Saturday, September 14, 2013

Unusual Artifacts: The Hummingbird Spray, 1894

More specifically a floral spray ornament meant for a hat
Made from dead hummingbird feathers, skin and beetles.
English, 1894
The Victoria & Albert Museum

This odd, yet completely Victorian, object is an 1894 creation of millinery wire wound with brown silk thread and adorned with Coppery-headed Emerald Hummingbird feathers and Indian Beetle wings arranged in the form of a floral spray. Gotta love our Victorian forebears and their ability to make something attractive out of anything—even pieces of dead bugs and birds. The feathers have become leaves and seven pieces of iridescent copper hummingbird skin, delightfully cut in the shape of a flower petal form a blossom, with seven pieces of beetle-wing in the center. Fun!

This…thing…was created to be used as an ornament for a hat. The 1880s to about 1921, a lady of fashion enjoyed wearing hats which were decorated with the plumage of exotic birds. This poor birdy was from Costa Rica.

Now, even by Victorian standards, this was a bit extreme since it required the actual killing of the bird. Of course, most of the feathers which made up such ornaments came from birds who were killed, but a case could have been made that the birds were found dead or, perhaps, willing offered up their plumage. You can’t say that about this…thing. It certainly would have required killing the hummingbird since the presence of the creature’s SKIN makes this reality undeniable.

Just before this ornament was made, The Society for the Protection of Birds was formed in 1889 in Britain. The organization passionately protested the killing of Britain's great-crested grebe for use in fashionable dress. By the 1900s, the Society was campaigning against the use of most exotic birds in millinery and other fashions. The V&A tells us that, “the first Anti-Plumage Bill was defeated in the House of Commons in 1908 and finally passed in 1921, preventing any further use of birds as fashionable decoration.” You all know how much I adore all things Victorian. And, I confess, I’m often drawn to the weird bits of aviary taxidermy from time to time because they’re just so darn beautiful. They really are. I would never purchase one, however, since I have a natural aversion to dead things. What appeals to me about such items is the bird itself. That’s what appealed to our Victorian forbears. The birds were attractive--so attractive that they were murdered for it. The Victorians wanted to make beauty permanent, and, in their estimation that was a good way to do it. I don’t fault them for it, but I would certainly not support such a thing. I like birds. I have, truly, about six doves who have made homes for themselves around the protected exterior of my house—quickly making me the Crazy Dove Man of McKinney and turning my porches into a dove factory. I talk to them. I talk to all animals. I’m a little peculiar. But, there must be a middle ground between displaying dead animals in your home and, well, being like me and offering sanctuary to any wildlife which comes my way. Perhaps one day I’ll find a middle ground. The Victorians didn’t. Still, we can enjoy the beauty of these animals which lost their lives so long ago. 

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