The price of beauty (Part 1)

The price of beauty (Part 1)

In Newburgh, when 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 Remillard’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.

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, see Part 1). 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.

 

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 areport 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.

 

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.

 

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.”

The 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 a irreversible cost to nature.

The last page of the Wildlife Club’s minutes is a 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.”

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