On view April 6 through July 15, 2018, the New-York Historical Society will present a special exhibition that melds fashion, activism, and the history of the groundbreaking Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, examines the circumstances that inspired early environmental activists—many of them women and New Yorkers—to champion the protection of endangered birds. The exhibition showcases bird- and plumage-embellished clothing and accessories. It also features original watercolors by John James Audubon of birds endangered before passage of the statute, models for The Birds of America, from the Museum’s renowned collection. Recordings of bird songs from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—together with objects on loan from other institutions, books, ephemera, and photographs—animate the narrative.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918
Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was one of the first federal laws to address the environment, prohibiting the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds. It also regulated the nation’s commercial plume trade, which had decimated many American bird species to the point of near extinction. The exhibition is part of the Year of the Bird, a centennial celebration of the Act organized by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International.
“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife commemorates the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by delving into history and examining the economic and social circumstances that inspired the early environmentalists and activists who lobbied for this consequential legislation,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As New York was the center of the nation’s feather trade, the exhibition also investigates how the act impacted the city’s feather importers, hat manufacturers, retailers, and fashion consumers—as well as how New York women played an important role in pushing for the legislation.”
The first gallery of the exhibition, “A Fancy for Feathers,” presents examples of late 19th- and early 20th-century feathered fashions including hats, boas, fans, aigrettes, jewelry, and clothing. Highlights include a gold and diamond aigrette hair ornament (1894) featuring the wispy feathers of a Snowy or Great Egret, which were scornfully called the “white badge of cruelty” by activists; a muff and tippet accessory set (1880–99) composed of four adult Herring Gulls created during a craze for gulls that nearly drove the sea birds to extinction; a folding brisé fan of swirling white feathers (ca. 1910); and a pair of earrings inset with hummingbird heads (ca. 1865). Painted miniatures on view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries portray women adorned with bird plumes, such as one professed bird lover, wearing a hat decorated with dyed ostrich feathers while holding an American robin and surrounded by caged birds. Feathers also adorned men’s regalia and hats.
The second gallery, “Activists Take Flight,” introduces several of the activists who pushed for protective legislation. As the center of the nation’s feather and millinery trades, New York played an important role in influencing the Act. New York City activists included George Bird Grinnell, a prominent conservation polymath and protégé of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, who was inspired by the artist-naturalist to found the first Audubon society in New York in 1886; Mabel Osgood Wright, an influential author and founder of the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Connecticut; Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithologist whose bird books became important field guides; and Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, who campaigned passionately against wearing feathers while in residence with the Metropolitan Opera.
The exhibition concludes with 14 watercolors by Audubon of life-size avian species saved by these conservation efforts, drawn from New-York Historical’s unparalleled collection, the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world, which includes the 435 watercolor models created by the artist-naturalist for the world-renowned, double-elephant-folio edition of The Birds of America (1827–38) engraved by Robert Havell Jr. Highlights on view include the Roseate Spoonbill, whose pink wings and feathers were used in fans sold in the Florida tourist trade, and the Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the century plume hunters that became the symbol of the Audubon Society.
Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife is organized by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings, and Dr. Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts.
New-York Historical is grateful for the partnership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NYC Audubon. Generous support for the exhibition is provided by The William T. Morris Foundation. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is a media sponsor.
On Monday, April 16, visitors can explore the exhibition on a curator-led tour. For nature lovers, several walking tours in Central Park bring Audubon’s paintings to life: On Saturday, May 5, wildlife artist and illustrator Alan Messer leads a journey into the Ramble to discover both resident and migrating birds—like colorful warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers, and thrushes; and on June 2, a visit with Leslie Day to Central Park explores its diverse ecosystems and the relationships between its plants and animals. For young visitors, the popular family program Meet the Fledglings returns on May 12 as the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) visits the Museum to teach children all about birds and their habitats and allow participants to feed a baby bird in the WBF’s care.
Year of the Bird
This year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International have joined forces with more than 100 other organizations and millions of people around the world to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” This effort aims to heighten public awareness of birds as creatures of beauty—and because they symbolize nature’s interconnectedness and the importance of caring for our shared planet. To get started, visitors to BirdYourWorld.org can discover simple but meaningful steps that anyone can take to help birds each month by joining a pledge to participate. Through 12 months of storytelling, science research, and conservation efforts, Year of the Bird examines how our changing environment is driving dramatic losses among bird species around the globe and highlights what we can do to help bring birds back. Visit nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird to learn more, and follow #YearoftheBird and #BirdYourWorld on social media.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.