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The hat on this fine lady's head may have been worth more than its weight in gold. This Florida photo probably dates from the late 1800s, perhaps taken in Jacksonville during its heyday as a tourist hotspot. Behind the woman, a canvas screen depicts a semi-tropical Florida scene.
This postcard, which depiects two men pulling feathers from an ostrich, was sent from Jacksonville to Savannah on February 6, 1907. Its message reads, "Drove out here this morning. Will write soon."
Because of the pressure to stop the poaching of wild birds, ostrich farming began to become a successful enterprise during the 1880s. Ostrich farms popped up in Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas. Many fashion-conscious consumers turned to the use of feathers pulled from the big birds. This postcard shows plume plucking at one of Jacksonville's ostrich farms, and dates from about 1907 to 1912.

Plumed Hats

FEATHER FEVER — Here’s something interesting: If you took an ounce of feathers from certain Everglades wading birds in 1903, they would’ve been worth twice as much as an ounce of gold. With feathers so highly valued, you can bet that there was a “gold rush” for plumes. Many birds owed their destruction to grand hats, fancy fans, and outrageous dresses. During the late 1880s, the North American feather trade reached its zenith. Unfortunately, Florida lay as the prime stomping ground for plume hunters hired by millinery companies.

Ironically, a popular interest on the natural world stirred the increased demand for feathers. Women wore hats with the latest feather-topped styles from Paris, New York, and other fashion centers. Headwear was adorned with the pink feathers of the roseate spoonbill and the white plumes of the the egrets and great white heron. The more exotic the design & display, the larger the sales. By the 1890s, women’s hats and dresses were bedecked with the entire bodies of birds. No doubt many of the feathery fashions were sold in Jacksonville, a tourist mecca during the later 1800s.

Guns blazed away on steamboat trips up the Ocklawaha River. The region’s herons and egrets, so admired for their plumes, were hunted nearly to extinction. Sightseers made the journey from Jacksonville to Silver Springs by way of the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers. Many looked with horror & disgust at the fellow travelers who fired at any animal that moved, let alone birds. Some people gave little or no regard to nature’s preservation, for the world seemed so much larger during these less-technologically advanced times. Numerous Americans thought that humankind could never really pose a serious threat.

The handwriting was on the wall, however. By 1900, many species of wading birds had almost bitten the dust. If you’ve read Patrick Smith’s epic Florida novel, A Land Remembered, then you have an idea of what happened. In one ugly scene, plume hunters quickly decimated the majestic birds that ringed a lovely, secluded Florida lake.

Laws against poaching were passed during this period, such as in Florida in 1891 and 1901. The Audubon Society was also created, and this group hired game wardens to protect birds from plume hunters, also known as “swamp rats.” Despite the legal consequences, though, there were outlaws who continued to poach.

SOME GOOD NEWS — The populations of wading birds finally began to rebound in 1910 when the New York legislature banned the sale of wild bird plumage. Today, state and federal laws protect all species of wading birds. (Other serous problems faced by these fowl have included pollution, parasites, disturbances from boaters, changes in South Florida’s water flows, and the conversion of wetlands into other uses.)

Many of the species have achieved a partial comeback, much of it due to the conservation efforts of the Everglades National Park.  President Harry Truman dedicated the park in 1947. Although there’s been good news about South Florida’s birds, much work remains to be done. Current populations of wading birds may be as little as 10% of what they used to be. But what an awesome sight the birds in the Everglades can still be!

~written by Glenn Emery

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