This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 21, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
While working in my studio on Monday, I had a rare urge for tidiness, so I picked up the old feather duster and began dusting the bookshelves with it. Suddenly, I realized there were thousands of little pieces of “dead” feathers flying in all directions around the room. Immediately I grabbed the new feather duster my wife bought for me, thinking what I was seeing is why she got me a new one. Not the case! The new feather duster was molting as fast as the old one did.
The vinyl floor at my feet was covered with feather chaff. So far I haven’t been able to find anyone who can tell me if feather dusters molt like birds do, but I scooped up the dead feather debris and threw both dusters in the trash.
Naturally, this phenomenon triggered a new interest in feathers. My mother and grandmother preached the value of feathers back in the good old days. They believed that feather pillows were the only pillows a rational person would ever sleep on. They believed that a good feather pillow was made from the feathers (stems chopped off) from the wing or back of a duck or goose. They could also be made from duck or goose down, but the feathers lasted much longer than the down. They also made their feather beds and feather comforters from duck or goose feathers and down. I’ll have to agree with Mama and Grandma, no stack of quilts or blankets ever kept me as warm as one of their featherbeds.
From the storehouse of my many childhood memories, I remember, though vaguely, one other use of feathers, or rather use of one feather. Old timers who came from the Alps in Germany wore a feather in their Tyrolean hats. My father, whose ancestors came from the Black Forest, not the Alps, did not. These old-timers who came from regions where such a custom was common wore a felt or wool hat with a feather stuck in the band. The old Alpine tradition held that the bigger feather you wore, the wealthier you were. Can you imagine wearing a big feather to try to convince people you were a rich man? That’s putting a lot of value on one feather!
In reading about the Protestant Reformation in Germany, I remember the story told about a Saxon ruler who claimed to have 17,000 sacred relics, which were highly regarded by many in the Church, but frowned upon by Martin Luther. Of his 17,000 sacred relics, the one the Saxon ruler valued the most was a feather he believed came from the Angel Gabriel’s wings. To those who believed in the miraculous power of relics, this feather supposedly from Gabriel was worth a fortune! At that time in history, probably the most valuable feather in the world!
Naturally any discussion of the value of feathers would be incomplete without mentioning their value to Native Americans. We think of those elaborate headdresses or war bonnets we’ve seen in so many old Western movies as important to all tribes, but actually only the Great Plains Indians, such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Plains Cree, etc., wore them. And they were very important to these American Plains Indians Nations!
Only highly respected male leaders could wear war bonnets. Plains Indian warriors earned a feather each time they did something the rest of the tribe considered brave. Getting your first feather was a sign of your entrance into manhood. To the Plains Indians, a feather symbolized trust, honor, strength, wisdom, power and freedom.
Of all the feathers, the eagle feather was most highly regarded. In fact, it was considered sacred by many Native American tribes, and was used in ceremonial worship. Today, you have to get a permit to own an eagle feather; one eagle tail feather in today’s market sells for about $250. Imagine what a whole war bonnet of eagle feathers would be worth!
There’s no doubt about it, from many different perspectives, the value of a feather is not to be sneezed at, — unless it’s molting.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.