The price of beauty: birds, feathers, eradication and conservation

By Matthew Colon

The price of beauty commonly refers to an individual’s cost of attractiveness. It frequently becomes the punch line as we force ourselves to accept discomfort. The “price” can also refer to the large amount of money one spends on maintaining attractiveness, how health may be affected by certain beauty practices or, more broadly, society’s role in it all. Sometimes, however, the demand for attractiveness goes beyond individual sacrifice and takes a toll on the environment enough to lead to extinction, murder, prison and inspire acts of conservation.

Mad Hatting

Minnie M. Remillard was a regular in her father’s Water Street photography studio. At the age of nineteen, Abraham B. E. Remillard migrated from his home country of Quebec to New York in 1855, eventually taking up residence in the rapidly growing Village of Newburgh on the Hudson River. First listed as an ambrotypist (photographer) in an 1856 directory, he started a career in photography that proved to be prosperous. Minnie was born in 1863 and as soon as she was old enough to sit through the photographic exposure, she became her father’s model. Her portrait was captured many times at that studio until Abraham left the business in 1892. This collection of photographs now at the Newburgh Historical Society reveals Minnie at various ages, poses and fashions.

Minnie Remillard, ca. 1880.

Minnie Remillard, ca. 1880.

The most recent photograph in the collection was likely captured sometime in the 1880s judging from Minnie’s apparent age. The shape of her brow and heavy-lidded eyes are features she inherited from her father. Her dress falls in line with fashion of the late nineteenth century when the idealized female silhouette shifted attention away from a fuller lower body to upper body, neck and head. Her hat nearly as large as her head, adorned with a decorative brooch and ostrich feathers, is especially interesting.

How much of the ostrich did it take to fill in this hat? How frequently were bird feathers worn as hat and bonnet trimmings?

The market shooting of birds to fill the demand in the millinery trade – the business of designing, making and selling hats – exploded in the late nineteenth century. Before 1850, ornamental plumage was popular in both Europe and Colonial America among the wealthy and aristocrats, but feathers were drawn from a few species of birds. Population surges and overall economic prosperity throughout the nineteenth century sparked more consumption, higher demand and the supply pool of feathers was expanded to include a variety of other species.

The world’s biggest consumers included England, France and the United States.

T. Gilbert Pearson, American conservationist and a founder of the National Audubon Society, delved into French custom records for an accurate number of plumage sold on the markets. He determined that 50,300 tons of plumage (approx. weight equivalent of 20,530 Hummer H3s) entered France between 1890 and 1929.

Detail. Harper's Bazaar, 1896.

Detail. Harper’s Bazaar, 1896.

One anecdote provided by American ornithologist and bird preservationist Frank Chapman illustrates feather consumption in New York City in 1886. He claimed that during two afternoon excursions through Uptown Manhattan three-quarters of the 700 women’s hats he counted displayed feathers from forty different kinds of native birds.

At first, any concern for bird populations was held by a minority. Harper’s Bazaar, an unusual voice among them, expressed in an 1896 issue that if a movement doesn’t arise to respond to “this lavish use of feathers,” then “some of the rarest and most valuable species … will soon be exterminated.” However, through the turn of the century this publication continued to guide trends in feather fashions.

The New York milliner industry eventually grew to cater to the tastes of the entire country, from Maine to Texas.

In Newburgh, the lens cap was removed from Remillard’s studio camera to reveal a confident young woman as confirmed by her soft eyes and warm smirk. Minnie’s feather hat provided an elegance, dignity and individuality that she was comfortable with. Remillard’s camera lens likely saw many customers dressed with plumage decorations considering he was “being rated high in financial circles.” There were certainly enough milliners involved in the trade to satisfy the demand. According to industry listings in Newburgh directories between 1856 and 1900, there were as much as twenty-seven milliners in business at one time. In the state of New York there were 22,500 identified as milliners in the 1910 U.S. Census. More than half that number concentrated in New York City where one ounce of aigrettes could sell for as much as $80.

Legislation or with Dogs and Shotguns

Feathers became a staple in the fashion industry as they were incorporated in millinery, fans, gowns, capes, parasols and muffs. Birds were also hunted to make artificial fishing flies and as specimens and taxonomy development by collectors and ornithologists. It’s estimated that in the early years of the twentieth century, the plumage trade claimed the lives of 200 million birds a year.

Detail. Chadborne & Coldwell Ad.

Detail. Chadborne & Coldwell Ad.

Feather fashions were also reinforced by unrelated industries attempting to appeal a specific customer type or associate their products with the elegance of a fashion savvy woman. Trade cards for the New England manufacturer of C. L. Jones & Co.’s Tulip Soap routinely featured women and young girls in feather hats (top image). Locally, the Newburgh manufacturers of Chadborn & Coldwell lawn mowers featured many women in their advertisements, one of which is fashionably dressed while pushing an Excelsior Side Wheel Mower in a feather trimmed hat.

Although many, including ornithologists, believed that the supply of wild birds were inexhaustible, others took notice to their rapidly decreasing population. Influential naturist and writer, John Burroughs, regularly identified with ornithologists and birders throughout his career. In 1886, he published an essay in Signs and Seasons expressing a deep concern for fate of birds by collectors and especially profiteers when he wrote, “the professional nest-robber and skin-collector should be put down, either by legislation or with dogs and shotguns.”

Other writers, politicians, members of supporting groups, the clergy, women’s organizations and humane societies joined in the effort to inform the public about human influence on bird populations. Throughout the 1880s the idea of identifying, observing and enjoying birds in the wild grew in popularity and by the end of that decade some of the earliest field guides to American birds are published.

Then there was the rise “economic ornithology,” a branch of bird study that set out to justify the existence of birds by identifying their positive or negative impact. Raptors and passerines were helpful to farmers by eating harmful insects and small rodents. Fishermen followed gulls and terns with the belief that circling flocks indicated school of fish. Other bird species were seen as beneficial as guano producers and scavengers.

High-tension power lines that cross migration routes are a major threat to Whooping Cranes.

High-tension power lines that cross migration routes are a major threat to Whooping Cranes.

George P. Marsh, an American environmentalist, discussed in his 1864 book Man and Nature the “new circumstances” affecting bird populations by humans, which included the hazard of lighthouses. Migratory birds traveling at night were attracted to the light beams, which caused death by collision. Modern lighthouses are fitted with re-engineered lights and are no longer dangerous.

Today, there are new “new circumstances” threatening bird populations that include power lines, communication towers, uncovered oil waste pits, wind turbines and airplanes. A big killer of birds is buildings. According to a report by Scott Loss of Oklahoma State University published in 2014, it’s estimated that between 2 to 10 percent of the bird population in the country suffer this fate annually.

It may be hard to imagine the Hudson River as a thriving estuary for shorebirds as staging posts or wintering grounds due to the overshadowing, but significant history of industry and trade.

The milliner industry countered arguments by saying these groups were overreacting to a long-standing industry that employed thousands of workers. Curious customers were told that feathers were plucked harmlessly or collected during molting. However, hunters knew that the best time to harvest high quality and valued feathers was during breeding seasons when birds grew new feathers to attract breeding mates.

Popular Birding

Image captured in New Windsor, New York ca.1909 shows a full bird arranged as a decoration on the woman's hat.

Image captured in New Windsor, New York ca.1909 shows a full bird arranged as a decoration on the woman’s hat.

The movement to protect birds gained momentum despite the efforts by the milliner industry. Advocate organizations like the American Ornithologists Union and Audubon Society continued to grow in membership and influence. Unsatisfied with laws covering birds before 1890, the Audubon Society hired wardens to patrol the east coast, protecting bird colonies and breeding grounds from threats like milliner agents. In July 1905, Warden Guy Bradley became the movement’s first martyr when he was shot and killed by poachers while protecting waterbirds in Oyster Key, Florida.

Bird preservationists continued to advocate for better laws to protect threatened species. By the end of the eighteenth century, Labrador Duck and Great Auks became extinct and the days of the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen were numbered. In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prohibited the sale of poached game across state lines. Plumage became illegal to import when the Federal Tariff Act was passed in 1913. Then the United States was encouraged to sign a treaty with Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) in 1916 to protect migratory birds, which passed into law two years later. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it unlawful to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” or “sell” a migratory bird of any of its parts (includes nests, eggs and feathers).

This battle against the plumage trade was won.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act remains the bedrock federal protection for all native wild birds. To kick off the treaty’s centennial year this January there has already been a violation. An 18-year old Texan was arrested and charged on January 14 with illegally shooting and killing two whooping cranes, a species recognized as critically endangered. The International Crane Foundation claims that there are 600 Whooping Cranes in the world. He faces up to six months in prison and a $15,000 fine.

After World War II birding in America grew rapidly popular and small birding and wildlife clubs were forming across the country. Today, it’s reported by U.S. Wildlife Service that bird watching is the number one outdoor recreational hobby in the country. Locally, an Orange County chapter of the Audubon Society meets monthly in Goshen. There is also the Edgar A. Mearns Bird Club that meets in Cornwall. Both organizations host talks and lead excursions into sanctuaries to study, protect and enjoy birds.

Balmville Tree, 1908 postcard. Collection of Elizabeth Werlau.

Balmville Tree, 1908 postcard. Collection of Elizabeth Werlau.

Between 1948 and 1987 one such group existed in Newburgh called the Goudy Wildlife Club. It was named for Frederic and Bertha Goudy, influential typographers in the print world, because of their “great love of nature, especially birds.” They managed bird sanctuaries at the Goudys’ former estate in Marlboro, Old Town Cemetery in the City of Newburgh and Algonquin Park in the Town. They worked with the Palisades Park Commission to organize bird counts in Orange County that were published in the Newburgh News. In 1954, they reported 100 species of bird spotted, 109 in 1955, 151 a year later, and so on.

The group was also instrumental in the preservation of Newburgh’s beloved Balmville Tree. When the historic tree appeared unhealthy, they oversaw a much needed tree surgery in the 1950s. An increment core taken from the tree in 1953 determined the tree’s true age of 254 years, which debunked myths that surrounded it. And they conducted a campaign to raise funds for its long term care.

They succeeded at motivating the youth by holding contests in bird house building and essay writing on nature. School children, members of the Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts were always welcomed.

Although birding remains popular through today, the group’s membership dwindled by the 1980s. In a letter to the Audubon Society by the Club President, Miriam H. Petraeus, admitted the club was disbanding “because of the aging of its members and our inability to attract younger members.” The group’s final act was to close their bank account and distributed monies under the directive that “having been collected locally, should be used locally.” The Newburgh Historical Society received their donation with a letter dated February 4, 1987. Providing closure, Miriam wrote, “through this small way, we can feel that we have contributed to the beauty of the Crawford house, and so to the uplift of Newburgh, the city of our beginning.”

BlueBirdsSticker_GoudyHistory001The Goudy Wildlife Club finally closed their books, but not before finding a priceless beauty in nature as it is, actively preserving it and teaching it to anyone willing to learn. They’ve become a local presence in a larger history that is still learning to provide an elegance, dignity and individuality without an irreversible cost to nature.

The last page of the Wildlife Club’s minutes is titled, “The Final Chapter,” composed by Miriam Petraeus in May 1987, outlines the last few years of the group’s existence. The final sentence: “We hope there will be others to follow in our footsteps.”

7 thoughts on “The price of beauty: birds, feathers, eradication and conservation

  1. Tom says:

    A well written article and most interesting. If you want a bird experience take some bread down to the waterfront. You will make many new friends.
    PS: Can I hire the young lady with the hat and mower to do my lawn?

  2. Mary Strolis Schulz says:

    I found your article very interesting and informative ! thanks! However, it left me with a few questions….is the Goudy estate still standing in Marlboro, and, is Miriam Petraeus the mother of General P. ?

    • Matthew Colon says:

      Thanks for reading and I’m happy that you enjoyed the article. I don’t know about the current fate of the Goudy Estate. Frederic and Bertha Goudy lived in Marlboro between 1924 and 1947 on an estate they named Deepdene. Frederic ran a workshop called the Village Press, separate in an old mill on the estate, but it burned down in 1939. The local history room of the Marlboro Free Library may have an answer to your question. They take inquiries on a regular basis and also run a blog where the Goudys are the subject of more than a few posts. As for your second question – yes, Miriam Petraeus is the mother of General David Patraeus.

  3. Ann Hill says:

    My great grandmother was the niece of Abraham Remillard ‘s second wife, Malvina/Melvina Lamontagne. It is my understanding that Leonie Lamontagne left Quebec in the 1870’s/1880’s to live with the Remillard family. I am interested in learning if Mr. Remillard took photos of any family members, including my great grandmother and her Aunt. Leonie moved to New York City upon her marriage to George T. Armstrong; they may have married in the Newburgh area. Kindly advise me of any repositories containing Mr. Remillard ‘s photos so that I can pursue this further.
    Thank you.

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