The Audubon Society Was Originally Founded In Reaction To?
Answer: Women’s Hats
Although we’re quite familiar with the concept of endangered species today and the idea that we can hunt an animal to extinction, for most of human history the idea that humans could put any dent at all in the vast abundance of nature was a foreign one.
So foreign, in fact, that when it became highly fashionable in the late 19th century for women to wear hats appointed with hundreds of feathers and/or whole taxidermied birds, nobody batted an eye at killing millions of birds to meet the demand for the morbid hats. If millions seems a tad hyperbolic, consider this: in the 1890s it was common for hat makers in London and other major cities to place single orders for 400,000 feathers at once and high-value feathers were frequently auctioned off in astounding numbers. A 1902 auction in London included a massive lot of heron feathers that required nearly 200,000 herons to provide.
Ornithologists and bird lovers alike around the world started to take notice. Although the bird trappers, traders, and hat makers acted as though the bird supply was inexhaustible, it clearly wasn’t and there were dozens of species around the world at risk of extinction with the hat fashion craze as a direct cause. As a result of the hats and their impact on the global bird population, George Bird Grinnell, then editor of the magazine Forest and Stream, founded the precursor to the modern Audubon Society (named after famed ornithologist and bird painter John James Audubon). Although the society would not formally incorporate until 1905, the first group already had 39,000 members within a year of Grinnell forming it.
The Audubon Society had a far reach and thanks to the influence of Boston area socialites Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall as well as President Theodore Roosevelt, the tide of public opinion turned on the ornate feather-bedecked hats. Many U.S. states adopted laws against the hunting of birds for plumage and the trading of plumage, effectively putting an end to the craze.
Image courtesy of the Audubon Society.