Ostrich Feathers

It might be hard to understand, but during most of the 1800s in America, but a sign of prestige, wealth and social standing was to have many fluffy plumes made of ostrich feathers. These feathers are loose, soft, and smooth, making them special. This was especially the case during a funeral.

All the ladies attending would have large ostrich feathers in their hats, some would be on top of the hearse for the decease, at any tents put at the cemetery, along with wreaths made of ostrich feathers on mourner’s front door of their home.

A good example is the 1865 funeral in Springfield, Illinois for President Abraham Lincoln. The horse-drawn hearse was topped with eight plumes of black ostrich feathers. Also, each horse had such feather plumes attached to leather-wrapped at the horses’ heads.

This was not just at his funeral in Springfield, but also at the various stops to cities along the way. At the service in Springfield, there was a grand large canopy also topped with many ostrich feathers. Other grand funerals using ostrich feathers included the British Duke of Wellington.

Ladies attending an elite funeral were expected to wear their finest clothes, but not black unless they were a close family member to the decease. Of course, the ladies also wore a fine ostrich feathered hat, maybe even an ostrich fan or a black feather boa.

Not just at the funeral, but family members wore black including black ostrich feathers for months or more than a year. This was considered an outward expression of one’s inner grief. Going out without your black ostrich feather hat could signify that you did not love your departed family member deeply enough. On the other hand, It was considered rude for anyone outside of the family to wear black mourning clothes. So if you have a photograph of your ancestors dressed in black – or with black ostrich feathers – you can be sure that they had a death in the family.

Even less wealthy families tried to have a plain carriage (even to rent one) with the horses having an ostrich feather plume on the head of each horse. The ladies might borrow a hat with ostrich feathers for the funeral.

During the 1800s it was important to also have an ostrich feather wreath at one’s front door, to let community members know that there had been a death in the household so that they could pass by quietly out of respect. Even children were taught to play on a different street out of ear-shot of a home with a wreath on the door.

To keep up with the demand for the ostrich feathers, entrepreneurial-minded folks determined that there was a profit to be made in raising ostrich, so farms were developed. The feathers could be clipped and new ones grew back in a year. Many ostrich farmers were established n Florida, Texas and California, areas of warm weather.

The wearing of ostrich plume hats was also popular as fashion from the beginning of 1900 to 1919 and not just for a funeral. These were large hats and did need special long pins to hold them on the head. Check family photos, see if ancestors are wearing such a hat.

To give you an idea of the feathers’ value, on the ship ‘Titanic’ in 1912, the most valuable cargo on board was a shipment of feathers, coming from Britain to America. It was insured for $2.3 million in today’s money.

The decline of using ostrich feathers as funeral decor came about when the feather was no longer considered to be “a rare and beautiful thing”. The ostrich farms made the feathers so plentiful that just about anyone could afford one.

By the 1920s the style and demand totally dropped for ostrich feathers.

Photo: Lady with a large ostrich plume hat in 1900.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

National Hat Month

Hat Pin Holders

How Fashion Styles Date Photos

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