The Obnoxious Schedule N

All conservation eyes are looking ahead to 2018 and the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the legislation that even today, ninety-five years on, offers some sort of protection to every native non-game bird in the US and its neighbors.

Laughing Gull, Greater Yellowlegs, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis

Before the MBTA, however, came the Tariff Act of 1913, enacted one hundred years ago today. The happy result of years — decades — of effort on behalf of scientific and conservation organizations, Schedule N of the Act included a provision that

the importation of aigrettes, egret plumes or so-called osprey plumes, and the feathers, quills, heads, wings, tails, or parts of skins, of wild birds, either raw or manufactured and not for scientific or educational purposes, is hereby prohibited.

T.S. Palmer reported that the new law was enforced without delay,

in the case of plumage worn by travelers as well as in the case of feathers imported for sale, and notwithstanding vigorous protests, all persons at ports of entry with prohibited plumage either in trunks or on their hats, were compelled to relinquish such trimmings….

William Dutcher, President of the Audubon Society — one of the key players in seeing the legislation through Congress — noted in Bird-Lore that

for several weeks [after October 3] the New York daily papers have contained many articles regarding the words and actions of indignant ladies who found it necessary to give up their aigrettes, paradise plumes and other feathers, upon arriving from Europe…. There is little doubt but what the cries of resentment and opposition raised by the distressed ladies along our New York water front will be quickly heard abroad, and it will surely deter other women from attempting to wear birds’ feathers to this country.

What was a modish lady to do? Enterprising milliners offered an alternative.

Audubon Hat

Dutcher pronounced the Audubon Hat, lacy and beribboned and entirely featherless, “becoming in every way.” Skeptical fashionistas were reassured by the motto on the hat’s label:

Audubon Hat. Save the Birds!

Audubon Hat

Naturally, there was resistance, then resentment, against the “obnoxious paragraph in Schedule N” on the part of the milliners whose trade had flourished during the plume days. But even for them there was a grudging silver lining. Reporting from Paris, the Illustrated Milliner pointed out that

the majority of the premier designers express themselves as highly pleased at the turn tariff matters have taken in America…. The fact that the same aigrette garnitures were used by their owners season after season interfered seriously with the business, and deprived many a milliner of a great many opportunities in showing her skill in inventing new forms of decoration; the fad for aigrettes also meant a considerable loss of profit to the milliner, as many of their customers required nothing but the shape to serve as foundation for the trimming she already possessed.

All the same, the editors couldn’t resist pointing out the “inconsistency” of “the Audubons,” who at the same time as they protest the killing of egrets and gulls and ibis urge that House Sparrows and feral cats be killed. More sinisterly, the Milliner hints at legal action against the conservation “faddists” with their “vast income and high salaried officials”:

Some day the American people will awaken to the fact that there are other trusts besides those which are being condemned for violation of the Sherman Anti-trust law and the restraint of trade.

It didn’t come to that, but emotions ran high. And the plumers and the milliners were right: October 3, 1913, truly was the beginning of the end for the feather trade.