History can be messy around here, from family trees to nature’s flora, from the sturdy, early inhabitants of Marco to the scruffy human predators who did their best to destroy huge treasures of wildlife here.
Messy, yes, but our area’s history, warts and all, is fascinating, awesome, colorful and awful. All the more reason for Islanders to step into yesteryear at a new exhibit coming next week to the Marco Island Historical Society Museum.
It’s the Plume Exhibit, a month-long peek at the beauty and the beasts that took place here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the wholesale slaughter of shore and wading birds so fancy ladies of that time could borrow the birds’ beauty to enhance their own.
The exhibit’s creator and host David Southall, curator of education at the Collier County Museum, will speak at the museum on Nov. 9, but the exhibit opens on Monday. He will show the startling photos of the wildlife, in the wild and on the heads of those who accepted the slaughter for fashion’s sake or were ignorant of it.
We talked with David Southall about the exhibit:
“Plume hunting was a relatively important part of subsistence lifestyle for a lot of poor pioneers on the Florida frontier back when Collier County hadn’t been formed yet. This was the last frontier of America.
“So the exhibit and the accompanying program explain how plume hunting came about, in the context of changing fashions and the Industrial Revolution in America.”
David says that in those days, civilization had barely reached Southwest Florida. Poor people had a subsistence lifestyle of hunting, fishing, trapping and small farming.
“They found plume hunting to ... bring in extra money. Resources seemed inexhaustible.”
As bird-hunting weapons improved, millinery companies were getting rich selling feathered hats around the world.
“The value of plumes was so phenomenal at the time when the birds were becoming increasingly difficult to find that people were killed over it.”
Southall has much more to say, offering context for the plume hunting phenomenon. His speech on Nov. 9 should be terrific. It’s at 4 p.m. in the Rose History Auditorium.
We should note that not all the plume hunters were poor people trying to make a buck. A lot of northern “gentlemen” came down to hunt the birds for sport. But the carnage killed millions of birds nonetheless.
Here are some examples from the literature on the subject.
n “Frank Chapman’s 1886 Featured Hat Census,” as reported on www.stanford.edu: “During two walks along the streets of Manhattan, ornithologist Chapman spotted 40 native species of birds. But the birds were not flitting through the trees. They had been killed and for the most part plucked, disassembled or stuffed and (put) on three-quarters of the 700 women’s hats Chapman saw.”
n A Fort Myers newspaper carried an ad for a Punta Gorda plume dealer who wanted “500 short egret full plumes” for an order from Paris. (source: Expressions magazine.)
n The Stanford website also reports that inspections of records of one London auction house indicate that the supply of herons’ plumes involved meant 192,240 herons were killed in their nests.
n The price for plumes was $32 per ounce, making them worth twice their weight in gold at the time.
n “By the turn of the century, many millions of birds were being killed by plume hunters every year.” The St. Petersburg Times reported that in the late 1800s, plume hunters “almost eliminated wading birds from Tampa and Boca Ciega bays.
“Spoonbills, whose colorful feathers were as valuable as gold, suffered most of all. In Tampa Bay they stopped nesting in 1912 and did not raise young again for almost seven decades.”
Hunters responsible for all that reportedly then moved on to the Everglades to continue the carnage, killing birds in their nests, leaving the young ones to die. Some species, such as the flamingo, never recovered here.
According to the Times article, by 1920 the population of spoonbills in Florida was down to fewer than 30 pairs. It’s estimated to be more than 800 nesting pairs now.
There is much to see and learn in the Plume Exhibit in November. For details, go to this website: www.themihs.org. Click on November Events. Or phone the Historical Society at (239) 642-1440.