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Rise of the flamingos

Florida has beaches, shuttles, and Disney World—an overabundance of places to represent. Despite this, one object has risen above the rest to symbolize Florida: The Pink Flamingo.

photo credit: Szeke

photo credit: Szeke

It is on t-shirts, mugs, ties, and lottery tickets. You can eat edible “flamingo droppings” or put the birds on top a wedding cake; possibilities are endless (and souvenir shops prove it every day).

How did this all come to be? The mockingbird is the official state bird, after all, not the flamingo. To answer this question we’re going to have to put on our hats, strap our bags, and embark on an exploration of Florida and Americana history.

South Florida, Early 1900s

 Miami Beach’s first grand hotel opened for business in the 1920s, and in order to identify itself with its tropical location it chose a tropical name—The Flamingo; regardless of the fact that wild Florida flamingos had been hunted out by the late 1800s.

 Still, the hotel was a smashing success. People loved it. It was filled with glitz and glam and soon the bird itself was associated with what the hotel stood for. Then Art Deco moved in and a new train line made South Florida accessible to the northern middleclass.

Troves of tourists had flocked to Florida by the 1930s and returned with flamingo mementos; a representation of their good times under the sun. Also, many tourists told stories of Hialeah Park’s marching flamingos (which was a thoroughbred racetrack that imported flamingos to attract tourists; the marching was an adaptation of wild behavior. To add to the mystique, gangster Bugsy Siegel had a share in the track. He later built the famous Las Vegas resort “The Pink Flamingo.”)

The bird was cemented as a symbol for pizzazz.

photo credit: Peter Wilton

photo credit: Peter Wilton

 1957: An American Icon Is Born

Don Featherstone (yes, it must have been fate) had recently graduated from art school and was hired by Union Products in Massachusetts to design wares for their “Plastics for the Lawn.” They retailed with Sears, Woolworth’s, and Ben Franklin’s. His first project was a duck. He spent six months sketching a live model in his studio.

Then Featherstone moved on to flamingos. He couldn’t get a live bird to sketch this time, so he had to base his sculpting on photos from an issue of National Geographic

The end result was a pair of birds: one standing tall at nearly three feet and the other stooping low. Both of them stood on gawky metal rods meant to be planted in the ground. And both of them were hot pink.

Union Products unleashed Featherstone’s creation and soon lawns, gardens, and trailer parks everywhere were festooned with the birds. Yes, the plastic flamingo had finally arrived.

The reader may now be asking “Why were these things so popular? What drove mass amounts of assumedly sane people to snatch these things up just to plant them in their yards?”

Well, the bird’s success was helped along by several factors. This generation grew up in the Depression, fought through World War II, and then surprisingly found themselves as part of an emerging, affluent middle-class. For the first time people could afford homes, cars, and leisure.

Now, consider the pressing issue of lawn decoration. In the past it was something reserved only for the super-rich and their bronze and marble sculptures and their professionally manicured gardens. With the advent of plastics, however, lawn decoration was now in the domain of Everyday Man! And what better way to show that off than with a swanky piece of the tropics planted in the front yard?

Remember, the flamingo represented wealth, glamour, and exotic locales. And this message was doubly sent by it being a pink flamingo.

Elvis drove a pink Cadillac. Housewives did laundry in pink washing machines. Meals were prepared on pink countertops. Pink was in. And why not? It was a flashy color that represented the affluent times after impoverished times. It was a celebration, and the plastic pink flamingo embodied that.

Surely, the bird would only soar to greater heights from here, right?

photo credit: Esign Beedrill

photo credit: Esign Beedrill

The 1960s and 1970s 

The ’60s saw the beginning of a counterculture that rejected plush front lawns and pink washing machines. It was considered conformist. Nature was the authority and the ideal to strive for. And what was more anti-nature and conformist than mass produced plastics? The answer, of course, was nothing. Plastics were considered a plague to society and something to be snuffed out. This included pink flamingos. Also, critics and intellectuals didn’t seem to care for mass plastic arts. It was decried as Bad Taste:

“…a cancerous growth on High Culture.” Dwight Macdonald, intellectual.

“The epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” Clement Greenberg, essayist and art critic.

“The white honkie culture that has been handed to us on a silver plastic platter is meaningless to us! We don’t want it!” John Sinclair, The Fifth Estate, a New Left manifest.

Yikes!

Then in 1972, John Water’s movie Pink Flamingos hit theaters. It featured a three-hundred pound woman played by a transvestite actor and an incredibly vulgar plot that has the main character vying for the title of “filthiest person alive.” The movie opens with a shot of plastic pink flamingos in front of a pink trailer. The movie was advertised as an “exercise in poor taste.” Variety said it was “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”

Pink flamingos were not cool anymore. In fact, they were now tacky.

photo credit: Jvaughn0822

photo credit: Jvaughn0822

Late 1970s and the 1980s 

In Madison City, 1979, home to the University of Wisconsin, one of the greatest college pranks was pulled. One-thousand and eight pink plastic flamingos were planted in the lawn outside of the dean’s office. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of the pink flamingo as a joke had begun!

Flamingos disappeared from lawns and were held for ransom. Hikers traveled cross country with pet flamingos in tow. Flamingos replaced Santa’s reindeers at Christmas time. And flamingos were planted in front lawns just to annoy the neighbors. It was a Golden Age of Bad Taste as a Joke.

Then, in 1984, Miami Vice complicated things. The show displayed a glitzy Florida that harkened back to the old days. And the opening credits depicted, of all things, flamingos! They were back in.

Flamingo sales soared and “Florida Fever” was on. Flamingos became so popular that plastic knockoffs began appearing, prompting Featherstone to make the first alteration to his original design—his signature across the bird’s bottom to differentiate the real ones from the fake ones. It proved to be popular; because Union Products removed the signature briefly at one point, but was forced to retract due to a boycott. So now, even today, if you want the original Don Featherstone flamingo, all you have to do is look at the bird’s butt.

photo credit: Christian Mehlführer

Uncertain Times 

Oh, no! Is this the end of an era? Will they go extinct? These are some of the questions being asked in 2006 when Union Products, citing economic hardship, closed its doors. Fans scrambled to snatch up the last of the birds during the uncertain times. An estimated 20 million of the flamingos have been sold. But, is this the end?

 “I think the old girl isn’t dead yet,” Featherstone said.

To the relief of all, HMC International LLC bought the copyright for the original molds and resumed production of this most famous incarnation. Crisis averted. The bird is saved. Yay!

In Conclusion…

The Flamingo nearly has a 100 year long reign as Florida’s primary mascot and I doubt it will change. With that said, however, it has been getting competition from the alligator in recent years as more people discover Florida’s breathtaking river and spring systems and it has also been getting competition from a certain cartoon mouse that lives in Orlando. I, for one, think the plastic pink flamingo is a great symbol for Florida for reasons that may not appear obvious at first. I’ll cover it in a future article, in the meantime, thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the next expedition.

flamingo painting

Sources:

Collins, Clayton. “Backstory: Extinction of an American Icon?” The Christian Science Monitor. 2 Nov. 2006. 19 June 13. <http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1102/p20s01-lihc.html>.

Price, Jennifer. “The Plastic Pink Flamingo: A Natural History.” The American Scholar. 68 2 Spring 1999: 73-88.

Nefer, Barbara. “Florida Icon: The Pink Flamingo.” Expressions of Florida: Treasured Porch Memories. Retrieved 19 June 13. <http://www.expressionsofflorida.com/articles/flamingo/flamingo.html>.

“Retro Pink Flamingos to Hatch in New York.” NBCNews.com. 31 May 07. 19 June 13. <http://www.nbcnews.com/id.18967357/>.

Rickert, Chris. “City Designates Plastic Pink Flamingo as Official City Bird.” Wisconsin State Journal. 1 Sept. 09. 19 June 13.

<http://host.madison.com/wsj/article_e4c74006-905e-5c82-ad11-1ee368c900fc.html>

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