“Feather Wars: Surviving Fashion 1870-1920”is a new temporary exhibition scheduled to open in the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in downtown West Palm Beach November 20, 2010. “Feather Wars” examines the extraordinary period of South Florida history in which a worldwide trend in women’s hats created a rush to riches for ordinary people, and near devastation for a population of splendid birds who inhabited the tropical wilderness.
Plume hunting was an activity almost anyone could do if they owned a gun. The beautiful down plumage of a Snowy Egret hen nursing her chicks was highly prized and brought the same price-per-ounce as gold. Without alternative means of commerce of almost any kind, plume hunting became a lucrative activity for men, women, and children in both pioneer and Seminole communities, providing cash for everyday necessities.
As the fashion industry expanded its use of feathers, the scale of this cottage industry became monstrous, and spread globally. The impact in Palm Beach County on individuals, families, and the natural environment was not reversible. For approximately fifty years, the birds were pursued to near extinction, and the phenomenon inspired some of the earliest and most critical legislation in the area of environmental protection.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (1858-1919), set aside over 234 million acres of the country as national forests, national parks, and wildlife refuges. Most of the “Feather War” battles were conducted at the legislative level of government. Conservationists pushed legislatures to enact laws that would protect birds and thus end the feather trade. In 1911 New York passed the Audubon Plumage Bill which banned the sale of native bird plumes and closed domestic trade of feathers, in 1913 the Underwood Tariff Bill banned the import of wild bird plumes from other countries into the United States, and in 1916 the Migratory Bird Act ensured the protection of migratory birds through an agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
Visitors to the exhibition will be immersed in the plume-hunting chapter of Palm Beach County’s history and gain a thorough understanding of the scale of the industry and the impact it had upon the founding years of the County. Visitors’ understanding and perspective of early life in Palm Beach County will be changed forever. “Feather Wars” will stimulate thinking and appreciation for Palm Beach County’s natural environment, the impact of commercial opportunity on our culture and daily life, environmental advocacy, and the effective and responsible action by government.
Highlights of the exhibit include historic photographs and artifacts on loan such as taxidermy birds, plume hunting shotguns, Snowy Egret skins, period clothing, a recreated 1914 hat shop with an assortment of plumed hats, and a collection of Theodore Roosevelt memorabilia including buttons, comic books, knives, a bank, a mug and a stick pin. Lectures by Marty Baum and Claudine Laabs are among the programs scheduled in conjunction with “Feather Wars.”
Feather Wars: Surviving Fashion 1870 - 1920 has been generously underwritten by FPL and the Audrey and Martin Gruss Foundation.
The museum is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am – 5 pm. Docent tours are available by calling 561-832-4164 ext 110. Admission is free.
Click image to download the Feather Wars Teacher Guide