The delicate feathers of birds have been long admired for their brilliance and their subsequent use in fashion. By far, the most impressive garments utilizing radiant bird feathers were fashioned in the Pacific islands of Hawaii for royalty. The airborne hosts of these feathers have, to the very last individual, perished, with little to show for their existence besides a small collection of royal garments displayed in dark museums. A very few tiny examples have found their way into the public domain, a pair of which is now an intriguing part of this small but important Cabinet of Curiosities.


One celebrity whom unwillingly donated their lemon yellow plumage to the grand capes and robes of kings was the Oahu O'o (Moho apicalis). A striking bird in black, white and small patches of yellow, its coveted yellow colored feather tufts were considered ideal for the stately impression of leadership by the early Hawaiian kings. These, along with deep yellow feathers from the mamo and reds from the apapane and i'iwi were gathered and woven by the tens of thousands into velvet-like capes by male artisans. Feathers of the O'o and others were taken by applying the sticky sap from the breadfruit tree to branches of the ohi'a tree near blossoms. Once the bird landed and was immobilized, their yellow tufts were carefully removed and then the donor released. These feathers were quite valuable in trade to the artisans, who, according to a European visitor, would provide a hog for a small grouping of five. Likely plagued by insects and rodents introduced to the islands from foreign ships, this Hawaiian Honeycreeper became virtually extinct by the early 1800s, with the last documented example sighted in the wild in 1837.

 
 
Oahu O'o
(Moho apicalis)
     
The capes, cloaks and robes for royalty were assembled by accumulating feathers into tied bunches of 6-10 and weaving them into a strong foundation of fine plant-based netting, overlapping the bundles to create a rich, thick garment. As the O'o and mamo became even rarer, the red feathers became the more predominant color, as seen in late 19th century works. During abundant times, the robes of Hawaiian royalty might contain 500,000 individual feathers or more. For example, during the reign of King Kamehameha I in the late 1700s, his luxurious yellow feather robe contained close to 800,000 feathers, most comiing from the more common mamo.  
 
Hawaiian Feather Cape
c. 19th Century
     
The small display of two intertwined O'o feathers is between two sheets of glass, then taped around all borders with a small paper title indicating the bird from which they have been 'donated'. One can only surmise that the feathers were obtained from the owner or museum that held an original feather cloak. The piece was part of an impressive collection of encased feathers that filled a display housed in the Smithsonian exhibit within the Government building at the Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York in 1901. At the same expo on September 5th of that year, President McKinley visited the impressive fair, and, within the grand Music building, a short distance from this fragment of history, was assassinated.  
 
O'o Feather Display

   
     
Encased O'o Bird Feathers in Glass
Date: Early 19th Century
Location: Oahu, Hawaiian Islands
Dimensions: Feathers: 2.5 cm; Glass: 5 cm x 7.5 cm
Provenance: Private Purchase

Examples of feathers are rare, though a few recently discovered stuffed O'o had turned up in an old Hawaiian collection with a price of $10,000 each being stated. The individual yellow feathers as displayed may command in the $500 range.

   

 

 
         
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