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From The Smithsonian Collections: Plastic Flamingos, c. 1980 (Jason Pietra)

The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo

From its start in Massachusetts, of all places, to its inspiration of a John Waters film, the lawn ornament has some staying power

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(Continued from page 1)

By the mid-1980s, the flamingos were transitioning from a working-class accessory to an elaborate upper-class inside joke. They furnished colorful substitutes for croquet wickets and clever themes for charity galas. The bird became a sort of plastic punch line, and, at worst, a way of hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others.

Waters got tired of it and gradually gave away his flamingo collection. “It’s a classist thing,” he says. “People like them in a way that’s not that original anymore.”

In their yard near Leominster, Nancy and Don Featherstone typically tend a flock of 57 (a nod to the creation year) that neighborhood college students feel compelled to thin. “They steal ’em,” Featherstone says. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor.” As for Waters’ movie, the Featherstones haven’t seen it, and seem to regard it as a bit of a knockoff. (“My creation was out long before he started his stuff,” Featherstone says.)

Even Waters, who these days maintains that plastic lawn flamingos should be kept inside, “like pornography,” hasn’t hardened his heart entirely to the creatures. Visiting his hometown one Christmas, he noticed that Santa’s sleigh had landed in his formerly tasteful childhood yard, drawn by a dashing team of pink flamingos. “I almost cried when I saw that,” he admits. “I thought it was so sweet!”

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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