Bird Cages Take Flight
By Karen Parr-Moody
Decorators are taking a flight of fancy lately by bringing whimsical bird cages into the home. Perhaps they are taking a cue from the Victorians, who, until now, were history's most zealous decorators to use bird cages for both practical and ornamental usage. Taking it a step further, todays' decorators are more eclectic in their choices. They might group antique bird cages that represent different styles and cultures ~ say a resin one from the late 1940s paired with an iron one in a Georgian style. Or they might stick with a certain style, such as all wooden cages that look like little mansions in the air, or all iron ones with ornate scrolls. One might choose single cages, or, as in the photo at right, ones with multiple compartments topped by stylistic domes ($125; B-306).
Whatever the choice, there are many ways in which one might decorate with bird cages. One might take a small white birdcage and set it in the middle of a tea-themed table; filled full of pink roses, it would add instant charm to an outdoor tableau. Another idea for an outdoor setting would be to hang six or seven bird cages, at varying heights, from a tree limb that drapes over a dinner table. And some companies, such as Ballard Design and Neiman Marcus (photo, left) are staging painted wooden birdcages in any number of colors as art hung in groups.
According to Egyptian hieroglyphics, birds, including doves and parrots, were first kept as pets more than 4,000 years ago. The mynah was popular in ancient India and Greece, as were parakeets; both were kept as pets by the Greek aristocracy.
By the time of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, birds were still kept only by royalty or the very wealthy. Queen Isabella of Spain was gifted two Cuban Amazon parrots by Christopher Columbus when he returned from the New World in 1493. The opening of these new trade routes would increase the trade of parrots, and by the 1700s and 1800s, other luminaries would come to own parrots, the bird of choice. These included Marie Antoinette, who had an African Grey parrot, Dolly Madison, who had a green parrot, and Andrew Jackson, whose parrot was taught to curse in both Spanish and English.
For bird lovers of the New World, bamboo and wooden cages would have been seen hung in many kitchens, generally near open windows. The vintage bird cage in the photo, right, is from a more recent decade, but it is made of the bamboo that would have been popular in America during the 1700s and 1800s ($45; Booth B-232). It has been repainted a fun green color, and would look fabulous hanging in the corner of kitchen with a stack of vintage cookbooks nestled inside. Bird cages can be hard to date due to the rarity of finding any sort of maker's mark, but pagoda-style cages were all the rage during the Art Deco period, and this one retains that spirit.
It was during the Victorian era that the ownership of birds became a movement adopted with relish by the general public. Queen Victoria, who had an animal menagerie since childhood, not only had a parrot, Lory, but she also had a macaw and two lovebirds (memorialized in a painting by Sir Edwin Landseer 1839). It was said that her parrot, an African Grey, could actually sing “God Save the Queen."
During the Victorian era, post 1935, it became stylish to follow the Queen's lead and own pet birds. Cages of this time period would have been particularly ornate, like most things Victorian, and many would have been similar to the vintage one in the photo at left, which is made of ornate iron scrollwork ($59; Booth B-105). These cages were seen as being an important ornamentation within the Victorian parlor, so they tended to be made of wire, iron, and other lasting metals.
The lavender birdcage, right, is another whimsical style, with its many curlycues, that would have appealed to the Victorian taste for frippery ($38; S-115).
Victorians were not the first to use metal cages. In the wealthy households of ancient Rome parrots were often housed in cages made from precious metals, in addition to those made of tortoise-shell and ivory. For modern decorators, one advantage in choosing a metal cage for decorating is that candles may be placed inside. The antique brass cage in the photo, left, would be perfect for such a display ($99; Booth B-200). Three pillar candles of varying heights would look ambient when set on circular mirrors to reflect the light and to catch the wax.
An interesting period of bird cage design was that of the Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s. This was the period during which bird cages were architectural, even castle-like. The cages of this period from Middle Europe, Flanders, Holland and Austria all reflect this style. While the wire house birdcage, right, is more recent and is not as ornate as those of the Enlightenment, it retains the spirit of looking like a true "house" ($34.95; Booth B-210). The right arrangement of silk flowers inside this cage would add some bohemian charm to any space. Or one could go literal and tuck in a little nest and eggs inside.
Antique bird cages offer a lovely way to decorate a room. One note of caution is that the lead-based materials or paint used are not healthy for live birds, if that is one's intent. Otherwise, vintage cages come in many shapes and sizes, which makes them easy to fit into any décor in any space. Just about anything can go inside them ~ plants, flowers, nests, candles, dolls, books, faux birds ~ to create a microcosm of charm.