Hats Off to Audubon
By Jennifer Price
In the late 1800s a group of Boston society women gathered over afternoon teas to save birds from being slaughtered for the hat trade. In the process they kick-started the conservation movement—and Audubon. An environmental scholar takes a look at these pioneers, whose legacy has been all but lost to history.
Plume hunters decimated bird populations not only in the United States but overseas as well. This satin hat, from about 1910, sports a greater bird of paradise from Papua New Guinea.
In 1886 Frank Chapman hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women's fashion district on 14th Street, to tally the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women. Chapman, who would later found the first version of this magazine, was a talented birder. He identified the wings, heads, tails, or entire bodies of 3 bluebirds, 2 red-headed woodpeckers, 9 Baltimore orioles, 5 blue jays, 21 common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he counted 174 birds and 40 species in all.
America's hat craze was in full swing. In the 1880s trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles. Birds were by far the most popular accessory: Women sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, and whole hummingbirds; a single hat could feature all that, plus four or five warblers. The booming feather trade was decimating the gull, tern, heron, and egret rookeries up and down the Atlantic Coast. In south Florida, plume hunters would nearly destroy the great and snowy egret populations in their quest for the birds' long, soft dorsal spring mating feathers. "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.
At the time of Chapman's hike, the modern conservation movement was on the verge of erupting. During the 19th century, industrialization and the explosive growth of cities had wrought the destruction of forests and wildlife from coast to coast. Amid a groundswell of concern, women's hats emerged as the most potent symbol of the devastation—and provoked the first national grassroots call to action.
In the late 1890s outraged Americans in state after state founded Audubon Societies to combat the feather trade and advocate bird protection. They waged the first truly modern conservation campaign. Yet in the annals of the conservation movement, this battle often appears more as a quaint footnote, while the better-known battles in the early 1900s that John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others fought for wilderness and national parks have endured.
But when we recount the story of the bird hats, we do much more than celebrate Audubon's own roots. We also revisit the episode that set the cornerstone for 20th-century conservation laws, and the pioneers who popularized reasons to value and save wild species. In the late 1800s the Americans who suddenly decided that a dead tern atop a woman's head was unthinkable upended long-standing conventional attitudes toward nature. On the brink of a new century, how did these people reach out across the widening distances between the cities and the hinterlands to make wildlife valuable? How, and why, did they set out to restrain the alarming overuse of America's once bountiful natural riches? And why, in the 1890s, did bird hats prove to be the most explosive and catalytic issue?
Today's Audubon Society has its origins in Boston, in 1896, when Mrs. Augustus Hemenway read a description of the bloody hunts at the egret rookeries and immediately called her cousin Miss Minna Hall to tea. Harriet Hemenway and her husband were pillars of Boston society and had left their name on the Hemenway Gymnasium at Harvard. After combing through the Boston society register, she and Hall invited the city's fashionable ladies to a series of afternoon teas, at which many of the women pledged to boycott the bird hats. Hemenway and Hall also convened a formal meeting of prominent Boston women and men, who formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
The movement spread rapidly, and like minds formed Audubon Societies from New York and Connecticut to Tennessee, Iowa, Texas, and California. In nearly all of the states, women founded the clubs, then asked male scientists and civic leaders to join the leadership. The New York Audubon roster included Chapman on the executive committee, and Roosevelt and sportsman George Grinnell (who, 10 years earlier, had founded a successful but short-lived Audubon Society) as honorary vice-presidents. The club in Washington, D.C., boasted the Secretary of Agriculture, the surgeon general, a judge, and two university presidents. The Massachusetts group drafted William Brewster, a Harvard museum curator and the country's leading field ornithologist, to be president. (In 1883 Brewster had cofounded the American Ornithologists' Union, or AOU, which had worked since then to document bird populations and lobby for their protection.) The nearly all female-led Iowa club, and the North Carolina club, founded by Audubon's future national president T. Gilbert Pearson, were the rare exceptions to the pattern. On average, women accounted for about 80 percent of the membership and half the leadership, and almost all the "local secretaries," who organized members in each town.
Men or no men, the clubs were widely perceived to be women's groups. Pearson may have conceived of his club as "gentlemen hunters and their families," but a letter to the Raleigh newspaper referred to it as "T. Gilbert Pearson and his legion of women . . . backers." More to the point, Auduboners and outsiders alike saw the clubs as part of the vast network of women's groups that worked for reform causes during this period—and in 1896 a women's club meant far more than women talking over lunch.
The "woman club movement" grew out of the Victorian-era middle-class doctrine of "separate spheres," which defined women as superior moral creatures. The doctrine limited women by assigning them to the domestic sphere, where they tended to the moral education of children. But it at once empowered them to devote their moral talent to more public causes. The clubs enjoyed the peak of their power in the late 1890s, as women banded together to work for labor, education, health care, and prison reform, and to spearhead campaigns to preserve key wild areas that included the Palisades on the Hudson River and Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park. Women's clubs founded kindergartens, settlement houses, school-lunch programs, health clinics, museums, and parks—exactly at the time when the Audubon societies were forming.
So why did the birds on women's heads galvanize Americans more than the other widespread ecological crises in the late 1800s? At a time when many people were ready to embrace conservation as a moral issue, the glaring complicity of the distaff half, who were supposed to be the moral caretakers for all society, made this issue resonate at a higher moral volume than any other. Dead birds on top of men's heads could not possibly have triggered equivalent outrage; neither could the pollution of rivers or the destruction of forests, nor the gamebirds on dinner plates across America. Never mind that, for the most part, men ran the feather trade (or that both women and men ate plenty of woodcock and wild duck). "Why should we expect the milliner . . . to be more moral than the woman?" asked nature writer and Connecticut Audubon president Mabel Osgood Wright in 1900 in Bird-Lore, the precursor to Audubon. In Club Woman, Mrs. Orinda Hornbrooke demanded, "Do women who wear birds ever stop to think what an injury to the . . . moral influence of our sex they are inflicting?" Hornbrooke invoked modern ecological arguments, too, which the Societies first promoted: "Without our bird friends to protect us, the insects that buzz and sting and creep, and crawl, and slime, will have their own way in the world." Throughout the rancorous debate that raged in newspapers and legislative halls and clubhouses and hat shops across the country, outraged Audubon activists proclaimed reasons to save not only birds but also the moral guardianship that women were supposed to ensure.
Fortunately, these club women also happened to run a vast grassroots reform network to tackle exactly such problems. Hemenway and other leaders typically worked in other clubs and on other causes as well. The Audubon women brought ready-made memberships and an established arsenal of strategies. The men, for their part, counted on it. As Chapman began a lecture to a packed New York audience: "Ladies and gentlemen—more particularly ladies. . . . It lies in the power of women to remedy a great evil."
Still, the Audubon men hardly sat idly by, watching their better halves. Chapman, Pearson, and fellow ornithologists lectured and wrote articles. They surveyed and patrolled nesting grounds and lobbied legislators, as the mostly male American Ornithologists' Union extended its decade and a half of bird-protection efforts into the Societies. William Dutcher, who in 1886 presented the AOU Model Law as a blueprint for state legislatures, continued to lobby for the measure and had five states adopt it by 1900. He recruited Pearson to aid him, and they lobbied with special diligence to halt the sale of plume birds in New York, which would cut off the trade elsewhere. Once they acquired legal clout, Dutcher and Pearson explained the laws to market hunters and milliners, and inspected the millinery stock at shops and warehouses and rail stations. Pearson, who was by all accounts not a timid man, persuaded the North Carolina legislature to fund Audubon-appointed wardens. Dutcher almost single-handedly began to assemble a warden force to guard rookeries in key coastal states, from Florida to Oregon. These wardens, including two in Florida who would lose their lives to plume hunters—Guy Bradley in 1905 and Columbus MacLeod in 1908—pursued the dangerous work of policing the hunters in often lawless frontier areas. The men, in sum, traveled the vital male haunts of science, business, politics, and the law.
And what did the founding Audubon women do? They ran the Societies' everyday business, using well-honed organizational tactics. State leaders appointed local secretaries to organize Audubon clubs in every town. The women carried their cause to other women's clubs and distributed the literature widely. They hosted a great many teas. They created traveling libraries—a standard club strategy—on birds and bird protection. They worked with schoolteachers: Wright wrote a teachers' handbook. They spoke at schools and founded children's Audubon clubs. As Harper's Bazaar reported, they strove for "home enlightenment through the great army of club-women mothers," to ensure that all children would be as enlightened as the one who answered the door at home and yelled, "Mama, there's a woman with a dead body on her hat who wants to see you." The women organized fashion shows to display approved hats without feathers and published "white lists" of milliners who sold the bird-safe bonnets—tactics they borrowed from the mostly women-led Consumers' Leagues. The women, in sum, did the grassroots organizing and education.
In 1900, just four years after Hemenway and Hall hatched their strategy over tea, Congress passed the Lacey Act. The first federal conservation legislation, the measure gave real muscle to the push to shut down the New York trade by prohibiting the interstate shipment of wild species killed in violation of state laws. In triumph, Wright declared in Bird-Lore: "Let us credit it to the law and the lady, and hope that the two are standing with locked hands, as they . . . form a twentieth century alliance in the cause of Bird Protection, as they have so often done in other things that elevate the race."
The Lacey Act was a legal watershed, and the Societies lobbied hard for further protection. By 1905, 33 states had passed versions of the AOU Model Law. In 1911 Audubon triumphed in New York, where the Audubon Plumage Bill—a ban on the sale of plumes of all native birds—shut down the domestic feather trade, and a 1913 Tariff Bill measure banned the import of wild-bird plumes from other countries. A ban on the sale of game in New York in 1911 stifled the game markets, and the Migratory Bird Act of 1913 placed all migratory birds under federal jurisdiction and, hence, a host of brand-new federal restrictions on hunting. In 1903 President Roosevelt designated Pelican Island in Florida as the first federal wildlife reserve (the beginning of today's National Wildlife Refuge System). It was the first of 51 bird reserves he would set aside, with wardens paid for initially by the Societies. Frank Chapman started Bird-Lore in 1899. The following year the journal sponsored the first annual Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to the traditional Christmas hunt. Bird-Lore eventually acquired color and poesy, along with national authority and recognition, and became the magazine you're now reading.
In 1901 the state clubs joined in a loose federation, which in 1905 incorporated to become the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (shortened, mercifully, in 1940), with Dutcher as president and Pearson as secretary. The 20th century would not exactly prove to be the age of enlightenment that club women were confident they would usher in. But having laid the foundation for the laws and public support of conservation, Audubon moved on to recovery programs for endangered bird species and the creation of waterfowl sanctuaries along major flyways. In the 1960s the Audubon Society broadened its mandate from bird protection to fight for pesticide bans, wilderness protection, and other key causes as a leading player in a freshly reconfigured and rejuvenated mass environmental movement.
And what became of Hemenway, Wright, Hornbrooke, and the other Audubon women? After 1900 the code of separate spheres began to unravel, as women entered the workforce in white-collar jobs and took advantage of educational opportunities the club women had worked so hard to achieve. In the Progressive Era much of the women's work for conservation, labor, and education came to fruition in the form of legal protections. The women's clubs faded in importance, both socially and politically. As the clubs declined, so did the memory of the bedrock role they played in early conservation.
My own favorite description of the practice of history is that it should try to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar: Our forebears did not think or act exactly like us, and we have to figure out why what seems different to us now seemed logical in a past place and time. In the case of the Audubon women, we have to comprehend the real power of afternoon teas, because women who banded together in the 1890s enjoyed an established power to mobilize, to excite, to reform, and to outrage and infuriate, at a time when a nascent conservation movement needed the power to do all that. The founding Audubon women were not just like their male colleagues but with more estrogen. They had very particular powers, and so did the men. When Chapman declared that "the salvation of the herons rests solely in women's hands," he certainly exaggerated to some degree. But he also lived in that late-Victorian world, and he knew what he was talking about.
Adapted from the chapter "When Women Were Women, Men Were Men, and Birds Were Hats," in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, by Jennifer Price (New York: Basic Books, 1999).