Sanctuary for Birds—A Remarkable Pageant’s 100th Anniversary

The following is a guest post by Donna Lacy Collins, Photo Preservation Specialist, Prints & Photographs Division.

An exciting part of working with the Library’s collections is finding unexpected and curious images. When I discovered this picture in the Arnold Genthe archive of photographic negatives, labeled simply “Cornish bird masque,” I knew I had to learn more. Many questions came to mind, starting with “Why is that man dressed as a bird?”

Scene from "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque," by Percy MacKaye, in rehearsal for the performance dedicating the Meriden Bird Club sanctuary in New Hampshire. Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913.

Scene from “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque,” by Percy MacKaye, in rehearsal for the performance dedicating the Meriden Bird Club sanctuary in New Hampshire. Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913. //

With some research, I learned that the photo shows Mr. George Rublee dressed as a blue heron for a play written in 1913 to discourage the use of bird feathers as decoration for ladies’ hats and clothing. In the early 20th century, birds such as herons and egrets were hunted in large numbers for their plumes. As bird populations became greatly diminished, public concern resulted in citizen advocacy efforts to protect them.

In 1910, the Meriden Bird Club established the Helen Woodruff Smith Bird Sanctuary near Cornish, NH. One of the earliest areas designated to protect wild birds, Meriden became known as “Bird Village” because of the club’s wide-ranging activities. It sought to create hospitable habitats for numerous bird species and also tested innovations in food, feeders, and bird baths. This area was also home to the Cornish Colony, a lively artists’ enclave for many well-known writers, painters, and composers, including the poet Percy MacKaye. In 1913, Cornish was called the “Summer White House” when President Woodrow Wilson chose Harlakenden House as a retreat.

Percy MacKaye as Alwyn, the poet, a character in Percy MacKaye's play "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque." Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913.

Percy MacKaye as Alwyn, the poet, a character in Percy MacKaye’s play “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.” Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913. //

In August 1913, the bird club manager, naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes, commissioned Percy MacKaye to write a poem to celebrate the new sanctuary. MacKaye wrote, cast, and staged Sanctuary: A Bird Masque in just one month. Sanctuary merged MacKaye’s philosophy of civic theatre with the theme of nature conservation. He described the work as “spontaneous and glad cooperation of artists, neighbors, lovers of nature, imbued with a deep feeling in common–concern for the welfare of wild birds.” Deftly combining verse, music, and dance, Sanctuary focused attention on the harmful plume hunting while celebrating the beauty and value of birds. Nearly sixty Cornish Colony residents joined the cast, fancifully costumed as roughly thirty different birds.

The play debuted on September 12, 1913. President and Mrs. Wilson watched as daughters Margaret and Eleanor Wilson participated in the drama. According to the national press, Sanctuary was a great success.

Juliet Barrett Rublee as Tacita the dryad, a character in Percy MacKaye's play "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque." Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913

Juliet Barrett Rublee as Tacita the dryad, a character in Percy MacKaye’s play “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.” Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913. //

When MacKaye invited noted photographer Arnold Genthe to document the dress rehearsal, Genthe artistically captured the play’s spirit in both black-and-white negatives and color autochromes. In 1914, the published play was dedicated to Baynes and prominently featured Genthe’s photos. Promotional materials stated “the remarkable color photographs by Arnold Genthe …will furnish practical help in costuming and setting any new production.”

MacKaye invited wide use of Sanctuary to raise awareness of the need for bird protection. The message had popular appeal, and numerous productions were staged across the United States. Within a few years, President Wilson signed legislation enacting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

September 12, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of Sanctuary’s debut. Genthe’s engaging photographs have remained valuable reference sources for the play. In August 2013, commemorative performances were held in Woodstock, VT, at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park and in Cornish, NH, at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

Was that a bird or a man in the surprising photo that first caught my attention? Both, really; and that one image opened a wonderful door into the poetic celebration of birds in our midst.

Witter Bynner as Stark the plume hunter, a character in Percy MacKaye's play "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque." Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913.

Witter Bynner as Stark the plume hunter, a character in Percy MacKaye’s play “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.” Autochrome photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1913. //

Learn More:

  • Enjoy all of the photos by Arnold Genthe for Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.
  • Explore more Arnold Genthe photos in the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
  • See newspaper coverage of the play in “Chronicling America.“
  • Look at a short history of the Meridan Bird Sanctuary.
  • View more on the art of autochromes.
  • Discover more connections between this play and the Library of Congress:
  • Read more background information:
    • Colby, Virginia, and Atkinson, James B. Footprints of the Past: Images of Cornish, New Hampshire and the Cornish Colony. Concord, NH: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1996.
    • Doughty, Robin W. Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation, A Study in Nature Protection. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
    • Genthe, Arnold. As I Remember. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1936.
    • MacKaye, Percy. Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, with a prelude by Arvia MacKaye; illustrated with photographs in color and monotone by Arnold Genthe. New York, Frederick A. Stokes, 1914.
    • Wood, John. The Art of the Autochrome: The Birth of Color Photography. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1993.


  1. Robin Rausch
    September 12, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for this informative post! I’ve done research on the pageants at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH from this same time period. There are 3 photos in the Genthe collection labelled “McDowell Festival” and I believe they may actually be of this pageant. The buildings in the background and the grounds do not resemble any old photos of the MacDowell Colony, and we have many at LC. Any chance of confirming this, based on your research?

  2. Jane Van Nimmen
    September 13, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    A beautiful piece on The Bird Masque. Flying back to the plume hunters exactly a hundred years ago was an unusual treat. Your links were wonderful too. Thanks so much! Veeri, veeri, vireo, I say. Now I want to look up Witter.Bynner.

  3. Linda J
    September 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    How do you determine know if pictures like these are in public domain?

    • Barbara Orbach Natanson
      September 17, 2013 at 5:04 pm

      When you’re using the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, if you look at the full description (“About this Item”) for a picture, look for a “Rights Advisory” that says “No known restrictions on publication. For example, here’s the full description for the first picture in this post: //; you’ll see the “Rights Advisory” information about halfway down in the description. (Search tip: You can include “No known restrictions” in your search to focus on only those descriptions that include the phrase.)

      Generally, “no known restrictions on publication” is the best that we can say. We explain what we mean by “No known restrictions on publication,” as well as providing tips about the duration of copyright, how to interpret our descriptions, and resources that help with analyzing rights in our online aid: “Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images: Assessing the Risk of Using a P&P Image” (//

  4. Donna Lacy Collins
    September 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for your excellent question. You’re correct in pointing out that searching the term “McDowell festival” within the Arnold Genthe Collection will return three images: two color autochrome images and one B/W image from an original nitrate negative. This question has arisen in the past because of the close dates of the images and the proximity of the New Hampshire locations (there’s a note in each catalog record for both autochromes, with a reference to compare them to the b/w image.)

    The black-and-white nitrate negative is identified by information found in Arnold Genthe’s original logbooks and on the vintage negative envelope. The online catalog record refers to the logbook spelling for “McDowell” — the two original sources use alternate spellings, stating both “MacDowell” and “McDowell” festival. But beyond these clues, there is no additional information to identify the exact scene or the event.

    Comparing the context and clues from the other Genthe autochromes from “Sanctuary: a bird masque” does make for the intriguing question as to whether the three images may be depicting an audience watching the “Sanctuary” play. In the future, should additional information be gleaned from identification of the large house in the background or other visual clues, it may be possible to clarify both the location or the event.

  5. Jurretta J. Heckscher
    September 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    This post is a fascinating and delightful window into the early days of the American conservation movement, the forerunner of today’s environmentalism. Thank you!

    Readers should know, however, that the Library has made available online an entire digital collection of historical materials that provides the context for the creation of both the Helen Woodruff Smith Bird Sanctuary and Percy MacKaye’s “Bird Masque.” The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, //, includes such resources as:

    • A chronology that covers what was going on in bird conservation in 1913, //;
    • An important contemporary book that devotes a chapter to the threat to birds from the use of their feathers in women’s hats, //
    • The Migratory Bird Act that President Wilson signed into law in 1918, //

    Browse the subject headings related to “Birds” at // for lots more relevant material from the same time period, including the annual celebration of Bird Day in schools, important books about birds for children and adults, and film footage from 1915 documenting Theodore Roosevelt as “friend of the birds.”

  6. Roy Lacy
    October 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

    Great picture and back story. So glad your work has enabled you to preserve our nation’s history with such detail. And photos such as these add such wonderful insight not only to the early preservation works, but the whimsical side of our ancestors.
    Thank you again for all of your efforts with the details in the field you have chosen Donna.

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