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Backstory: Extinction of an American icon?

The Massachusetts plant that hatched 20 million plastic flamingos shut its doors this week.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 2006


For connoisseurs of seascape paintings there is J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire." For motorcycle mavens, the Ducati Desmosedici RR. For wry lawn ornamentarians there is the Featherstone Flamingo.

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Plenty of the kitschy pink birds, in "feeding," "standing," and "flying" poses (the latter with propeller wings), will be around for as long as it takes molded plastic resin to degrade. An estimated 20 million have been sold.

But there could quite possibly be no new fledglings – at least not of the authentic strain that flocked, incongruously, from this red-brick, northeastern industrial city for nearly half a century.

Union Products, the flamingo manufacturer since a young designer named Don Featherstone rendered it in 1957 and tapped into a national fascination with all things Floridian, stopped producing the birds in June and officially closed here Wednesday. Dennis Plante, the company's president, has reportedly said three firms have expressed interest in acquiring the mold, so phoenicopteris ruber plasticus, as its creator once called it, could be spared from extinction.

Still, a rueful murmuring has spread as the ironic icon gets its due. The ubiquitous pop-culture commentator Robert Thompson of Syracuse University told the Los Angeles Times: "[T]here are two pillars of cheesy, campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo."

Somewhere along the way to becoming "notorious" kitsch – a moment crystallized by the 1972 John Waters film, "Pink Flamingos" – the birds "became an emblem for crossing boundaries of art and taste, [and then] an emblem for crossing boundaries," says Jenny Price, a Los Angeles writer who decoded the plastic flamingo and other phenomena in her 1999 book, "Flight Maps."

Some might call it a suburban scourge. But thisbird also has defenders.

"I think it beats the heck out of a silver 'gazing ball,' " says the genial Mr. Featherstone. "Although when you combine them it's kind of nice."

The Union Products website depicts the three-foot-tall birds wading in a marsh. Featherstone – who rose through the firm to serve as president from 1996 to 2000, when he retired – has known buyers to deploy plastic flamingos in plausible settings. But he concedes that most go for a different effect.

"I always said if you put six of them around a tractor tire painted red, white, and blue and put petunias in it, in front of a nice house, it looks pretty tacky," Featherstone says with a laugh. He keeps 57 flamingos on the lawn of his Fitchburg, Mass., home in the summer, to commemorate the year he crafted it, fresh from art school. (He would eventually sculpt 700 "character" ornaments for the firm.)

Flamingo fanatics often end up mounting big-scale tributes of their own. Susan Cutter, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina, bought her first pair when she lived in New Jersey in 1983. She quickly assembled a flock that, she says, "migrated" with her to South Carolina 10 years later.

She now keeps 40, ceremoniously retiring ones that fade.

"They're whimsical, tacky, just plain fun," says Professor Cutter, who says she also dabbles in other flamingo collectibles, including stuffed Beanie Babies. "I love the color. You know, they bring a smile to your face. And I think that's the appeal." She calls the plant closure "a very sad day. It's such an American institution."

Jane Powell, who runs a jewelry and pawn shop with her husband in Rockledge, Fla., says an online flamingo-fan forum she visits has been abuzz about the flamingo's apparent demise. "Some of the ladies use them as reindeer replacements at Christmas," she says.