In America, remotely luxurious in our own prosperity from the rest of the world, we became self-absorbed. The fashions, designed and inspired in Europe, became the chief element of attraction among the ladies. It was particularly noticeable in the autumn of 1886 for the brilliancy and grandeur of bird feathers. The taxidermist’s art was adapted to women’s gowns and hats to a degree that amazed the country. A precious group of French actresses, some of them divorced two or three times, with a system of morals entirely independent of the ten commandments, were responsible for this outbreak of bird millinery in America. From one village alone 70,000 birds were sent to New York for feminine adornment.
The whole sky full of birds was swept into the millinery shops. A three months foraging trip in South Carolina furnished 11,000 birds for the market of feathers. One sportsman supplied 10,000 aigrettes. The music of the heavens was being destroyed. Paris was supplied by contracts made in New York. In one month a million bobolinks were killed near Philadelphia. Species of birds became extinct. In February of this year I saw in one establishment 2,000,000 bird skins. One auction room alone, in three months, sold 3,000,000 East India bird skins, and 1,000,000 West India and Brazilian feathers.
A newspaper description of a lady’s hat in 1886 was to me savage in the extreme. I quote one of many:
“She had a whole nest of sparkling, scintillating birds in her hat, which would have puzzled an ornithologist to classify.”
Here is another one I quote:
“Her gown of unrelieved black was looped up with blackbirds and a winged creature so dusky that it could have been intended for nothing but a crow reposed among the strands of her hair.”
Public sentiment in American womanhood eventually rescued the songsters of the world—in part, at any rate. The heavenly orchestra, with its exquisite prelude of dawn and its tremulous evensong, was spared.
Many years ago Thomas Carlyle described us as “forty million Americans, mostly fools.” He declared we would flounder on the ballot-box, and that the right of suffrage would be the ruin of this Government. The “forty million of fools” had done tolerably well for the small amount of brain Carlyle permitted them.
Better and better did America become to me as the years went by. I never wanted to live anywhere else. Many believed that Christ was about to return to His reign on earth, and I felt confident that if such a divine descent could be, it would come from American skies. I did not believe that Christ would descend from European skies, amidst alien thrones. I foresaw the time when the Democracy of Americans would be lifted so that the President’s chair could be set aside as a relic; when penitentiaries would be broken-down ruins; almshouses forsaken, because all would be rich, and hospitals abandoned, because all would be well.