cleared, over and above expenses and my living, the sum of $6000, but that was when there was no one who competed with me in egret hunting, except a lot of native Central America, and there were thousands of egrets more in those days than now. On some days, I used to get as many as twenty herons or egrets, and I have never found any occupation so profitable as getting thirty or more egrets a week at about $4 for each of their plumes and feathers.
“Where do I hunt now in 1896? Off the west coast of Mexico, near Tepee and Sinaloa. I hunted for fifteen years in every part of Central America, and I had the natives work for me at times, so we made the birds mighty scarce down there before we got through. I began hunting down in the Gulf of California and later in the bays and lagoons on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico in 1888 and I believe there’s enough birds in that region to keep me busy as long as I care to stay with the egret hunting business. But everywhere in the regions I have been in and have ever heard about, a rapidly growing scarcity of egrets is evident.
“I am sure that in a dozen years or more, if the fashion for feathers in women’s millinery prevails as now, there will be very few egrets left on the west coast of the whole western continent. I have talked with men who used to hunt egrets and herons in the marsh lands and bays of Peru, the United States of Colombia, and Ecuador for the Paris and other European markets, and they tell me that the birds have been so thoroughly wiped out down that way that it is a loss of time and money to try to get a living by hunting egrets or heron.
“Egret feathers are now sold entirely by weight. When I went into getting the feathers as a business, I sold them at so much a plume, and so much for smaller or discolored feathers. The Parisian milliners, who rule the ornamental feather market of the world and who create and uncreate all the fashions, thus create demands in our line of business, and they began to buy egret and heron feathers by the ounce, and that practice was quickly followed by New York and Philadelphia ornamental feather dealers.
“Under the McKinley tariff law, there is a duty of 10 per cent ad valorem on all my egret feathers sent to New York, but now in 1898 they are admitted free of duty, and we hunters get the 10 per cent difference. The price for my feathers depends upon the condition of the stock and the manner and place in which I market it. I have to take several things into consideration in selling a season’s shooting of some $3000 or $4000 worth of egret feathers.
“If I go to the City of Mexico and wait for a buyer from Paris, I may get $24 an ounce for plumes and $9 an ounce for egret feathers. If I send the stock to New York or San Francisco I get $28 an ounce for my plumes, if I am dealt with fairly, and from $9 to $11 for the common feathers.”
I might add here that he had some tough experiences with some of the wholesale feather dealers of New York, and, in 1884, he lost a whole season’s harvest of feathers and plumes, amounting to $4500, because of a dishonest buyer in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, he learned to know who to trust, plus he had made a reputation for his merchandise, and he seldom got cheated again.
Soiled egret feathers and plumes were dyed and then used on millinery goods. The least discoloration of the milky whiteness of an egret plume brought its value down from 30 to 50 per cent during his time in the business. When a feather buyer looked over fine feathers, he used a large magnifying glass and scrutinized each plume with all the nicety of a bird examining a flower. A background of white was always used with each plume, so as to make the faintest discoloration more perceptible. That was the time that the hunter or seller had to put forth his best effort of fine work, for a shrewd buyer would find some defect in color, shape, or filminess in the whole of a man’s stock and knock the price down $1000 or more unless the seller raised a fuss at such proceedings and acted decisively.
A good season’s harvest for one who was in the egret feather business on the scale he was was about fifty-five ounces of plumes and one hundred and thirty ounces of small feathers. The best season he ever had was in 1882, when he had four good shooters at work for him among the lagoons of Nicaragua. He got about $6000 that year clear, after seven months’ work. HE sold the whole feather crop to a buyer from Brussels, Belgium, that year, and he paid him $30 an ounce for his finest plumes.”
Now, continuing on with Bennett telling the story, “Only a very few feathers are available on the egret. On the heron, there are three times as many but heron feathers are worth less than half as much as egret feathers. The experienced feather buyers know the difference in the feathers at a glance, and many feet away, too. It is useless to mix heron and egret feathers together and try to palm them off on a buyer who knows his business. A full-grown egret will yield about one-fourth of an ounce of feathers and one-sixth of an ounce of plumes. None of the other feathers are touched and it takes much experience for a hunter to know just what will be marketable. All the available egret plumes are on the bird’s back, but the heron has marketable feathers on both back and breast.
“We generally reckon that an egret that is without damage to the feathers is worth about $3.20 and each heron $1.80. Although the wholesale feather buyers are wonderfully sharp and exacting with the hunters as to the different prices for egret and heron feathers, there is almost universal deception of the consumers and the general public on these points. I have been in first class millinery stores in San Francisco, New York and other cities and have seen heron feathers and plumes sold by apparently the best saleswomen for genuine egrets. I have been on Fifth and Madison avenues in New York, and on the promenade streets in San Francisco many a time to observe, and it is seldom that I have seen first-class egret plumes worn. I know, too, that many of the rich and fashionable women whom I saw thought they were wearing the best egrets.
“How do we hunt egrets and herons? Well, we have to live on the outskirts of civilization when we go after these birds. For days and nights at a time, we make our homes in little rowboats, built canoe-shaped for fast traveling, and we live among the marshes and reeds of the lagoons and bays under a fierce semi-tropic sky. It is the hardest sort of life, and no one, however robust, could keep at it for more than a few months at a time.
“The haze of the water and the poisonous atmosphere all about us at night soon fills one’s blood with rheumatism and fevers. We hunters take our potion of quinine and whisky at regular intervals several times a day. We have canned foods and metal boxes for our feathers and our ammunition in the boats with us. We use the very best shotguns and No. 5 shot, which does effective work without mangling the birds. An egret hunter must be the foxiest kind of a hunter.
“Talk about the deception and skill of duck and squirrel hunting! Why, both are boys’ play, when compared to shooting egrets or herons for a living. These birds are the most cautious and wary of any I have ever known or heard of. I have known herons to desert a whole nest of young, because they saw an old hat lying near the reeds where the nest had been made and their suspicions were thereby aroused.
“Egrets seem to almost smell the presence of a man with a gun. I know of no decoy that could be used with egrets or herons, but even if it could once be used, that would be the last of that trick in that locality, for by some sort of intuition all the bird families and cousins for miles around would be warned of the delusion.
“When we go out for a fortnight’s or a month’s shoot, we never leave our boats even for an hour. We get our birds either at evening or and if not then at dawn, for at the report of a gun every heron or egret in the region flies away and will not come back to that particular spot for four or five days. Even then, they return with wonderful caution. So, we move from one part of a bay or lagoon to another at midday when the birds are off feeding at the shoals.
“We get our craft in position and man the boat before 4 p.m. and conceal ourselves and our boats among the reeds and foliage. Along about 5 or 6 o’clock, the birds come back to their nesting grounds and nests near our camping grounds. Then we watch our opportunity to shoot, and from long experience, I have learned when it comes. At the perfect moment, I will shoot and in a faction of a second a shot, my hired shooters will shoot also. Generally, I can get three or four successful shots off at frightened birds before they are out of range, for they are so easily frightened that they are powerless of flight for a moment and make good targets.
“Sometimes, we get as many as nineteen birds at one evening’s shooting, but more often the number is seven or eight. Years ago, when egrets and herons were very plentiful in Central America, I have killed nine birds in as many shots before they got out of my reach. When we have delivered our volleys, and the unharmed birds have flown away, we gather the harvest.
“Extreme care must be exercised to get the feathers and plumes as free as possible from discolored water or the stain of weeds. Every week, we have to throw away the carcass of an egret or heron because the feathers and plumes are blood-stained or twisted out of shape.
“After we have got our birds and have picked the few feathers we want from each, we plan another onslaught in another locality. If we are lucky, we may soon get located four or five miles away amid reeds and foliage under cover of darkness, so as to be ready for more shooting the next morning. We row about with caution, we seldom speak in loud tones, and we do not even smoke while we are hunting, because of the extraordinary wariness of the birds. Many times, I have lain in one position for hours beneath my little roof of tules or rushes, because I saw that a flock of egrets was suspicious of the presence of an enemy.
“The shores of the lagoons of Central America and the southern part of Mexico abound in alligators, while all manner of pestiferous stinging flies, gnats, and mosquitoes are in the air. We have suffered torture from insect pests, and one of my hunting men died in agony from the poison of gnats several years ago. When we are on shore, we have danger at night from the puma or mountain lion, and we always sleep with fires burning on all sides of our camp. On some return trips to the U.S., I bring with me puma skins, for sale to fur-makers.
“The egrets and the herons are of the crane family of birds. The egrets are small, much like the bitterns and of the same family. They measure four feet from bill to tip of the tail. Their expanse of wings is often seven feet, and they stand about forty inches high. Their weight is from three to four pounds. The hunting season for both egrets and herons begin in February and closes in September. After August, the feathers of herons and egrets become coarse and hard and are in no demand. Herons are slow of flight, and like the cranes that are known all over the world, they have a very graceful, dignified way of drawing their legs up under them and sailing away to lofty eminences by an occasional flap of their wings. The egrets are very fussy and nervous creatures. They are as watchful as weasels, although one who sees them for the first time would think they were dumb and stupid, like ostriches. Both herons and egrets feed on small fish, frogs, and insects that they find close inshore, where the birds may wade about in the marsh and pick up their victims at will. The egret’s feathers are much more beautiful and delicate than the heron’s. All egret plumes come from the back, and they droop gracefully over the tail of the bird.
“The heron prefers to make a nest in the top of some tree along the edge of a bay or a lagoon, or particularly on the upper most part of a rock or promontory on an inland bay. Egrets make nests among driftwood or in a dry spot among rushes, accumulated seaweed, or brush in a lagoon as far from shore as possible. Both varieties of birds make nests of sticks and large twigs, and both have been known to keep their nests for several years at a time, although I myself have never been able to observe that point because my stay in a colony of the crane family means war and death. In short order, egrets usually lay six eggs and herons four. The eggs of both are of a sea green hue. A heron does not have its best feathers until it is ten months old, and the plumes of an egret are not worth $32 an ounce until the bird is over a year old.”
Tens of millions of birds were taken at the height of the feather-trade years, between 1870 and 1920. In 1887, ornithologist William Earle Dodge Scott, who as curator of the museum of biology at Princeton, made bird-collecting trips to Florida. He recorded the scene of one slaughter, “The trees were full of nests, some of which still contained eggs, and hundreds of broken eggs strewed the ground everywhere. I found a huge pile of dead, half decayed birds lying on the ground which had apparently been killed for a day or two. All of them had the plumes taken with a patch of the skin from the back, and some had the wings cut off; otherwise they were uninjured. I counted over two hundred birds treated in this way.”
In Florida, the Seminole Indians were the main provider of plumes to white traders who made a fortune off of their trade with the Indians, and, in return, the Seminoles did very well also. This was before 1890, for after that, the white plumers became prominent.
The two groups most damaged by fashion hunting were the egrets and herons. One auction record alone lists more than one million heron or egret skins sold in London between 1897 and 1911. In the U.S., the big plume and feather trade occurred in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oregon, and California.
The Lacey Act was passed in 1900, the Weeks-McLean Act followed in 1913, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916 between the U. S. and Great Britain. These three acts eventually stopped the trade in bird plumes, thus putting an end to the indiscriminate slaughter of these beautiful birds for plumage. By the late 1920s, it was essentially over. Subsequently, egrets and other birds made a dramatic recovery and expanded their range.