The cultural history of plastic pink flamingo

Featherstone passed away in June but the pink plastic flamingo, which he designed over 50 years ago, continues to grace American homes and lawns. The plastic flamingo is often labeled as kitsch by many, but it has taken an interesting journey through the ever-changing landscapes of class and taste.

The product of its time

The three basic elements of this ornament – the plastic material, the pink color, and the flamingo pattern – are all reminiscent of the late 1950s.

1957 was a year that saw the release of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, the introduction of the ’57 Chevy, and popular plastic toys such as Wham-O’s hula-hoop and Frisbee. All of these are icons of nostalgia from the mid-century. In the late 1950s, suburban life became a commodity-driven way of living. There were also new anxieties about class and status.

After World War II, plastics, which were cheap, durable, and versatile, became a popular material in mass-produced products. This included everything from Tupperware to Model500 rotary phones.

Design historian Jeffrey Meikle discusses how the period was described as “a new Rococo, marked by excess, vulgarity, and extravagance.” Consumers and manufacturers continued to embrace this trend despite criticisms from design critics.

Featherstone’s design was not the first time that flamingos invaded American culture. Americans have long loved the exotic bird native to parts of South America and the Caribbean. This love affair reached a peak in 1957 when Caribbean culture exploded in popularity.

Harry Belafonte, the Caribbean-American singer, released the album Calypso in 1956, which featured the hit Banana Boat Song. As a LIFE Magazine cover shows, Americans were flocking to Caribbean resorts in record numbers.

Jennifer Price’s book Flight Maps contains the most thorough essay about the plastic pink flamingo. She explains the 19th-century European and American settlers who hunted flamingos in Florida to extinction.

As the state attracted wealthy vacationers during the 1920s and 1930s, resort owners imported pink birds to populate the grounds of their properties. The first luxury hotel in Miami Beach was named “The Flamingo”. Soon, Florida became associated with luxury and wealth.

A Florida postcard dating from the 1940s. Boston Public Library/Flickr CC BY

Florida became a popular destination as the 20th century progressed. The development of interstate highways and the rise in disposable income made it a good choice for families from the middle class and working class. The Interstate Highway System made it possible for vacation spots to capitalize on the Caribbean style and flair. The flamingo became associated with a region that was exotic but also affordable.

Wild in the open

The plastic pink flamingo was ridiculed almost immediately as kitsch. This was especially bad given the habitat of the ornament: the American lawn.

Lawns, as one of the few social areas in the suburban architecture that values privacy, were and are still under extreme social pressure. Lawns were seen as both a symbol of the American dream and an enjoyable way to spend newly-found free time.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” meant less about outspending your neighbor and more about maintaining appearances. Middle-class lawns were well-kept and bare of ornaments, with flowers bordering the house.

The bright pink color of the pink plastic flamingo and its synthetic material was a slap in the face to homeowners’ associations. (A piece of pink plastic, however, is no less “natural” than a lawn that uses Miracle-Gro and DDT.

A cultural migration

As Jennifer Price explains, on the other hand, working-class consumers tend to express themselves differently, preferring loud, colorful, and playful schemes for their homes and lawns.

The flamingos that sprouted from the small lawns of Catholic neighborhoods looked less out-of-place amongst concrete Virgin Mary statues or tiny St Francis fountains.

In the 1950s, LIFE and other publications promoted a very narrow definition of middle-class style and taste. The display of the pink plastic flamingos in the 1950s & 1960s may not have been mere kitsch but an overt rejection of the “middle brow striving for high brow” aesthetic.

Although cultural critics such as Gillo Dorfles have maintained lawn decorations like garden statues and gnomes were “archetypal images conjured by the word “kitsch,” younger generations saw the pink plastic flamingos as a rebel against the “stay-normal” pressures in postwar suburbia.

The campy appropriation of plastic pink flamingos by the two men pushed the boundaries between good taste and bad, giving Red Flamingos an appropriate title for John Waters’s 1972 transgressive movie about the two candidates for the title of “filthiest living person.”

The price of oil increased in the early 2000s, which could have led to the end of the product.

The flock is still alive (you can purchase a pair of flamingos for about $20 on Amazon). Plastic pink flamingos can be seen today in planters at a brownstone near Park Avenue, Manhattan. This shows how far this bird has spread among American tastes and classes.

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