Monday, March 30, 2015

Pink Flamingos: A Migration Story

1957 National Geographic Photo of flamingos.
Unlike their tropical counterparts, the plastic pink flamingo does not hail from the great state of Florida where it has become synonymous with sun, but rather from Leominster, Massachusetts, which bills itself as the Plastics Capital of the World. Don Featherstone, a sculptor, was hired by Union Products, where his second assignment for the company was to sculpt a pink flamingo. Having not living models at his disposal, he worked from a National Geographic photo spread.

A pair of Pink Flamingos in their
natural habitat. 
It took about two weeks to model both halves of the bird, and was made with then-revolutionary injection-mold technology. When they first appeared for sale, a pair (they always come in a pair) were $2.76 and were an immediate hit in working-class suburbia across the country.

By the mid-1980s, the flamingos were transitioning from a working-class accessory to an elaborate upper-class inside joke. They became substitutes for croquet wickets (though some would argue Lewis Carroll came up with that almost 100 years earlier) and charity galas used them as decor. “The bird became a sort of plastic punch line, and, at worst, a way of hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others” (Abigail Tucker). 

One of the factors to the flamingo’s success were the very subdivisions they were purchased for. Feathestone elaborates on the need for novelty in these identical homes, “You had to mark your house somehow. A woman could pick up a flamingo at the store and come home with a piece of tropical elegance under her arm to change her humdrum house.” Also, “people just thought it was pretty,” adds Featherstone’s wife, Nancy.

In 1987, the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed the plastic bird “an essential contribution to American folk art.” The pink flamingo had made the ultimate giant leap for mankind: it had, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup cans, become art, and new clubs like the Flamingo Fanciers of America and the International Society for the Preservation of Pink Lawn Flamingos helped to celebrate the bird’s thirtieth birthday. In 1998, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles began to sell plastic pink flamingos in its bookstore for $19 a set (always a set).

Creator, Featherstone, with his flock 
In 2009, in honor of the students’ 1979 prank, the Madison, Wisconsin, city council named the plastic pink flamingo the official bird of the city. And the esteemed lawn ornament lives on in Americana infamy, lending its name to bars, restaurants, casinos and hotels from sea to shining sea. The birds currently go for about $16 a set online. In a yard near Leominster, 57 (for the year of creation) pink flamingos grace the lawn of Nancy and Don Featherstone, although sometimes that number dwindles when neighborhood college students feel compelled to thin. “They steal ’em, you've got to have a sense of humor.”

A flock of Pink Flamingos 


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