Backstory: Extinction of an American icon?
The Massachusetts plant that hatched 20 million plastic flamingos shut its doors this week.
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"The gold ones are going for outrageous prices on eBay," says Ms. Powell. "I wish I could get a pair, but I'm not sure I want to spend $80. I really need to get to Wal-Mart and buy a few pairs of the pink ones...."Skip to next paragraph
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Until recently, the birds could be bought in bulk by retailers at 16 for $42 from the factory, with minimum orders of $500. Last week a pair could be found for $12.95 at Amazon.com.
Plastic injection molding has long been big business here in Leominster, the "Pioneer Plastics City" as well as the "home of Johnny Appleseed."
DuPont had a presence here for decades. Foster Grant sunglasses were made here, several residents proudly note, along with Hula Hoops and other toys. Fosta-Tek still operates here, making helmet visors for the military, says a receptionist at the reverently quiet National Plastics Center and Museum on Derwin Street. A nearby firm called Nypro makes covers for cellphones.
In its hard-working hometown, the pink flamingo actually seems a little underrepresented, given its cult status. At Union Products, buttoned up behind a "For Sale" sign, President Plante's old assigned parking space bears his name framed by flamingo silhouettes. The only other specimens easily seen on a recent afternoon were the duo in the corner of the museum lobby.
"The craze seems to be outside of Leominster," says Bob Macdonald, a retired dental technician who is helping out as a handyman at the First Baptist Church, just off Monument Square. "But for some strange reason that little bird has had an impact.... No matter what state you visit, you see them."
"In the summer this town is loaded with flamingos," insists Anne Le'Cuyer, working the register at the Tails A Waggin pet store just down the street. She doesn't own a flamingo herself. (Mr. Macdonald says he thinks he's probably had a specimen or two, over the years.)
Here, more than anything it's about a loss of industry.
"It was a big deal when we reported that they were going out of business," says Jeff McMenemy, editor of the Sentinel and Enterprise newspaper here. "It's not like there are people crying in the streets or anything. But I think it's kind of one more thing, a lost tradition for the area."
Union Products, which could not be reached for comment, has cited simple economics for its closure. Featherstone recalls a sales spike of about 8 percent in 1997 at the 30th anniversary, when he says nostalgia began to lift the flamingo. He regrets that his old firm won't have the bird for its 50th.
Others are incredulous. "Most companies would kill to have something the world knows about and likes," says Marc Abrahamson, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research in Cambridge, Mass., a magazine that awarded Featherstone its Ig-Nobel Award, celebrating the unusual and imaginative, in 1996. In 2001 Mr. Abrahamson helped organize a boycott of flamingos produced for a few years by Union Products without Featherstone's signature, which had been a mainstay since 1986. Abrahamson saw that move as part of a failure to promote a winning product.
"I tried phoning them and literally could get nobody to talk to me," he says. "It started to feel a little bit like the old days [when] you read about people trying to deal with the Nixon White House during its final days."
Featherstone shrugs off the signature saga. He says he is hopeful about the future of the product he thinks of as one of his kids. "Let's see what happens," he says. "I think the old girl isn't dead yet."