The extinction of the most abundant bird in North America

By Emily Beliveau, Digital Project Assistant

A mounted passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) from the Huron County Museum collection, Object ID: N000.1713.

A mounted passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) from the Huron County Museum collection, Object ID: N000.1713.

In 1914, the passenger pigeon became extinct. The last known survivor of the species was a female named Martha (after Martha Washington), who died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914 at 1:00pm. Only 50 years earlier, passenger pigeons were so abundant that giant flocks darkened the sky for hours at a time as they passed overhead. How did the most populous bird in North America become extinct? The short answer: humans. The destruction of forest habitat along with unrestricted commercial hunting annihilated the species over the course of several decades.

The passenger pigeon was a species of pigeon most closely related to the mourning dove, with a nesting range around the Great Lakes and a migration range from central Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia in the north, to the uppermost parts of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in the south. Communal in nature and capable of flying at 60 miles per hour, huge colonies of passenger pigeons travelling and nesting were a noisy, messy spectacle. An 1866 account from southern Ontario described a migrating flock that was 1.5 km wide and 500 km long and took 14 hours to pass through the sky. Nesting groups could easily cover 100 square kilometers, with 500 birds per tree.

Imagine the scene. Birds several deep on the branches, a constant roar of wings as birds take off and land, the smell of droppings and of the pigeons themselves—people say you could smell the passing flocks—the crack of branches. So many birds that a man in Ohio could remember firing a 12-gauge pistol into a bush in the dark and bringing down 18 pigeons with the shot. And every hawk, owl, crow, raven, vulture, fox, raccoon, and weasel within miles getting fat feeding on eggs, unfortunate nestlings, and awkward squabs fresh from the nest.
–From “The Passenger Pigeon: Once There Were Billions,” an essay from Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street by Jerry Sullivan

News item from The Essex Record (Windsor, ON), April 2, 1875, p.2

News item from The Essex Record (Windsor, ON), April 2, 1875, p.2

Because the birds were so plentiful, the passenger pigeon was an important food source, first for the indigenous population of North America, and later for colonial settlers. When commercial hunters began selling large numbers of birds at city markets in the early 1800s, the decline in population first became noticeable. By the time legislators starting passing laws to restrict hunting the birds, it was too late for the population to recover. Deforestation, wholesale slaughter, a low reproductive rate (one egg per season), and an inability to survive in small colonies all contributed to the irreversible decline of the species. By the late 1890s, wild passenger pigeons were exceedingly rare, and despite large sums offered for live captures to use for breeding, no rewards were ever claimed.

The Huron County Museum is extremely fortunate to have a taxidermied specimen in its collection, which is on exhibit in the upper Mezzanine this fall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction and efforts to prevent future human-related species decline.

References and further reading: 
Project Passenger Pigeon
The Passenger Pigeon, Encyclopedia Smithsonian

Noteworthy: Musical Instruments

By Elizabeth French-Gibson, Assistant Curator

closeup of organ keyboard

“Empress” Goderich Organ & Stool, an early 1900s model pump organ manufactured by the Goderich Organ Company, Goderich, Ontario, which produced organs from 1889 to 1930. Object ID 2006.0038.001

Like many children, for me growing up included music lessons.  My piano teacher was a wonderful lady who could actually play the piano with her hands behind her back.  My mother arranged to buy a used piano which still sits in our family’s living room.  Weekly visits to my piano teacher’s home, daily practice sessions at home, and yearly recitals were all a part of my growing years.  And like many people I soon forgot all my lessons and can barely play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star anymore.   Never more than now have I wished that I had practiced more and could still play.

Each day when I step into the exhibit “Noteworthy: Musical Instruments” at the Huron County Museum I wish that I could step up to those beautiful pianos and organs and play a beautiful tune.  Not that I would!  It wouldn’t be smart for the Assistant Curator to break the golden rule of Don’t Touch the Artifacts!   But I still wonder, what did each sound like when these were the centers of homes and churches throughout our County?

Noteworthy exhibit in the temporary gallery at the Huron County Museum, on display until September 14, 2014.

A partial view of the exhibit Noteworthy: Musical Instruments in the temporary gallery at the Huron County Museum, on display until September 14, 2014.

Unplayable, the beauty of these instruments now resides in their design.   Each piece in the exhibit is individual – tall, wide, stationary, portable, inlaid or carved.   I try to imagine looking through the Eaton’s Catalogue and choosing the Empress Organ designed, built and sold by the Goderich Organ Factory.  I imagine meeting a sales representative from the Doherty Organ Factory in Clinton to order an organ to be used in my church each Sunday morning.  I imagine requesting that the company design a special portable organ to be carried to schools throughout the district by the music teacher.   Each order would have led to the inevitable anticipation of the music, sounds and joy the instrument would bring.  The many employees at our Huron County Organ factories took pride in manufacturing these pieces that were sent around the across Canada and internationally.

Beyond the pianos and organs, the exhibit also includes smaller instruments such as violins, accordions, autoharps, harmonicas, and even a serpent horn.   Yes a serpent horn – an instrument that looks like a snake!  Put them all together and the room has a feeling of warmth and mystery as you imagine the fingers that coaxed the music from each one.

Display case with an accordian, drum, and serpent horn.

Display case with an auto harp, drum, and serpent horn.

You can enjoy the beauty of these musical instruments at the Huron County Museum until September 14th in our Temporary Exhibit Gallery.  And if you still remember your childhood music lessons there is one piano at the Museum on display that was donated with the permission and hopes that it still be played.  Believe me, it is a beautiful sound when the notes drift through the exhibit halls and offices as a visitor takes the time to play this piano.   And each time that happens I wish a little more that I remembered how to play too.

This article also appeared in the 27 August 2014 edition of the Goderich Signal-Star.

Fashion History (Part 2)

By Mary-Katherine Whelan, Intern

Mary-Katherine has been interning at the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol since May and is currently enrolled in the Museum Management and Curatorship program at Fleming College. A graduate from the Arts Management Program at the University of Toronto, she has previously worked for the National Historic Sites Alliance of Ontario, the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Niagara Historical Society, and Great North Artist Management. In part two of this two-part series, she details some of the many online museum collections of vintage fashion. 

Online Museum Collections

Over the last ten years cultural and historic institutions have gradually photographed and made their costume collections accessible online. There is a great wealth of resources available online that I regularly consult when I’m stumped.

mannequin wearing silk outfit

Evening ensemble designed by Nabob, about 1927: V&A Collection

Victoria and Albert Museum has a great collection available online. The collections made available span from 18th century to 20th century fashion, and include drawings, photographs, art work, and historical context and introduction for each collection.

brown beaded short sleeved dress

Evening dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent, 1967. The Museum at FIT.

The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) has, like the V&A, a comprehensive collection available online, which spans from the 18th century to the 21st century. What is unique about this collection is that it is very focused on costumes designed by noted fashion designers from the 20th century onward, and includes biographies of the designers. The collection has a searchable feature that is easy to use and can be narrowed down based on what you are specifically looking for.

The McCord Museum in Montreal has an online collection of costumes and textiles that are uniquely Canadian. Currently, the McCord Museum has over 900 images from their Costume and Textiles collection available online.  What is great about the McCord Collection is that visitors are able to download the images directly from the website and if interested can order high quality images from the collection.

Finger-woven sash: Northern Plains Métis, c.1900-1910, McCord Museum.

The online collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute is much smaller than others on this list (200 items) but they have a great interactive timeline that you can click through for in-depth information about items from the collection including context, designer name (if applicable), materials used and date.

back of dress pop art design sun

Dress Coat, designed by Roy Lichtenstein (Textile), Lee Rudd Simpson c. 1965. Kyoto Costume Institute.

Current Exhibitions

The Museum at FIT has pulled  together a comprehensive list of fashion and historical costume related exhibitions from institutions around the world.

For local costume history, visit the dress shop display in the History Hall at the Huron County Museum and check out Fashion Fridays posts by summer student Tess Burnfield on the museum Facebook page.

window display

Dress shop display in History Hall Gallery, Huron County Museum

 

Fashion History (Part 1)

By Mary-Katherine Whelan, Intern

Mary-Katherine has been interning at the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol since May and is currently enrolled in the Museum Management and Curatorship program at Fleming College. A graduate from the Arts Management Program at the University of Toronto, she has previously worked for the National Historic Sites Alliance of Ontario, the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Niagara Historical Society, and Great North Artist Management. In part one of this two-part series, she details some of her favorite books and blogs for researching the history of fashion. 

My love of historical fashion …

Fashions from the past can tell us a lot about the people that made the clothes, purchased them, and wore them. I’ve long been fascinated by historical fashions and over the years have researched and read copious amounts of books on the topic.

As an emerging museum professional I’ve found that my knowledge of historical fashions and dress have increased my ability to successfully date photographs and artifacts. During my schooling I had the privilege of working with a variety of artifacts like Victorian wedding gowns, glass buttons, purses, uniforms and some of the tools used to create clothing. I often fell back on several go-to books and websites to help pinpoint a time period when accession forms lack a discernable time period.

cover image

Empire Fashions, a colouring book by Tom Tierney,

Book Resources

One of my first exposures to historical fashions were from Tom Tierney fashion plate colouring books and paper dolls. The more historically-oriented selections are drawings based on fashion plates from the Victorian era. As I grew older I started to seek out the sources that Tierney used as well as other books on the evolution and history of historic costumes and clothing. Some of my favourite publications are Tierney’s Empire Fashions Colouring Book, and Medieval Fashions Colouring Book. If you are interested in checking out some of Tom Tierney’s other publications, visit the Dover publications website.

cover image

Fashion in Costume 1200-2000, Revised, by Joan Nunn, 2nd edition, 2000.

Another book that I  rely on is Joan Nunn’s Fashion in Costume 1200-2000, Revisedwhich chronologically details types of clothing styles while providing cultural and historical context with accompanying drawings. The book is easy to understand and doesn’t lose the reader with overly technical terminology. While not an exhaustive record, the book gives a good overview and serves as a great introduction.

cover image

What People Wore When, Melissa Leventon, ed.

Additionally, What People Wore When – A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society by Melissa Leventon is an amazing visual resource. Using classic 19th century illustrations by Auguste Racinet and Friedrich Hottenroth the book presents these illustrations chronologically while providing in depth contextual information, glossary of terms and a detailed bibliography to help better illustrate why people wore what they did and how certain styles have impacted fashion today.

Blogs

While not museum collections, these blogs are worth checking out! They feature examples of vintage or recreated historical fashions and are a good place for discovery, research, or inspiration.

The American Duchess
A blogger who designs and fabricates her own historical clothing

OMG That Dress
A tumblr blog devoted to sharing photographs of men and women’s fashions, plus jewelry and accessories

The Hidden Wardrobe
A blogger who works at Berrington Hall showcases and explores 18th century and 19th century costumes from the National Trust Collection

Worn Through
A blogger whose approach is more academic in scope and aims to spark discussion about current trends and topics