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How the pink plastic lawn flamingo became an American cultural icon

Getty/Robert Sullivan

The pantheon of American lawn kitsch has lost a legend: Don Featherstone, creator of the pink plastic lawn flamingo, died on Monday at age 79, just hours shy of Pink Flamingo Day.

Featherstone may not have been a household name — apt though his name was — but his memory will forever live on in the injection-molded relics of the past. Indeed, the "flight" of the Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus is a long and storied one.

A few highlights:

  • Designed in 1957, the pink plastic lawn flamingo was one of Featherstone's earliest projects at Union Products in Leominster, Massachusetts. Then a fresh-out-of-art-school sculptor who'd been hired specifically to create 3D plastic lawn and garden ornaments, Featherstone couldn't get his hands on a real live flamingo, so he modeled his prototypes after photos he'd seen in National Geographic.
  • Featherstone was specifically asked to sculpt a flamingo after working on designs for a girl with a watering can, a boy with a dog, and a duck. At the time, pink was a very trendy color.
  • The artificial avians were first sold in twos in the Sears Roebuck catalog — where they were described as a "full-round flamingo pair" — for the cost of $2.76. One listing in the spring 1958 catalog wooed potential buyers with the promise, "Lovely pink coloring forms a handsome contrast against the green of your lawn and shrubbery."
  • The birds were a hit with working-class homeowners. But as hippies railed against them in the 1960s because they were mass-produced and unnatural, the pink poseurs quickly became the patron saints of all that is trashy and tawdry.
  • Drawing inspiration from the pink flamingo's status as an icon of bad taste, director John Waters released the movie Pink Flamingos in 1972; the controversial film starred a drag queen named Divine, carried the tagline "An exercise in poor taste," and went on to achieve cult status.
  • In the 1980s and '90s, the infamously tacky lawn ornaments experienced a huge resurgence in popularity, having become a symbol of rebellion. As the New York Times wrote in 2006:

By the 1980s, flamingo-themed installations were appearing in avant-garde galleries. But the baby boomers were also carrying the flamingo in backpacks across Europe, and kayaking with it through the wilderness. The bird became the ultimate marker for crossing boundaries of every conceivable kind. By the 1990s, it had become a popular housewarming gift.

Don Featherstone's signature

Don Featherstone's signature on an "official" plastic pink flamingo. (Getty/Robert Sullivan)

  • Yes, there were plenty of knockoffs. To help consumers distinguish the "official" flamingos from the fakes, Featherstone added his signature to the original molds in 1987 — the birds' 30th anniversary — inscribing his name their rumps, beneath the tail feathers. When his signature was removed in 2001 (Featherstone had retired from Union Products in 2000, after 43 years of service), a boycott ensued; it was soon restored.
  • In 1996, Featherstone was awarded Improbable Research's Ig Nobel Prize for art, in recognition of his "ornamentally evolutionary invention."
  • The birds briefly went extinct in 2006, when Union Products stopped producing them and went out of business due to financial woes and the rising costs of electricity and plastic resins. The birds were resurrected in 2007 when a company called HMC International bought the copyright and original molds.
  • The pink plastic lawn flamingo has been the official bird of Madison, Wisconsin, since 2009, when the city council voted to honor the beloved tchotchkes in observance of the 30th anniversary of a 1979 University of Wisconsin Madison stunt in which students covered the campus's Bascom Hill with 1,000 of the bright pink birds.
  • Today, you can buy a pair of pink plastic lawn flamingos on Amazon for about $20. They still bear Featherstone's signature and are sold in their original poses, with one bird standing tall and the other one "feeding."