March 27, 2008

Plastic Pink Flamingos

Stupid Question ™
Oct. 21, 1999
By John Ruch
© 1999

Q: What’s the origin of putting plastic pink flamingos in the front yard?
—Alice Churchill

A: Animal-shaped lawn ornaments date back to English gardens of the 1700s, which, having trimmed nature down to a manageable size, sought to re-create wildness with stone or bronze animals.

By the 1920s, this had trickled down to the American middle-class suburbs in the form of plaster or concrete animals.

The post-World War II suburbia boom resulted in a lot of quasi-natural lawns desperate for some quasi-natural scenery. Garishly painted plaster and wooden lawn ornaments sold like hotcakes. Among them were the first pink flamingos—enameled-wood cutouts.

Why flamingos? Because of Florida, which was being heavily hyped as a tourism and retirement-living destination.

Florida had hunted its native pink flamingos to extinction in the 1800s for feathers and meat. New flamingos were introduced into the tourist spot Hialeah Park, near Miami, in the 1930s, and became a huge attraction.
Innumerable souvenirs made the pink flamingo a symbol of Florida. Which is to say it symbolized leisure, travel and exoticism—alluring stuff for suburbanites.

The eye-straining pinkness was also perfect as especially conspicuous consumption, since then (as now) it was important to show how much money you were spending on your suburban lawn.

The plastics explosion of the 1950s made lawn ornaments more affordable. Union Products in Leominster, Massachusetts started making a two-dimensional plastic flamingo in 1952. Then in 1957, they had new employee Don Featherstone sculpt them the plastic pink flamingo we know today. He based his design on a “National Geographic” flamingos article called “Ballerinas in Pink.”

By the 1960s, plastic flamingos had trickled down to trailer park lawns and were being ridiculed by hippies for their obvious phoniness. John Waters’ outrageous 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” made them the epitome of bad taste and ushered in an ironic appreciation of their artificiality. They became the object of prank thefts and theme parties.

The hip 1980s TV series “Miami Vice”—featuring flamingos in the opening credits—restored the exotic/affluent Florida connotations and fired some flamingo nostalgia for children of the ’50s. Sales boomed; Union Products got competition from two other flamingo companies.

In the postmodern age, flamingos are bought for many reasons, but always symbolize social or class line-crossing.

According to Featherstone, who’s now president of Union Products, flamingo sales have increased every year since 1957 (now about 500,000 to 1 million a year), and the biggest sales are in the Midwest. They’re always sold in pairs—one with head raised, the other with head lowered. An expanded brand line includes the white Snomingo for winter lawns and the bigger, more detailed Realmingo for, as Featherstone says, “people with better poor taste.”

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