This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Feathers. [Literally, that which flutters; German feder, Dutch veder] Feathers as ornaments were not used by civilized people until the close of the 13th century and from that time until the close of the 18th century used almost exclusively by men. It is impossible to enumerate all the birds whose beautiful plumage supplies the manufacturer with ornamental feathers. The feathers of the bird of paradise, the gold and silver pheasants, the peacock, the flamingo, the beautiful wing and tail feathers of the Argus pheasant, and the wing of the partridge and ptarnu-gan are worn in all children's and ladies' hats, and used more or less in the manufacture of fabrics. The feathers of the domestic goose form a staple item of commerce. Cock's feathers furnish plumes for the French soldiers; eagles' feathers are worn in the hat and bonnet in Scotland, and a plume of them is a mark of distinction among the Indians of North America. The wing and side feathers of the turkey supply trimmings for articles of ladies' apparel, and are made into victorines, boas and muffs. Artificial flowers made of feathers were once much worn by ladies. For the decoration of ladies' hats the feathers from the breasts and heads of humming birds are at present utilized. To provide these the delicate and defenceless humming birds are slain during the mating season, when the color of the plumage burns with the most intense splendor. They are skinned alive, because it is only by skinning while the body still quivers and the blood is hot that the full vividness of color is preserved for the bonnets of womanhood. The feathers of many species of birds are also worn as articles of clothing. The skin of the swan, after being properly prepared, is used for muffs, linings, and a variety of other articles of dress; the skin and feathers of the penguin and eider duck are worn as clothing in northern latitudes on account of their beauty and warmth, supplying suitable material for victorines, tippets, boas, cuffs, muffs, and other articles of winter attire. The native inhabitants of the Arctic regions, in some parts, make themselves coats of bird-skins, which are worn with the feathers inside. Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, writes that ere the art of weaving silk and hemp was understood, mankind used to clothe themselves with the skins of beasts and with feathers; and it is very certain that the Chinese are now very skillful and ingenious in the art of plumagery, or feather-working. They manufacture garlands, chaplets, frontals, tiaras and crowns of very thin copper, on which purple and blue feathers are placed with much taste and skill. Cortez, the Spanish discoverer, is said to have found abundance of curious works in feathers in the palace of Montezeuma, the emperor of Mexico, which were so excellent that they are described as being "so artificial and neat that they cannot be described in writing, or presented to the imagination, except a man sees them," and so difficult that no Spaniard could make in silk, wax or needlework anything comparable to them. The best description of what this work was like in detail is that of Prescott, who says: "When the Spaniards became masters of Mexico they found Montezuma and his nobles arrayed in wonderful feather cloaks, almost more splendid than we can imagine. Still less can we conceive what a gorgeous spectacle must have been presented when such things were worn by a number of people together. Their beautiful cloaks had all the effect of a brilliant mosaic. The glittering plumage of the tropical birds, especially the parrot tribes, afforded every variety of color, and the fine downs of the humming birds, which reveled in swarms among the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico, supplied them with soft aerial tints that gave an exquisite finish to the garment. These feathers painted on a fine cotton web, were wrought into dresses for the wealthy, into hanging for apartments and ornaments for the temples." From time immemorial the plumes from the the back, wings and tail of the ostrich have in all civilized countries been used as the crowning ornament of ladies' head gear, and at the present time the various sorts of the plumage of this bird is used for an almost endless variety of purposes, by man as well as by women. [See Ostrich Feathers]