(Photos from www.thepinkflamingo.com)
Earlier this year, an important anniversary came and went, largely unheralded. It was the 50th anniversary of that pink paragon of plastic perfection—the pink flamingo. I mean, of course, the kind you see in yards across America, in habitats that real flamingos could never survive.
It all began in 1957, when Don Featherstone, fresh out of art school, sculpted the clay molds for the first flamingos, working from pictures he found in a National Geographic. Sears featured them in their catalog that year for $2.76 a pair. The ad copy read: “Place in garden, lawn, to beautify landscape.” And millions did. Like the animals on Noah’s Ark, they came in pairs: one bending over as though looking for something in the grass and the other with its graceful neck and head held aloft (rather nobly I always thought).
When I came of age in the seventies, these yard birds were a way to thumb your nose at all those hoity-toity art snobs and those with highfalutin’ tastes. In fact, I collected them in various forms. But the truth is, I collected them because I really thought they were pretty. And still do. Flamingos are such exquisitely graceful birds, even in plastic form. Besides, they’ve always looked real good in my petunias.
Sadly, last year in November, as they approached their fiftieth anniversary, the factory in Leominster, Massachusetts that made the original pink flamingo closed its doors. Union Products blamed the rising costs of plastic resins and electricity. They have also had to contend with other companies (in China, I’m sure) producing cheap knockoffs. To combat this, in 1987, Don Featherstone (by now the president of Union Products) began to imprint his signature under the tail feathers of the flamingo.
Mr. Featherstone has always ardently defended his product. “I think it beats the heck out of a silver ‘gazing ball.’” said Mr. Featherstone. “Although when you combine them it’s kind of nice.” At his home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, he puts 57 flamingos out on his lawn in the summer to represent the year he crafted it.
The good news is that a company in Westmoreland, New York just bought out Union Products, purchasing the copyright and plastic molds, so plastic pink flamingos will still be proudly made in the USA. No word on whether Mr. Featherstone will still allow his signature to be imprinted on the bird’s rear end.
When we first moved to the mountains, I put out my flamingos first thing. But that was before I knew how common 50-70 MPH winds are here. My birds flew away sometime that first winter. I never could find them in the forest below my house. I like to imagine that maybe they flew back to Florida. On the other hand, it’s kind of fun to think of them being carried on the high winds here, rising up into the clear winter sky, then descending earthward to gently alight on the lawn of one of those multi-million dollar mansions I see everywhere on mountainsides here. And I like to envision the owner the next morning, looking out the mansion’s window, eyes widening in surprise at the wonder of a yard full of pink plastic perfection.