The Plumage Act and the role of staff at the NHM | Library and Archives

Museum Archives have the important role of documenting and recording the work of an organisation, as ours have since we opened in 1881. For the Natural History Museum, the Archives also illustrate the role that the collections and staff have had in wider social and cultural history, both nationally and internationally. In this intriguing story from our collections, Assistant Archivist Kathryn Rooke looks at the impact of fashion trends on the natural world, and how our staff contributed to an important change in the law.

Great Egret (Ardea alba), Birds of America by John James Audubon (1785-1851)

As we emerge from what will hopefully be a final lockdown, I am looking forward to returning to site to continue with the cataloguing of an archive collection which seems perfect to share for March’s Women’s History Month, DF ZOO/236/15 International Bird Protection, including Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act: Papers and Correspondence. Although compiled by men, it documents a complex and lengthy fight to end the plumage trade for millinery in Britain; a battle started by women and opposed by women in equal measure from start to finish.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the biggest threat to wild birds was not habitat destruction but fashion. From familiar kingfishers to bewitching birds of paradise, birds were killed in their millions in all corners of the Victorian British Empire, so that feathers could adorn hats of the rich and fashionable. Floaty egret plumes, fully taxidermized bodies or jauntily arranged wings, there was soon a style coveted by every class, creating an incomprehensible demand. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901, some species’ feathers, weight by weight, fetched twice the price of gold!

Scientists at the British Museum (Natural History) became concerned at the scale of destruction and the real threat of extinction for some of the victims, and so began collating evidence to support limitations to the trade. Their evidence survives in this archive collection, and includes auction catalogues like this one below:

Auction catalogue (DF ZOO/236/15/5/4/2)

Lot by lot, there is an unquantifiable number of birds listed here. One lot alone lists 26,200 pairs of ducks’ wings and this is repeated with various species, some named, some anonymous, over 21 pages of the catalogue. These feathers did not need attributing to a living creature as the majority of women that desired them did not, or did not want, to make the connection between their hat and the source of its decoration.

Opposing the plumage trade

Attitudes did however start to change. Horrified by the cruelty of the plumage trade, and in fact cruelty to all living things, like-minded women’s groups began to emerge across the country. As these grew, some united, and in 1889 the initially all-female [Royal] Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) was born out of the merging of Emily Williamson’s Manchester-based society and Margaretta Louisa Lemon’s Surrey-based group, charmingly called ‘The Fur, Fin and Feather Folk’. Members of the merged SPB paid 2d (about 50 pence in today’s money) to subscribe and sign up to the now focused task of ending the plumage trade, pledging ‘to refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted’.

The SPB, Etta Lemon and other members were in regular correspondence with male scientists at the Natural History Museum, including Richard Bowdler-Sharpe, Percy Lowe and Norman Kinnear. These women accepted that they needed a male voice – the 1928 Equal Franchise Act must have been almost incomprehensible at the time – and they knew the backing of experts legitimised their cause. In turn, these men required help from women ‘on the ground’, surveying what was en vogue amongst their peers; gathering news-cuttings; and collecting feathers and ‘artificial plumes’ falsely sold by the trade as ‘cruelty free’.

Interestingly, both teams had their limitations. The women were held back by their gender, and the men by their position in a national museum, whose patrons were often the very same wealthy folk whose wives wore feathers and whose bank accounts profited from the trade. Percy Lowe’s proposal for an educational display case to be placed in the Great (now Hintze) Hall, met with initial approval from Museum Trustees, but was never installed due to their anxiety of its provocative message. His sketch is reproduced below:

The egret display (DF ZOO/236/15/5/1)

Opposition to any proposal to restrict the plumage trade was immense. Its continuation had a direct impact on not just what women wore, but upon the profits of businesses, department stores, and traders; and these were men of influence. In retaliation to campaigners, outright lies were concocted and printed by the media: feathers were harvested, writers claimed, from farmed egrets in India without cruelty or death, when in fact quite the opposite was true. Egrets were hunted and killed whilst in seasonal nuptial plumage, a handful of feathers selected from their heads, and their newly hatched chicks left to starve to death. Milliners, sensing a threat to their staple sales, began stocking new ‘artificial’ plumes, expertly crafted from fowl feathers was the claim, but examination exposed them as egret feathers. There was no ‘artificial’ osprey.

The opposition intensified with vicious gender-focused propaganda, labelling campaigning women as ‘feather brained’ and campaigning men as “effeminate”, flooding the media in efforts to maintain the status quo. Each claim was methodically investigated and dispelled, with tangible frustration from the examining scientists at the British Museum (Natural History). Each claim prompted more furious letter writing and pamphleting from their unofficial female partners.

One such publication, Feathers and facts. A reply to the Feather-trade, and review of facts with reference to the persecution of birds for their plumage (1911), demonstrates the detailed intellectual and passionate arguments that the RSPB produced for the wider public to read.

Head and shoulders of a model wearing a hat covered in the feathers of a whole bird.
A model wearing a “Chanticleer” hat of bird feathers (ca. 1912). Image: Library of Congress

Incredibly, the battle to end the plumage trade crossed two centuries. The first and rather ineffective step towards bird protection was the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869, the first Plumage Bill was thrown out in 1908, but at last the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1921. Though not without its flaws, this saw the beginning of the end for ‘fancy feathers’ in fashion.

One woman whose name appears in these files again and again is Mrs Margaretta ‘Etta’ Lemon. A force to be reckoned with, she became known as ‘The Dragon’, or ‘Mother of the Birds’, depending on which side you sat! Rumour had it that a Director of the British Museum (Natural History) once hid himself down a stairwell rather than face her! What is quite surprising however, is that despite her own leadership skills and indomitable personality, she was opposed to the women’s suffrage movement that ran in parallel to her own campaign. But then Etta was desperately disappointed by the actions of women around her, writing that ‘the emancipation of women has not yet freed her from slavery to so-called “fashion,” nor has a higher education enabled her to grasp this simple question of ethics and aesthetics’.

As we reflect on Women’s History Month, I find Etta’s tenacity and her commitment to fight against what she knew to be wrong, inspirational and I very much look forward to sharing this collection with researchers when our public reading rooms are open once again.

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One Reply to “The Plumage Act and the role of staff at the NHM | Library and Archives”

  1. Such interesting connections and strong relevance here to efforts in 1909 by the California Academy of Sciences, along with President Theodore Roosevelt, to halt the feather and egg trade (500,000 eggs per month!) and fur seal trade on the Farallon Islands, or Devil’s Teeth Islands, located 30 miles due west of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Thank you for this blog post!

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