I thought of my father recently, as I was taking down our Christmas tree and wrapping up the decorations. More than 10 years ago, I had seen him watching my mother, as she did this same, annual chore, carefully rolling the trimmings one by one in pieces of tissue paper and placing them in a box destined for the basement for the next 12 months. He said to her, sadly, “It’s like you’re packing away all the good memories.”
Each of my ornaments holds a good memory for me, too. There are the items that you’d expect on my tree: an ornament each for my two children, noting the dates of their births; a small, wooden house that celebrates the purchase of our first home; and because I live in Wisconsin, there are the requisite leaf ornaments and representations of black bears, cougars, elk and wolves and a variety of woodland birds. There are greyhounds and cats, for all of the pets that have shared their lives with me over the years. There are one or two ornaments a bit more inscrutable, such as a shiny, green pickle (honoring my German heritage).
But there’s one ornament that stands out because it seems to have strayed very far afield from its natural habitat: what the heck is that gaudy pink flamingo doing here?
The growth of the flocks
What could this pink, tropical shorebird be doing on my Christmas tree in the Midwest? Actually, it turns out that plastic pink flamingos are a national phenomenon. They often turn up in places where, by nature, they shouldn’t—that is, as much as a plastic animal has a natural habitat.
The plastic pink flamingo was invented in 1957, when a young designer named Don Featherstone rendered it for Union Products, a lawn-and-garden plastics company located outside Boston. Featherstone’s art tapped into a national fascination with all things Floridian at a time when middle-class tourism was booming. After World War II, families began en masse to take road trips; many of them to the Florida beaches. They drove back north with their cars brimming with knickknacks; porcelain palm trees and plastic flamingos. The fact that the state’s real flamingos had been hunted to extinction in the late 19th century for their plumes and meat didn’t seem to matter. At $2.76 a pair, the plastic birds were a cheap way to lend a bit of “nature” to manicured lawns.
Flocks of plastic pink flamingos spread out across America in the 1960s. However, as with all “hot” trends, the birds then began to draw our ire. In a 1969 book titled Kitsch: the World of Bad Taste, author Gillo Dorfles called mass-produced lawn ornaments the epitome of vulgarity and the archetypal kitsch.
But as the plastic pink flamingo rose to the top in poor taste, it also soared as an emblem of rebellion against propriety and elitism for a generation of Baby Boomer hippies. In fact, one of the greatest “pink flamingo events” happened in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. One early morning in 1979, thousands of plastic pink flamingos appeared on Bascom Hill, the university’s iconic landmark. Student government leaders of the Pail & Shovel Party (who also perpetrated the infamous “sinking” of the Statue of Liberty on the campus’s frozen Lake Mendota) had used student government funds to create the awesome sight. I, for one, am proud that the pranksters used an emissary from the natural world for attention. Even today, 31 years later, the postcard, which features a photograph of the event taken by Michael Kienitz, is a best seller on the campus’s world-famous State Street.
In fact, the 1992 book If at All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks by Neil Steinberg used a photo of the UW flamingos on its cover.
Adept at adapting
Today, it can be said that the plastic pink flamingo is the crossroads of American taste, art and nature. There’s a rumor that a 1990 poll conducted by American Demographics found that half the residents of Iowa thought pink flamingos improved a lawn’s appearance.
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think I at least understand now why that bird perches on my Christmas tree every year. Like John Doe, the Everyman, perhaps the plastic pink flamingo is our Everybird. Instead of images of real whales or tigers or polar bears on our tote bags and water bottles—animals that some of us may never have the privilege to see—maybe we should be using a photo of a plastic pink flamingo. That animal may “speak” to us more on behalf of nature than any other token of the wild, since at one time or another, we’ve probably all run into one, “beautifying” the patch of nature closest to our front doors.
So consider putting a pink flamingo on your tree next year, as well. Because despite the draining of our wetlands, the warming of our climate and the rapid loss of species every day, this bird has managed to adapt, making every habitat its natural one. Don’t you wish they all could?
In what habitats have you encountered the plastic pink flamingo? If you could choose an animal spokesmodel to capture the world’s attention in support of wildlife causes, which one would it be?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
P.S. In doing research for this article, I found out that in 2009, the common council of the city of Madison, Wisconsin, designated the plastic flamingo as the city’s official bird.