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The fashionable cult of the ‘osprey’

In March 1888, a record-breaking plumage sale was held at the London Commercial Salesrooms. Among the many thousand birds-of paradise, hummingbirds, parrots and crested grebe on sale, were 16,000 packages of ‘osprey’.

Today, osprey has just one meaning: the magnificent sea-eagle. But between 1870 and 1920, when the fashion for feathers swelled to obscene proportions, the ‘osprey’ meant an upright, tufty, millinery ornament made from the fine, breeding plumage of the great and snowy egret. It was the cruelest plume of all to harvest, depriving chicks of their parents. And it was to become the most potent emblem for the RSPB's campaign against feathered hats.

What was the allure of this wispy, uninteresting feather? When bunched together en masse, those wire-like fine filaments would almost levitate from a hat, as if the head was backlit by the sun. Dyed black, they were lustrous, sophisticated, scintillating. By the turn of the century, every woman, of every class, had to own one.

The plume hunters who reigned supreme

As global demand boomed, hunters got rich. David ‘Egret’ Bennett was a celebrity plume hunter operating at the turn of the century from his mansion in San Diego – ‘probably the most experienced and systematic hunter of wild egret or heron in the world,’ enthused the New York Sun. For two decades he and his gun had ruled supreme in the egret and heron colonies on the west coast of Mexico, where he’d disappear for weeks at a time during the long nesting season, slipping back into civilisation to dispose of his stock. At the time of the Sun’s interview, Bennett had just shifted $2,600-worth of feathers to wholesale plumage buyers in New York and Philadelphia (around £50,000 in today’s money). In 1896, an ounce of feathers was worth $28 – and each bird might yield a quarter of an ounce of feathers.

‘I tell you it is hard, exacting and patient work to hunt egrets,’ Bennett told the Sun, boasting of his part in the near annihilation of egrets in his 20-year career. He had already ‘cleared out’ Central America with his team of shooters, moving on to the Gulf of California and now the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico, where he hoped there were just enough birds to keep him going until retirement in a few years’ time.

The RSPB's original 'Operation Osprey'

Did anybody care? Judging by the fashion magazines and society portraits of the era, one might think not. But a handful of women were very angry. In 1903, when an ounce of egret feathers could fetch $32 – almost twice as much as an ounce of gold – they launched a hard-hitting attack on consumers. This guerilla marketing campaign, the first of its kind, was the work of the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds (today’s RSPB). Founded in 1889 in protest at the fashion for ‘murderous millinery’, the society now had 154 branches throughout Britain.

Spearheading their campaign was Etta Lemon, then aged 43, acerbic, single minded, and determined. Etta was fierce in her contempt for female followers of fashion of every class. ‘The only thing that can be urged on behalf of osprey wearing is that it is nowadays so thoroughly democratic,’ she wrote witheringly, pointing out its popularity with charlady and Duchess alike. Campaign tactics were refined by co-founder Eliza Phillips, an 80-year-old rector’s widow: outspoken, articulate, and infuriated by society women seen in opera boxes wearing hair ornaments ‘exactly like the sort of brush servants use to clean lamp-chimneys’.

Were the feathers real or fake?

Etta and Eliza mobilised their 154 branch secretaries across the British Isles. They were told to infiltrate stores, surprise shoppers, question shop girls, cross-examine head milliners and lecture shop managers. The ‘Frontal Attack’, as it was called, took place in springtime 1903: hat-buying season. It was an excruciating mandate for these genteel foot-soldiers of the (R)SPB, as ladies of fashion did not like to be caught ‘red-handed’ (so said Miss Conyers, branch secretary for Ilkley). It was a matter requiring ‘extreme tact.’

Smooth talking millinery saleswomen were also in their sights. Since the Society had stepped up its anti-osprey campaign, real egret and heron plumes were now being peddled by the fashion industry as fake. Women with a conscience were being sold these ‘fakes’ as an ethical substitute, just as you might buy an imitation fur coat today. It was claimed that fake ospreys were made from horsehair, whalebone, bleached grasses, or goose feathers steeped in acid. Each RSPB branch secretary carried a magnifying glass to examine plumage at the counter. They must also buy samples and send them in to headquarters, where expert male ornithologists would have them forensically examined.

In each case, they were proven to be the real thing. It all made for great newspaper copy.

The egret parade, London, 1911 – another desperate attempt by the RSPB to save this bird from extinction

Virginia Woolf is incensed

How hard was it to prick the conscience of the Edwardian woman of fashion? Sandwich board men paraded photographs of starving egret chicks through the West End in 1911. Fashion icon Queen Alexandra renounced the ‘osprey’. Lady Mayoresses purged their wardrobes at the behest of Etta Lemon. But still the fashion persisted, even throughout WWI.

And then one modern voice stepped in to the debate, with dazzling effect. In 1920 Virginia Woolf was piqued by an article condemning not the hunters, but the heartless wearers of the snowy egret plumes. Women were to blame? Woolf was enraged. It made her want to ‘go to Regent Street, buy an egret plume, and stick it – is it in the back or the front of the hat? – and this in spite of a vow taken in childhood and hitherto religiously observed.’ Her point was this: ‘The birds are killed by men, starved by men, and tortured by men – not vicariously, but with their own hands.’

Men, too, were responsible for squashing the Plumage Bill, put before the House of Commons in 1920 for the fourth time. One year later – on 1 July 1921 – it was finally pushed through by Nancy, Lady Astor: the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons.

Read more about the women who campaigned to save the birds from 'murderous millinery' in my book Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds (Aurum, £9.99)

The Plumage Act centenary will be celebrated on 1 July 2021 with the unveiling of four bronze maquettes of RSPB founder Emily Williamson, at her home in Fletcher Moss Park, Didsbury, Manchester.

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