In the 1990s, yards all over South St. Louis were dotted with hot pink plastic flamingos. They lined sidewalks, nestled in bushes, popped up in the middle of spongy Bermuda grass. Huge flocks of them filled tony St. Louis Hills, right on the “other side of the tracks” from our smaller, more affordable bungalow. Our first house. Newly married and eager to do everything right, we knew we had to prop a flamingo in our yard. Nonconformity might be fun in politics and art, but it was usually a disaster when you were trying to make new friends.
The self-proclaimed arbiter of décor (having registered my new husband’s fondness for plastic spinning daisies), I found an arty metal flamingo, its shade of pink enamelled in a slightly subdued hue. We planted it right out front, next to a big fluffy blob of a pfitzer bush we hoped would die soon.
Friends grinned at the flamingo’s presence. Neighbors smiled and waved, pleased by our good intentions.
And then, just a month later, the flamingo vanished.
Theft? A teenage prank? A ransom demand in the offing? We looked all over the yard, the sidewalk, even behind the fence in the backyard. No flamingo.
“It was a rather nice one,” I murmured. If the theft had been driven by artistic impulses, I could forgive it.
Months passed. I looked for another flamingo but could only find the flimsy plastic ones and, my mother’s daughter, I held out for something nicer. Meanwhile, I read up. Once again, a St. Louis custom I had thought unique (like saying “If you don’t like the weather, it’ll change in an hour”) was not. Our South City flamingo was a nationwide phenomenon.
The whimsy was born in New England, not the Florida it conjured. Don Featherstone had designed the first pink flamingo yard ornament in 1957, naming the bird Diego and his species Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus. Mass produced in the fashion of the fifties, the lawn flamingo soon became an American pop culture icon. It was neon-bright, a cool and recognizable shape, cheap (I found an old Sears catalog selling pairs for $2.76), and in most locations, absurd.
Less than two decades later, the pink birds saturated the suburbs and tempted John Waters to write his deliberately shocking comedy Pink Flamingos. The film sealed their fate as kitsch. (“See also: artificial turf, lawn jockey,” ends their Wikipedia entry.)
Envious manufacturers stole the flamingo’s image and reproduced it in promiscuous quantities. The genuine article is easy to distinguish, though: Featherstone’s initials are etched beneath its tailfeathers. Also, the Featherstone flamingos are sold as a pair: one standing upright, the other with its head bent low. One proud to live in the suburbs, the other ashamed? At any rate, my single, arty flamingo was all wrong, at best an homage.
The bird has a complicated history.
It was first advertised as a way to “beautify” your lawn, and all those suburbanites with cookie-cutter homes and no trees took the bait. Flamingo later wrote a book titled, with apparent sincerity, Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass.
Then, because there were too many and they were cheap and silly and somehow hopeful in that way that begs to be scotched, the flamingos became an object of fun. By 1979, a prankster student government at the University of Wisconsin-Madison knew a flock of plastic flamingos would make the perfect ironic statement. They bought 1,008 of them and covered the campus.
Thirty years later, on the anniversary of the prank, Madison made the pink plastic lawn flamingo the official bird of the city. We were now in a new millennium, one that only rolled its eyes at such whimsy. Pop-culture commentator Robert Thompson told the L.A. Times that there are “two pillars of cheesy campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo.”
It is also, I learned next, a signal, like an upside-down pineapple, of a couple’s willingness to swing. I gulped. Surely all of St. Louis Hills was not….
Symbols are weird that way. Often they can mean but do not mean. Their definitions layer over time and often they are yanked out of context and used in a new way. To wit, only a pink flamingo on a cruise meant swinging. Queer culture, meanwhile, borrowed the flamingo as a symbol of pride, defiance, visibility.
Buttoned-up, churchgoing St. Louis Hills hardly resonated with swinging or queer culture. And something else St. Louis Hills was not? Working-class, the bird’s intended milieu. I winced when I read—in Smithsonian magazine, chronicler of the nation’s cultural history—that lawn flamingos gradually became “‘loaded objects,’ classist tools of the well-to-do mocking the taste of the less fortunate.”
We had no such intention. Hell, we fit better in “working class.” But we had imitated those who had enough wealth to play with symbols of those who did not.
I was almost glad our flamingo had vanished.
The following spring, though, I whacked the pfitzer with pruning shears and tripped on something beneath it, way in the back, shaded and covered. Our flamingo! My mom was over for a barbecue that day, and I carried the recovered bird out back, dusting soil from its wings and waving it aloft. “Look what I found!’
That was when I caught her involuntary grin, one of the cat-ate-the-canary sort. “You did this!” I exclaimed.
Dismayed at her daughter’s quick slide into kitsch, she had decided to play a joke. Or was it an intervention? To her, the pink flamingo represented only cheap bad taste, therefore must be banished. We all laughed, but I was, truth be told, slightly ticked. All those months we felt stolen-from, all those nice neighborhood teenagers we glared at with narrowed eyes. And I had missed that pop of pink. What harm, even if it was a little tacky? Such fun, that flamingo had brought the nation—at least until the mockery began.
Was Don Featherstone ever hurt by the disparagement of the new millennium? The hauteur of people like my mother?
“I think it beats the heck out of a silver ‘gazing ball,’” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “Although when you combine them it’s kind of nice.”
Even joking, he sounds sweet. You would have to be, to design something like that in earnest. But the aspirations of those without money or Taste are too easy to mock, bend for other purposes, exploit for quick profit—or hide behind a bush.
In interviews after he made his film, Waters pronounced the Featherstone flamingo—the real one, not the mocking ripoffs—extinct. His rationale was, like the darkness in his comedies, both true and depressing: “You can’t have anything that innocent anymore.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.