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For The Home

Vintage Birdcages

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: April, 2014, Page 40
Photos by David B. Moore

The owners of these large outdoor birdcages repurposed them to hold terra-cotta pots, enhancing their outdoor setting.

Abodes for feathered friends meld classic craftsmanship with artistic expression

For as long as man has wished he could fly, humans have been infatuated with the sprightly nature of birds. Throughout the ages, birdcages have been fashioned worldwide to house feathered friends of all types and sizes, and give humans “on demand” access to these winged delights.

It seems natural to attribute the practice of caging birds to Victorian times—an era of languid pastimes and fleeting trends­. And while the era did spawn popularity in the practice, birdcages can actually be traced back to ancient days.

According to a paper published by the Society for American Architecture in 1993, ruins discovered in the northwestern corner of Chihuahua, Mexico, hold evidence of birds being caged by indigenous peoples of the area. The Paquimé tribe that lived in the region was an avid breeder of the scarlet macaw. The tribe used the birds’ feathers for ceremonial rituals and traded them with other Native American groups of the Southwest. While macaw remains have been found among other tribes of the region, it is believed that the Paquimé dominated the “parrot exchange.”

Archaeologists discovered pens resembling built-in domed troughs, with a round stone plug at each end, in Paquimé ruins. The pens were designed to hold and protect scarlet macaws. Made of adobe, these early “cages” kept the birds cool and shielded them from the sun and predators. The site where the pens were found is situated more than 300 miles from the macaws’ natural habitat, underscoring the birds’ importance to the tribe.

Photos - From left: This wooden Chinese birdcage, circa 1940-1970, sports ceramic finch bowls and jade charms. • This Victorian domed cage features a trio of steps leading to a functional pivoting door.
A Global Affair
Additional evidence of birdcages can be traced to nearly all corners of the world. In ancient Greece, Plato, in his dialogue Theaetetus, recounts Socrates comparing the human mind to a birdcage during a philosophical debate. And in Tunisia, a small country in Northern Africa, they uphold a long-standing tradition of constructing ornately domed birdcages—the craft being passed down paternally.

The earliest birdcages were often no more than simple boxes constructed of wood, rope, reeds or bamboo with attached netting. According to A Gothic Birdcage, an article written by Richard H. Randall Jr. for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, birdcages became popular in the 14th century, when peoples of Medieval Europe flocked to see colorful and rare birds on display. Seldom seen in the average persons’ home, the cages were reserved and specially made for the wealthy and royalty.

Talking birds, in particular, were a favored variety, so much so as to inspire folklore. According to Randall, old European tales tell of pet birds reporting to jealous husbands the infidelities of young wives or tattling on other doers of immoral deeds. Royalty of various regions throughout the 14th and 15th centuries frequently received exotic birds as gifts. Noblemen were reported to  have carried bird companions in “travel-size” cages while on the road.

In a classic shade of “French green,” this birdcage is topped with an archetypal steeped roof.
On an even grander scale, birdcages made of silver and gold were present in the most luxurious of courts, sometimes adorned with jewels and symbolic banners. Craftsmen even built small cages to contain “birds” made of gold and enamel and inlaid with dazzling gems. These creations were commonly perfumed and hung in wardrobes and other interior spaces.

Randall notes that Louis XI’s salon housed cages painted with rural scenes dripping in cut-glass crystals. One of the most unique birdcages belonged to Isabella of Bavaria in the early 1400s, and featured six gilded pillars supporting a net made of golden fish scales. Sadly, antique birdcages of this level of splendor survive mostly through literature, Randall reports, as many were later melted down by goldsmiths or destroyed over the course of time.

Interest in caged birds continued to decline over the next several centuries, and few cages were spared from destruction. By the 17th and 18th centuries, birdcages were once again in vogue for England and France’s upper-class societies. Songbirds reigned as the popular breed, with parrots displayed to demonstrate a homeowner’s wealth. Small, portable cages often were used to carry songbirds from room to room—the earliest form of the iPod!

Come the 19th century, birdcages began to shift from functional to architectural eye-candy. Pet birds eventually found themselves roosting in miniature palaces fit for a maharaja—with designs running the gamut from reproductions of the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower to miniature mansions. French- and Dutch-made birdcages were considered especially high quality, and remain popular with collectors today.

Modern Allure
In the early 20th century, the times were changing and mechanical cages became quite prized. These cages were equipped with automaton “birds”— self-operating mechanisms capable of singing and even hopping around. Many were covered in real hummingbird feathers and contained pieces of actual bird bones or ivory. Today these examples are rare and valuable collectibles.

While many antique cages are undoubtedly stunners, back in the day, they often were too dangerous to safely house birds, even when brand new. Lead-based paint and exposed nailheads attest to their impracticality.

By the 1920s, painted tin cages were exchanged for the brass variety and were commonly set in Deco stylings. As time went on, the thinking toward cages began to reverse and once again the needs of the creature inside outweighed the aesthetic appeal of its enclosure.

Photos - From left: From India, this antique birdcage has side seed cups and a central swing. • This finial-topped cage is composed of wood with metal wiring.
Modern-day collectors often seek birdcages of a certain style or period. Jon Douglas, co-owner of Figs Home & Garden in Phoenix, has been collecting them for approximately 15 years. He has 28 vintage and antique ones in his personal collection and an untold number for sale in his store. His favorite styles hail from East Asia and Europe from the 1900s.

“I usually choose one-of-a-kind pieces that indicate great craftsmanship. One of my favorites is shaped like the Blue Mosque,” he remarks. “I like collecting birdcages because they are small pieces of architecture and reflect their native origins.” He also notes that it’s helpful to know where a cage will go before it is purchased.

Douglas displays his collection throughout his home and garden. Some are filled with stringed lights or grouped candles, while others hold flowers and assorted plant life. The collector suggests using them as niches for religious statues for a special Southwest twist. “I’m always on a treasure hunt for number 29,” he says with a smile.

Where To Buy
Antique Gatherings, Phoenix; eBay; Fig’s Home & Garden, Phoenix; Tierra Del Lagarto, Scottsdale; Trouvé, Scottsdale.
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