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Feathers were needed for hats

William Hill feeds his ostriches, with their coveted plumage, near Whatcom Falls in 1911. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #1996.10.1414)

Jeff Jewell
   Not so long ago, it was customary for a woman to wear a hat when out in public, and getting a new bonnet meant a visit to her milliner.
   A man might rely on his old fedora being a standby for years, but women’s headwear changed with the season. Creating ladies’ hats required a woman’s touch and the first Bellingham businesses owned and operated by women were millineries.
   Carrie W. Barr, a native of the Windy City, started the City of Chicago Millinery Parlors on Holly Street in late 1889. It was Bellingham Bay’s pioneer shop dedicated solely to providing women with "unmistakably modern" hats.
   On March 1, 1890, Miss L.F. Ryan opened the first millinery parlor in Fairhaven at the "urgent request" of the Focal City’s "prominent society ladies." A northern branch of her successful Seattle firm, Ryan’s store on Harris Avenue near 14th Street was reviewed at the time as "an elegant display of recherché hats and bonnets that immediately caused Fairhaven’s fair dames’ eyes to sparkle" and the "male contingent to inwardly groan at the prospect of the coming onslaught on their exchequer."
   

After a recent trip to the milliner, these women model the hat fashions of 1913. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #X.6000.568)

    Within a year, Fairhaven saw new millinery shops started by Agnes George, (Mary) Sherlock & (Isabel) Murphy, Jane Taylor, and Carrie Fesenbeck. Most of them, including Miss Ryan’s, proved as fleeting as Fairhaven’s boom. The lone exception was Agnes George, an 1890 arrival from San Francisco, whose Fairhaven Millinery Store at 1011 Harris Avenue obviously proved a head above the competition.
   Agnes George moved to New Whatcom in 1892, opening a hat emporium at 209 W. Holly with "four experienced assistants, who closely second her efforts in making bonnets and hats." Mrs. George, known as "an artistic trimmer and a designer of no little ability," carried hats in "New York’s best styles, Paris’ most fetching productions and Chicago’s approved fashions."
   Caroline Alverson started her hat shop in 1893 in Fairhaven and relocated to New Whatcom in 1895. Alverson’s Fashionable Millinery on West Holly Street was described, in 1900, as being "like a section of the Paris Exposition, so new and fashionable are the styles displayed." For many years, Mrs. Alverson had the largest store in Bellingham devoted exclusively to millinery. She was "one of the best known business women of the city."
   Bellingham Bay women were thoroughly versed in haute couture by national magazines and catalogs of the day. Local newspapers regularly carried such features as "Fashions Seen at Noted Parisian Resorts" and New York columnist Kate Clyde’s "Timely Hints for the Woman Who Likes to be in the Fashion."
   Mrs. S.E. Walling opened the New York Millinery Parlors at Elk (State) and Holly streets in 1897. She had a sister in New York who bought "direct from the big importing houses of that center of fashion" and shipped the latest hats fresh to New Whatcom. The Doty Sisters, Mary and Cecil, "from the fashionable city of Detroit," brought their hometown chic here in July 1899.
   

Mrs. Theresa Koerdel’s millinery at 1308 Commercial St., in 1905, was one of many shops that offered ladies’ fancy hats. Koerdel was a Bellingham milliner from 1893 to 1923. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #1960.37.223)

    A milliner frequently did other commercial sewing, mostly dressmaking, and, because her parlor was strictly a female domain, often did custom fitting of corsets. Mrs. Littlefield’s hat shop on F Street, in the early 1890s, was also a "Ladies’ Tailor" and "agent for the Hygienic and Good Sense Corsets." The Misses Curtiss, Inez and Idalene, had "fine millinery" and "the Famous Crosby Corsets" at 319 W. Holly St.
   Eva Phelps’ Ladies Bazaar at 1320 Bay St. sold hats, "cloaks, suits, art materials, ladies furnishings and toilet requisites." Mrs. Phelps’ millinery career, beginning in 1900 on Elk (State) Street, spanned nearly 40 years. In the late 1930s, when she was in her early 70s, Mrs. Phelps started Phelps’ Baby Shoppe at 207 E. Holly St. with her daughter Gladys.
   On March 20, 1902, The Leader dry goods store on West Holly Street, "Furnishers to Her Majesty, The American Lady," held "The Greatest Beauty Show of Elegant Millinery that has ever been shown in this section of the State." With Bardwell’s Orchestra playing the “Grand Millinery Opening,” The Leader introduced the city to inexpensive, ready-to-wear pattern hats. The millinery department would eventually be taken to its most grandiose expression by the Bellingham stores of Montague & McHugh and J.B. Wahl.
   The independent milliner competed against these larger stores by providing extraordinary service and producing one-of-a-kind creations for each customer. Special occasions often required new headwear, but Easter was always the day for new hats.
   Milliners started advertising for Easter in March, not so much to generate business as to control it. A spring ad for Agnes George in 1906 asked that "ladies having in mind a hat for Easter should call as early as possible, for while Mrs. George has a most efficient corps of assistants, her patronage has increased to such an extent that the rush at the last minute will make it impossible to give the last minute shoppers the same careful attention as those who call early will receive."
   On April 15, 1906, the Puget Sound American ran a story about a Bellingham woman who left the milliner’s shop earlier that week with her new Easter hat. Boarding a streetcar on Holly she rested her hat on the seat beside her only to have it immediately sat on by another passenger. Quiet tears ran down her face as "she gazed upon the crushed mass of wire, chiffon and violets." Yet all was not lost, for "dragging her new creation ruthlessly from beneath her weighty seatmate, she found that a long-sought-for shape had been attained."
   By 1907, ladies’ hats were achieving their largest proportions with the Merry Widow and other wide brimmed picture-hats. Their view-obscuring size forced theaters like Beck’s, Bellingham’s biggest stage, to impose a hat rule that required women to take their masterpieces off before the performance. In 1909, D.W. Griffith’s widely distributed three-minute film "Those Awful Hats" humorously portrayed a movie audience jockeying to catch a glimpse of the screen amid high-altitude headwear. Played between vaudeville acts, the short ended with "Ladies will kindly remove their hats."
   It was believed that a woman’s hat was "invaluable as an introduction," reflecting the wearer’s character by its "poise, adjustment, line and coloring." Milliners trimmed their creations to fit each client’s whims, requiring elaborate use of feathers, ribbons and bows or, as one gent in 1914 quipped, "flower pots, lampshades and casseroles."
   In fact, so many feathers were going onto ladies’ hats by the end of the 19th century that it was taking a terrible toll on birds. It inspired organization of the National Audubon Society in 1905, and the group successfully lobbied passage of the Audubon Plumage Law, which banned slaughter of wild birds and importation of exotic species for their feathers. Domestic and reared birds, like ducks, geese, and pheasants, were looked upon to fill the demand, leading to one of Bellingham’s more unusual business experiments.
   During the winter of 1910, William E. Hill began clearing a couple of acres near Whatcom Falls Park. When a friend asked what he was doing, Hill declared, "I will have some real birds to enter in the next Bellingham poultry show."
   On April 9, 1911, Hill’s secret was revealed when a dozen ostriches, shipped from California, arrived at the train station. They were taken on the streetcar line to Electric Avenue and their new home at Hill’s Ostrich Farm. Bill had constructed a number of "coups" and high-fenced yards, going so far as to bury a grid of steam pipes to heat the ground in hopes of simulating the African environment to which the birds were native. Hill’s plan was to sell the ostrich plumes to local milliners and, since the big birds naturally molted their feathers, he would have a renewable supply. It was brilliant.
   All through the summer, curiosity seekers flocked to the farm. Besides having "a beautiful display of the choicest new plumes on the coast" for the hat makers, Hill charged 25-cent admission to "See the Real Ostrich." He contemplated introducing ostrich eggs to Bellingham’s breakfast tables.
   But as the fall rainy season descended, the compound turned muddy and the ostriches sat huddled together in their damp quarters, obviously miserable. Hill announced in December that by year’s end he was moving his farm to Seattle, where he had located a hillside with proper drainage. No word if Seattle’s climate proved any more suitable for ostriches than Bellingham’s.
   By the 1920s, the cloche hat was the dominant style and, in 1924, Betty Rudd and Jean Dawson started the Betty-Jean Shoppe at 1332 Cornwall Ave. Jean left the business after becoming Mrs. Anderson and Betty Rudd, who became Mrs. Johnston, ran the Betty-Jean Shoppe at the same downtown location until 1965.
   During the Depression a branch store of Reed’s Millinery, a discount chain, opened in the former Liberty Theatre at 132 W. Holly St. Reed’s operated from 1935 to 1968 with numerous managers, including Mabel Boblette, Dorothy LeMaster, Myrtle Moblo and Betty Sargent.
   The last new millinery in Bellingham was Cecile’s at 1310 Cornwall Ave., started by Cecelia Thomas and Katheryne North in March 1956. Mrs. Thomas had previously managed the hat department at Newton’s. Cecile’s became a “women’s apparel" store when it moved to 111 W. Magnolia St. in 1963.
   By the 1960s, women’s hair styles became more fashionable than hats. Hairdressers replaced the milliners and the beauty parlor took the place of the millinery parlor.

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