Harriet Hemenway: Bird Lady

In 1896, hats with feathers were all the rage. But it was a different type of rage – rage over the slaughter of the birds that provided the feathers – that motivated Harriet Hemenway. In 1896, the Boston social luminary read an article detailing the violent aftermath of a plume hunter’s rampage. Harriet was disturbed by the account. That day, over a cup of tea, she set to work ending the feather trade.

Early 20th century women’s fashion – from here

Harriet had always been an independent woman with a mind of her own. She was one of the group of notoriously independent Boston women who used their social circles to advocate for change. She was educated. She entertained Booker T. Washington as a houseguest when he could not find lodging for a black man elsewhere in Boston. She was known for setting out on nature hikes in unfashionable white sneakers. She publicly announced her pregnancy at a time when these declarations were shocking. She was also terribly fond of chocolate and tea.

So, with a goal in mind, nothing could stand in her way.

Taking on the plume industry was a difficult task, but environmentally necessary. An estimated 5 million birds were killed each year for fashion, so many that there were fewer than 5,000 nesting egrets in the United States. Egrets weren’t the only species under threat. As many as 50 species of birds were being slaughtered for their feathers. The industry made millions of dollars – the going “feather” rate in the 1880s was $20 per ounce – $510 in today’s dollars. Feathers were more valuable than gold. Women wore hats not only adorned with feathers, but with the entire bird.

Audubon’s drawing of a Great American Shrike, 1812. From here.

Harriet did her work over tea. She used tea parties to organize women to boycott the feathery fashions. Harriet and her cousin, Minna B. Hall, convinced over 900 women “to work to discourage the buying or wearing of feathers and to otherwise further the protection of native birds.”[1] Using the solidarity of Boston women, Minna and Harriet tried their darnedest to make feather hats uncool.

The next year, they started the Massachusetts Audubon Society, making sure to involve some of the foremost male conservationists in the country – a move which launched the society into the national consciousness. Massachusetts outlawed trade in wild-bird feathers in 1897. The combination of political and social pressure led to the Lacey Act of 1900, which prohibited interstate shipment of animals killed in violation of state laws. Combined with strong local laws against wild bird slaughter, these acts severely weakened the bird trade. In 1913, the victory of the Migratory Bird Act ensured safety for many of these endangered birds.

Through it all, Harriet continued to persuade and educate, over tea.

Harriet Hemenway, painted by John Singer Sargent. Public Domain.

MJ’s Note:

As a writer of biographies, I always look for a person’s “core belief” in order to write a story that is true to their life. Harriet’s core belief may have been something like, “no obstacle is insurmountable.” She did amazing work using the social tools available to her in turn-of-the-century Boston. She never gave up these causes. She lived to be 103 years old, and devoted the final decades of her life to activism with as much energy as she had in her youth.

Featured Image from here.


[1] Mitchell, John H. “The Mothers of Conservation.” p. 4.


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