Plume Hunters and the Everglades


This looks a little top-heavy. (Imagno/Getty Images)

You probably don't see many enormous plumed hats on the street anymore, but you will see them in Paris fashion shows (John Galliano used them liberally for spring 2010), or glued onto glitzy dresses meant to impress Bob Mackie on a reality show.

But if it were the turn of the 20th century, chances are, you'd see them everywhere. One ornithologist in New York counted 542 plumed hats representing 40 species of birds in a single afternoon. Candace sent me a clip of the Ken Burn's National Parks documentary detailing the feather craze, its violent history and the surprising connection between fashion and the Everglades' National Park status -- all something I also wrote about a few years ago in an article on the Audubon Society.

According to the video, feathers -- usually the plumes produced by Florida's egrets when they're rearing their young -- were so popular in 1900, they were more valuable per ounce than gold. Plume hunters killed 5 million a year, decimating Florida's shore bird population.

The birds, however, had some unusual defenders. One was Harriet Hemenway, a Boston socialite who, along with a cousin, pulled out a list of the city's elite and marked the names of the most fashionable plume wearers. She then invited them to join a society for the protection of birds -- it was this second incarnation of the Audubon society that eventually grew to become the national organization we know today.

Another defender was the conservative Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa who proved remarkably progressive on issues of conservation and wildlife protection. He lobbied for the Lacey Bird and Game Act of 1900, a bill that "made it a federal crime to transport birds killed in violation of any state law," according to PBS.

The new law only increased the ire of some hunters, though: Two Audubon wardens were shot in cold blood while protecting birds in the Everglades. The murders helped draw attention to the bloody side of fashion, and also set the course for the Everglades' eventual distinction as a National Park.

The streets were tufted with feathers in 1909. (FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

More: How the Audubon Society Works Ken Burns Cooks Up a New Documentary on the National Parks Ken Burns Does His Own September Glossy