Click_for_citation_informationThe Feather Trade and American Conservation


Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Gregory Dehler

Site Overview: “The Feather Trade and American Conservation” is a virtual exhibition from the United States National Museum of American History. The actual exhibition ran from February to August 1999. Not surprisingly, scrolling through the website feels very much like strolling through a museum exhibition in the manner in which the material is presented. Short descriptions are provided for the illustrations, and the text is broken into sections with images running along the sides. The downside is that this method is passive and makes no attempt to draw comparisons between the feather trade at the turn of the twentieth century and conservation-related controversies in the early twenty-first century.

“The Feather Trade and American Conservation” is divided into three parts. Each part contains text broken into several paragraphs and visual displays, including photographs, magazine covers, paintings, advertisements, and hunting equipment, among others. The visual representations can be enlarged. There is a blue feather icon next to for a few select items that can be clicked on for more information. The first section is entitled “Feather Adornment” and addresses the relationship between women's fashion and the protection of wildlife at the beginning of the twentieth century. Catalog samples, advertisements, photographs of plumage-adorned women, and the hats themselves amplify the brief text. Section two, “Hunting and Collecting,” looks at the hunters who killed the herons and egrets for the market place. The text includes a section on the Seminole Indians – most of the American birds killed for the market place lived in Florida and Louisiana – who were drawn to hunting for money because their were so few other options open to them. The final section, “The Audubon Movement,” discusses the origins of the wildlife protection movement by focusing on the formation and actions of one of its most important organizations and the unique role played by women. Up to this point, other important national organizations, the Boone and Crockett Club for example, were comprised exclusively of men who were motivated to protect animals to preserve hunting as a sport. In contrast, a genuine humanitarian concern for protecting wildlife motivated the women of the Audubon Society. The site gives particular attention to the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the District of Columbia Audubon Society. Documents from the founding of these organizations are among the visual representations. Emphasis is placed on how these well-to-do women pressured their peers to abandon wearing clothing that contained plumes.

Scope/Content: The scope is fairly narrow. It is not a large site, and one can get through it quickly. Even with enlarging most of the pictures and reading all the text it should take well less than thirty minutes to get through this site. One flaw is that it lacks context. The viewer does not get a sense of what impact the effort to eliminate the feather industry had on the larger effort to protect wildlife, the conservation movement, the role of women in the politics of the progressive era, or the rise of organized interest groups at the turn of the twentieth century. Another flaw is that it is too introductory, and some important details could be added. For example, the international aspect of the feather trade is mentioned only in passing. American feathers were passed to Paris where they were treated, turned into adornments and clothing, and then re-imported to the United States. This is why the inclusion of a feather ban in the Underwood-Simmons tariff of 1913 was such a significant victory for wildlife protectionists. The tariff is not mentioned on the site. Although there are a few small flaws (as the tariff omission) none of them are fatal. The use of images is excellent and the images are well selected. One issue with scope and content is that this site feels very much like a traditional museum exhibition, where one is expected simply to walk through the exhibit, reading the text and looking at images. It loses some of the value of the internet in that it could be more interactive and introduce some additional elements to the display that were not practical as a museum exhibition, for example, a bulletin board, links to other web sites, additional scanned documents, and a more detailed text.

Authority/Bias: One can go to the “Credits” hyperlink and see the individuals who made the original exhibition and then the website. There is, however, no way to contact them from this website. Although it is not difficult to do, one has to click on the hyperlink to the National Museum site to leave a comment or to contact the staff. The professional qualifications of the site’s creators are not provided, and one comes away questioning the authority of the site because of this. I do not detect a bias, but rather an honest effort to create an exhibition focusing on an important – and not widely studied one at that – component of the early conservation movement. This is a site that could easily have presented a biased position. There are many very vivid and graphic photographs of market hunters with scores of bloody carcasses strewn about them available, but the ones on this site are chosen with taste. Conservationists at the turn of the century made little attempt to understand the market hunters; they simply portrayed them as immoral and depraved. It was not uncommon to blame much of the excess killing on Southern Blacks and “poor white trash,” Indians, and Italian immigrants. There was little or no attempt by the middle and upper class reformers to understand the forces that drove individuals to hunt for money. This site, on the other hand, does try to provide some understanding of the market hunter, particularly the Seminole Indians.

Timeliness/Permanence: There is a timeless quality to this website in that anyone interested in discussing or pondering the relationship between man and nature or the ethics of the marketplace will be interested in “The Feather Trade and American Conservation.” This site has been operational since 1999. Permanence can only be judged by the obvious care that went into its creation.

Value Added Features: The primary features are the text and the numerous visual representations which can be enlarged. Although it is very brief at thirteen items, there is a bibliography. At the bottom of the bibliography are hyperlinks to five websites: Audubon Naturalist Society, Massachusetts Audubon Society, National Audubon Society Naturalist Society, Smithsonian Institution, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Viewers can click on the Museum Home button for access to other virtual exhibitions at the National Museum. I found these other exhibitions by exploring the website; users are not directed to follow this path. The other National Museum of American History virtual exhibitions are unrelated in subject matter to “The Feather Trade and American Conservation.” There is no site map, index, or search feature, but they are not needed on this site as the simple layout precludes their necessity.

Technical Aspects: This is a very simple website from a visitor's perspective; nothing particularly fancy. No plug-ins or downloads are necessary. There is no audio. The simplicity of the technical aspects of the website ensures that it downloads quickly. All the hyperlinks work, and the visual representations enlarge easily and quickly. Navigation between the three sections is easy. The blue feather icon works well to direct people to further information, although it is available for about only one quarter of the images.

Aesthetics/Visual Clarity and Appeal: This is an appealing site. Most of the visual representations are in color, although a few are in black and white. The text is boldfaced which distinguishes it from the captions under the photographs. The visual representations are a good variety of different types, and the layout is not cluttered.

Overall Impression of the Site: My overall impression of the site is mixed. I am glad to see that the National Museum took the time to create a website on this topic which I find very interesting. On the other hand, the full potential of the internet is not utilized. A platform exists to draw viewers to question the relationships between man, nature, and the marketplace, but that is missed.

Interpretation of Materials: This site contains a variety of visual materials. The photographs, advertisements, postcards, and examples of hats and adornments are primary source materials. Although the text is short, it is on the whole is clear and explains the rise of the feather trade and the effort to end this activity. There is no indication of who wrote the narrative, but it is easy to follow, and the language is free of jargon. Few of the visual representations are out of place; in general they mesh with the text excellently. Each item is clearly identified. There are a couple of oddities, however. For example, the first page of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) is displayed, but this important act is not mentioned at all in the text. The Act enabled a treaty with Canada (two decades later Mexico joined) that established seasons and list of protected birds over the scope of North America. In short, it federalized most hunting regulations for birds, thereby protecting those killed for the millinery industry. The Lacey Act (1900) is mentioned frequently but is not adequately explained. The Lacey Act made it a federal crime to break state laws in trafficking wildlife killed against state law. It was an important first step but was dwarfed in scope by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are also copies of the Bald Eagle Protection Act (1940) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) which are not mentioned at all in the text.

There is one biographical sketch (Alexander Wetmore who served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1945 to 1952). One wonders why there is only one. Names are dropped judiciously; a few more biographical sketches would have given the site a more personal dimension. I am surprised, especially, by the absence of any mention of Thomas Gilbert Pearson, Secretary and later President of the National Association of Audubon Societies. Pearson was a hunter-collector in North Carolina and later became instrumental in banning the feather trade. He fought for state laws, such as the Shea Act in New York State (1911), and the federal tariff in 1913 to eliminate the feather trade and save millions of herons and egrets. Another notable absence is any mention of the violence that could take place in the enforcement of wildlife laws. Market hunters did not want outsiders coming into their backyards telling them that they could not do what had been done for generations, and they frequently fought back with any means available. In 1905 Guy Bradley, an Audubon Society game warden in Florida, was killed in the line of duty, becoming a martyr to the cause and one of the most powerful symbols in the effort to eliminate the feather trade.

Primary Source Documents: The photographs, paintings, and advertisements that have been scanned into the site are the primary documents. What is missing are some extracts from contemporary books or magazines that take a stance on the issue. This is an example where the jump from museum exhibition to internet site misses the potential of the latter. Not all the documents can be viewed in their entirety. Only the first page of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for example, can be viewed. There are no re-keyed items. There are several examples of hats with large feathers. Equipment, such as a gun and a pair of binoculars are also available. There are a few documents, such as a letter written by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, an Audubon society membership certificate, and Audubon bylaws. Most of the descriptions are brief, but the material is largely self-explanatory. The location of the original items is not specified. Only a handful of visual representations have a link to detailed source information.

Education/Outreach: There is no explicit educational value to this site. It would require an intelligent teacher well versed in the subject to make it valuable to the classroom.

Promotion of a Community of Interest: This site is not an “aortal.” There is no place for site visitors to communicate their thoughts or suggestions with the designers. Once again, this is more like a museum exhibition than a website in the sense that visitors are expected to walk through and not question the authoritative voice of the anonymous author of the text. There is not much room for an interactive discussion between designers and visitors.

Point Assessment for The Feather Trade and American Conservation
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Permanence and Timeliness14/15
Value Added Features6/15
Technical Aspects9/15
Overall Impression5/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials15/40
Primary Source Documents10/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest0/20

Total: 86 points -- 2.5 Earths

Gregory Dehler ( is an adjunct professor at Front Range Community College, Westminster, Co. He earned his PhD. in American History from Lehigh University in 2002. For his dissertation, he wrote a biography of wildlife conservationist William Temple Hornaday.

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Last updated on  January 12, 2004