An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo

January 8, 2016 at 8:00 am 8 comments

Pink Flamingo at the Smithsonian

Our pink flamingo lawn ornament (c. 1990s) decided to take a little vacation from storage and visit our gardens at the Smithsonian.

We had a holiday visitor to Smithsonian Gardens – no, not the bearded one in a red suit, but a small hot-pink friend that decided to escape from our storage facilities in Maryland to see the sights in Washington, D.C. The halls have been decked and yards across the country decorated in their holiday finest. As a new year begins, and lights are put away with hopes they will not tangle between now and next December, we have a different kind of ornament on our minds—the lawn ornament. A very American invention which holds a special place in our hearts, right between their European cousin the garden gnome and classier sibling the armillary sphere, the pink flamingo is an icon of mid-20th century kitsch and consumerism.

In the landscape architecture world of the 1950s, designers sought minimal ornament and flowers, instead preferring expanses of grass, textured ground covers, and green, green, green. Poured concrete, fieldstone, hardscape, and geometric swimming pools provided a contrast to the verdant (and chemically-enhanced) lawns. However, this was also the decade of plastic everything as new materials and products flooded the market after World War II. Hula hoops, vinyl covers for lounge chairs, and yes, plastic lawn ornaments, were all within reach for the middle-class consumer eager to make their backyard a paradise for outdoor family living. Surprisingly, the pink flamingo lawn ornament was not invented in Florida, but by sculptor and designer Don Featherstone for the Massachusetts-based Union Products in 1957. Read more about the history of the pink flamingo here and here.

Decorated pink flamingoes at Louisiana's Old State Capitol

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments creatively decorated by visitors to Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard at the Louisiana Old State Capitol. A+ for effort and camp!

Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is a collaboration between the Archives of American Gardens and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services. The exhibit explores the rise of outdoor living and modern garden design in 1950s-1960s United States. In December, the exhibit wrapped up a run at the Louisiana Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The museum curators asked visitors to decorate pink flamingoes to display throughout the Old Capitol during the length of the exhibit, and boy did adoring fans of the fuchsia fowl deliver in creativity. Look for the exhibit at two locations in Illinois, the Elmhurst Historical Museum and the Glen Ellyn Public Library, beginning in March 2016.

Patios & Pools exhibit at Louisiana Old State Capitol

Curators at the Old State Capitol added objects from the museum and local collections to supplement the traveling exhibit panels from the Smithsonian. From bathing suits and sundresses to party decorations and barbecue tools, these artifacts colorfully illustrate what life was like in the American suburbs in the decades after World War II.

Pink flamingo lawn ornament at Oldgate garden

Oldgate garden in Farmington, Connecticut. Nora O. Howard, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Did you have pink flamingoes decorating your yard as a kid, or do you have them now? We’d love for you to add your story or a neighbor’s story to our digital garden history archive, Community of Gardens. Anyone can add a story about gardens and gardening in America. Help us preserve our garden heritage, especially the history in our own back (and front) yards, lawn ornaments and all.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard

Entry filed under: Archives of American Gardens, Collections, Exhibits. Tags: , , , , .

Community of Gardens: History in our Gardens On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Janice Peters  |  January 15, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    I have long been a fan of the yard flamingos, and I mentioned this as part of my introductory speech as coordinator of the annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival. The Festival is held in January, when over 200 species of birds can be found in our California Central Coast area. There was a real flamingo in Morro Bay for awhile, apparently escaped from a nearby zoo, and I suggested that my plastic birds were keeping his/her memory alive. We have a bird-sighting board at our Festival headquarters, where the participants list the various species seen that day. After my speech, some clever participant planted two plastic flamingos in the estuary area, and that evening the bird board included a listing for “flamingus plasticus.” 🙂

    Reply
  • 3. Ralph Manns  |  January 15, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Years ago when I wrote an article urging more concern for wildlife and proper fish management, an editor added the following: “who cares for wildlife when you can simple add a pink plastic flamingo to your yard.” I’m still LOL.

    Reply
  • […] We had a holiday visitor to Smithsonian Gardens – no, not the bearded one in a red suit, but a small hot-pink friend that decided to escape from our storage facilities in Maryland to see the sights in Washington, D.C. Find out a little about the origin of the pink lawn flamingo and Smithsonian Gardens’ traveling exhibition, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard, in our new blog post. […]

    Reply
  • 6. An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo – PerchSpective  |  January 8, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    […] Source: An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo […]

    Reply
  • 7. Norman Marks, enthusiastic SI Gardens volunteer  |  January 8, 2016 at 10:52 am

    pink flamingo creator, Don Featherstone, died in the past six months with an excellent obit in the WaPo here, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/donald-featherstone-celebrated-and-blamed-as-the-creator-of-plastic-pink-flamingos-dies-at-79/2015/06/23/7171c254-19b0-11e5-ab92-c75ae6ab94b5_story.html.

    One of the more interesting uses of the plastic pink flamingo was the ‘unapproved’ use by the student government leadership at the University of Wisconsin, Madison of their budget to ornament the hill and lawn of Bascom Hall with over 1000 of the friendly flamingos on the first day of classes in 1979, see: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=Ny:True,Ro:0,N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS2780

    Since then, my yard at home, whether in Wisconsin, Indiana or Maryland is always ‘graced’ by two or three of these joyous birds.

    Thanks, Kate, for a great homage to an American icon.

    Reply
    • 8. smithsoniangardens  |  January 15, 2016 at 8:52 am

      Thanks for the links, Norman. We’ve been tweeting with the University of Wisconsin about it over the past couple of days. Glad to hear a few found a home in your yard!

      Reply

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