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Celia Thaxter Attacks Heartless Women Wearing Birds as Fashion

birdhat00It became fashionable in Victorian times to wear  the dead bodies of colorful birds attached to women’s hats. Isles of Shoals poet Celia THaxter abhorred this practice and fought among others to end this fashion statement. Her powerful 1886 essay on the topic is among the first heartfelt environmental statements on the topic published in America. “Women’s Heartlessness” is reprinted here in full. (See complete article below)

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many thanks to author Peninah Neimark who sent along the following transcription by Celia Thaxter from an 1886 article in the Audubon Society publication. Peninah writers:  Attached is the part of the Celia Thaxter "Women's Heartlessness" article that I have in my files, and much of which is included in by book The Environmental Debate. I thought that you might be interested in posting this in the Thaxter section of your site. It's a particularly interesting article because it is probably one of the first (if not the first) published works to link fashion and conservation, and it foreshadows efforts by animal rights activists to discourage the wearing of fur coats and the alligator shoes by half a century.”

WOMEN’S HEARTLESSNESS
By Celia Laighton Thaxter

 

When the Audubon Society was first organized, it seemed a comparatively simple thing to awaken in the minds of all bird-wearing women a sense of what their “decoration” involved. We flattered ourselves that the tender and compassionate heart of woman would at once respond to the appeal for mercy, but after many months of effort we are obliged to acknowledge ourselves mistaken in our estimate of that universal compassion, that tender heart in which we believed. Not among the ignorant and uncultivated so much as the educated and enlightened do we find the indifference and hardness that baffles and perplexes us. Not always, heaven be praised! But too often,--I think I may say in two-thirds of the cases to which we appeal. One lady said to me, “I think there is a great deal of sentiment wasted on the birds. There are so many of them, they will never be missed any more than mosquitoes. I shall put birds on my new bonnet.”  This was a fond and devoted mother, a cultivated and accomplished woman. It seemed a desperate case, indeed, but still I strove with it. “Why do you give yourself so much trouble?” she asked. “They will soon go out of fashion, and there will be an end of it.” That may be,” I replied, “but fashion next year may order them back again, and how many women will have human feeling enough to refuse to wear them? It was merely waste of breath, however, and she went her way, a charnel-house of beaks and claws and bones and feathers and glass eyes upon her fatuous head.

Another, mockingly, says, “Why don’t you try to save the little fishes in the sea?” and continues to walk the world with dozens of warblers’ wings making her headgear hideous. Not one in fifty is found willing to remove at once the birds from her head, even if, languidly, she does acquiesce in the assertion that it is a cruel sin against nature to destroy them. “When these are worn out I am willing to promise not to buy any more,” is what we hear, and we are thankful, indeed, for even so much grace; but alas! birds never “wear out.” And as their wearer does not carry a placard stating their history, that they were bought last year, or perhaps given to her, and she does not intend to buy any more, her economy goes on setting the bad example, or it may be her indolence is to blame, one is as fatal as the other. Occasionally, but too rarely, we meet with a fine spirit, the fire of whose generous impulse consumes at once all selfish considerations, who recognizes the importance of her own responsibility, and whose action is swift as her thought to pluck our the murderous sign, and go forth free of its dishonor. And how refreshing is the sight of the birdless bonnet! The face beneath, no matter how plain it may be, seems to possess a gentle charm. She might have had birds, this woman, for they are cheap and plentiful enough, heaven knows! But she has them not, therefore she must wear within things infinitely precious,--namely, good sense, good taste, good feeling. Heaven bless every woman who dares turn her back on Fashion and go about thus beautifully adorned!

In one of the most widely circulated newspapers the fashionable news from Paris begins: “Birds are worn more than ever.” Birds “are worn!” Pitiful phrase! Sentence of deadly significance! “Birds are worn,”—as if that were final, as if all women must follow one another like a flock of sheep over a wall, and forget reason, forget the human hear with, forget everything but the empty pride of being “in the fashion.” Ah me, my fire-flecked oriole, watching your airy cradle from the friendly swinging elm bough, go get yourself and inky coat. Your beauty makes you but a target for the accursed gun that shatters your lovely life, quenches your delicious voice, destroys your love, your bliss, your dutiful cares, your whole beautiful being, that your dead body may disfigure some woman’s head and call all eyes to gaze at her! But no,--that will not save you. Blackbirds are not safe, they “are worn.” Carrion crows “are worn,” unsavory scavengers though they be. No matter on what they may have fed,--they “are worn.” Soar, swift sea-swallow,--I would it could be millions of miles away from the haunts of men; to the uttermost parts of the earth and the ocean carry your grace, your slender loveliness of shape, your matchless delicacy of tint and tone of color, soft, wondrous like gray cloud and silvery snow,--fly! dear and beautiful creature; seek the centre of the storm, the heart of the Arctic cold, the winter blast, they are not so unkind as—woman’s vanity. Do I not see you every day, your mocking semblance writhing as if in agony round female heads,--still and stark, sharp wings and tail pointing in stiff distress to heaven, your dried and ghastly head and beak dragged down to point to the face below, as if saying, “She did it.” The albatross of the Ancient Mariner is not more dreadful. . . .

I would the birds could all emigrate to some friendlier planet peopled by a nobler race than ours, where they might live their sweet lives un molested, and be treated with the respect, the consideration, and the grateful love which are their due. For we have almost forfeited our right to the blessing of their presence.

But still we venture to hope for a better future, still the Audubon and other societies work with heart and soul, to protect and save them, and we trust yet to see the day when women, one and all, will look upon the wearing of birds in its proper light,--namely, as a sign of heartlessness and a mark of ignominy and reproach.

SOURCE: Celia Thaxter, Woman’s Heartlessness (Boston 1886; reprinted for the Audubon Society of the State of New York, 1899), in National Audubon Society records, 1883-1991, Manuscript and Archives Division, Humanities and Social Library of the New York Public Library, Section C (Box C32, New York State Audubon Society folder).

 

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