Birds have been kept by humans since ancient times and, during the course of all those years, a wide array of structures have been constructed to house them. Some birds were kept for veneration or to participate in various rituals, while many more were kept as status symbols or simply as pets. Well over a century before the Regency began, both the exotic birds and their cages had become a feature of interior decor for a number of bird aficionados of the upper classes. The majority of those cages were extremely elaborate and ornate architectural confections. Quite a few of them remained in the families of their original owners for many generations, so they might still have been in use during the Regency. And for the newly rich, there were many elegant bird cages available which were made during the years of the Prince Regent’s tenure.
The residences our Regency ancestors provided for their feathered friends …
As early as the Middle Ages, it was the fashion among wealthy aristocrats to keep exotic birds which were being imported into Europe from around the known world. Most of these cages were made with a sturdy wrought iron frame in Gothic architectural designs similar to the designs which were used in the construction of Gothic cathedrals and palaces. Finer wire mesh was placed inside the wrought iron framework to contain smaller birds. The keeping of exotic birds gradually fell out of fashion over the course of the next few centuries, but it was revived in the seventeenth century.
The most popular exotic bird in seventeenth-century England was the popinjay, known to us today as the parrot. These large, colorful, often talkative birds were imported from the tropics, were difficult to obtain and therefore, were very expensive. Thus, only the very wealthy could afford to own a popinjay, which became a status symbol at that time. But having the bird was only part of the package, to show off their prize parrot to its best advantage, it must be displayed in a cage which would do justice to such a valuable creature. Unlike the wrought iron bird cages of the Middle Ages, bird cages in the seventeenth century were made of a much wider range of materials. Fine furniture woods, brass, and even sometimes, gold and silver, were used in the making of bird cages, while the interiors were fitted with porcelain, horn or silver bowls and/or bottles for food and water. As had been the practice since the Middle Ages, the floors of many of these cages were trays on which was placed a section of grassy turf, apparently to provide some small bit of the natural world to the birds in their cages. The majority of these bird cages were made in fanciful baroque shapes with ornate embellishments which had no relation at all to the bird’s natural habitat. These cages were most often designed to complement the decor of the room in which they would be placed. The very best of the cages at this time were made by French and Dutch artisans, though that would gradually change in the next century.
The fashion for keeping popinjays continued in the eighteenth century, but keeping other exotic birds also became fashionable as traders in goods from the East brought back more and more species of exotic birds along with their cargoes of spices, teas, porcelains and textiles. With the advent of more frequent shipments, the cost of these exotic birds dropped enough to make them available not just to wealthy aristocrats, but also to the more affluent among the upper classes. Few among the middling or lower classes would have been able to afford even one of these exotic birds, they were simply too expensive. Though the myna bird had been considered a sacred bird in India for more than two millenia, and many species could talk, they were not especially popular in England, probably due to their duller plumage and smaller size. Parrots remained a status symbol in the eighteenth century and there were nearly as many parrots kept in the eighteenth century as there had been in the seventeenth century. But love birds, doves and several species of song birds had also become popular. Ladies, in particular, preferred the softer, sweeter sounds of song birds to the often raucous and strident calls of parrots. Unlike parrots, song birds were usually kept in pairs or in family groups and their singing was considered to be soothing and pleasing to the ear. In fact, caged song birds were often carried about the house from room to room, as their owners went about their day, to provide background music. In some French gardens, to enhance an al fresco entertainment, several cages of song birds were covered with foliage and hung in the trees to provide "natural" music. Though less common in England, there were a few al fresco entertainments at which guests were serenaded by song birds as they strolled through the garden of a grand estate. A cage of song birds was one of the earliest forms of portable entertainment, long before the invention of the transistor radio, the Walkman or the iPod.
As various exotic birds were imported from the East, so too, were exotic cages meant to house these valuable creatures. From China came bird cages made of woven rope, reeds, cane, rattan, wicker and bamboo, though few of these cages were simple, box-like shapes. The most ornate of them were constructed in the shape of large and elaborate pagodas and other buildings of Oriental design. From Tunisia came unique and attractive large cylindrical cages crafted of wood and a unique pattern of linked curving wires. Traditionally, most of these cages were topped by a great wire dome. Not to be outdone, European craftsmen began designing and constructing ever more lavish and ostentatious bird cages in which the nobility and affluent gentry might display their exotic birds. As the eighteenth century progressed, architectural designs became increasingly popular. There were bird cages made to represent monumental buildings of the time, such as the Pantheon, the Taj Mahal, and even Versailles. In England and France, some wealthy patrons had bird cages designed as replicas of their own stately homes, or in some cases, as models of homes they hoped one day to build. Furniture designers like Thomas Chippendale and others, designed large bird cages in a number of styles, from Chinese, to Indian to Gothic. Mahogany had become the most fashionable furniture wood by the middle of the eighteenth century, and was commonly used in the making of these grand bird cages. Other fine furniture woods were also used, as was brass, gold and silver. Most interior bird cage fittings, such as water and seed dishes, were made of porcelain, as its popularity and availability had significantly increased, and porcelain vessels could be made quite decorative, in a wide range of colors. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth, the vogue for the picturesque resulted in bird cages of quite rustic design. These rustic bird cages were often made with sturdy twigs and other natural materials, or they were made of wire or woven wood strips and then embellished with natural-looking materials. Small sections of turf were less frequently employed to line the floors of eighteenth-century bird cages and sand or fine soil was more often used as a floor cover. Unlike in modern times, newspapers were quite expensive and were not normally used to line the bottoms of bird cages.
Fortunately for the birds that lived in these cages, the preference in the eighteenth century was for cages with sides of open, unobstructed wire, resulting in much more airy avian residences. Cages were often quite large, allowing at least some room for flight within their confines. And owners who kept birds for more than status symbols often allowed their birds outside the cage for at least a few hours each day, giving them opportunities to fly about the room and stretch their wings. Some bird owners, particularly those who kept parrots and other large birds, allowed their pets out for most of the day. Typically, they provided a perch, either one affixed to the top of the cage, or on a separate stand, where the bird could alight after flight. The bird would only be returned to its cage for the night and let out again the next morning.
The second half of the eighteenth century was the height of the rage for large, lavish and elaborate bird cages. By the turn of the nineteenth century, many of them remained in the homes of those who had commissioned them, often still housing exotic birds. However, though bird cages made during the Regency tended to be designed along simpler lines, many of them were still quite large. Most Regency-era bird cages were not as heavily ornamented as those which had been made during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and were much less frequently made as replicas of famous buildings or grand country manor houses. But the practice had not completely died out, and there is some evidence that there were at least a few bird cages which were constructed as miniatures of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the Queen’s House (Buckingham House), or some of the most well-known English country houses. Many bird cages were designed with frameworks of wood carved in Classical motifs, but Oriental motifs also continued in popularity for bird cages, though usually less elaborate that those of the previous century. Fine or painted woods and brass wire were the most common materials, but ivory and mother-of-pearl, along with silver and gold might also be incorporated to add just a touch of elegance to the exterior, particularly for bird cages which would be on display in the more public rooms of a house. Though porcelain or silver continued in use for food and water containers, horn containers were seldom used in the early nineteenth century. By this time, glass containers had also become popular for cages of the most simple designs, and there are some glass vessels which were advertised as being specially designed to contain bird seed litter so that it did not spread outside the cage. Even though these bird cages were quite large, they were usually built with more of the area of the sides made of wire grillwork or mesh than had been done previously, providing even more open and airy domiciles for their avian residents.
In some very affluent households, typically those which kept song birds, a very large cage might be kept in a main room to house several of the birds. When someone wanted bird song to provide background music to their activities, one or two of the birds might be removed from the large cage and placed in a smaller one which could be more easily carried about the house. Those of lesser means or need for bird song might keep only a pair of song birds in a cage which could be moved from room to room as needed. Most Regency bird cages were square or rectangular in plan and the large custom-made cages usually had a table stand made at the same time, in a matching design. Smaller, more portable cages were usually placed on a table, or, if they had the appropriate fitting on the top, might be suspended from a cord run through a hook or eye-bolt in the ceiling. Suspended cages were necessary for some species of song birds, who would only sing from a high perch. For such birds, the cord would be used to raise the cage to the height which would induce the song birds to sing, and would be lowered for the night, or when their song was no longer required. It must be noted that the pole stands made to hold smaller bird cages were not introduced until the last decade of the nineteenth century, so no one during the Regency would have had a bird cage suspended from a free-standing pole. Large cages usually had a table stand while smaller cages were placed on a table or suspended from a cord attached to the ceiling. However, just as is done with most birds today, a cloth was placed over the bird’s cage a night, to give them a sense of safety and security so that they could sleep.
By the Regency, birds were less often kept as status symbols and were much more often kept as pets by those who admired their beauty and were fascinated by their behavior. For example, Lord Byron loved the macaw he kept in his rooms at Albany and refused to remove him, despite repeated complaints from his neighbors about the bird’s loud and raucous calls. Various species of parrots were kept as pets during the Regency, but they were still expensive, both to buy and to maintain, even when not housed in a cage which was a miniature of the Brighton Pavilion or Chatsworth House. Gentlemen, especially solitary scholars, often enjoyed the company of a parrot, teaching the bird to talk and allowing it free run of their study or book room during the day. Ladies tended to prefer love birds, doves and song birds as pets because they were entranced by the strong bond between birds which mated for life. In addition, they enjoyed the more delicate appearance and softer voices of these smaller birds, which were also somewhat less expensive to acquire and maintain. It must be noted that though the existence of the budgerigar, known more commonly in England as the budgie, and as the parakeet in America, was first recorded in 1805, it did not become a common household pet until the Victorian era. It is extremely doubtful that there was a single budgie housed in a bird cage anywhere in England during the Regency.
This article has focused on the extravagant and elaborate bird cages made for exotic birds. They would have been used by the nobility and the gentry to house their expensive imported birds, whether kept as pets, or as status symbols. Though ownership of such birds was well beyond the pocket-books of the average person during the Regency, there were some among the less affluent classes who kept native English birds as pets. Those birds would most likely have been housed in smaller, less ornate cages, typically made from wicker-work or basketry. Which is not to say that these domestic birds were any less dear to their owners than were those costly imported birds.
Dear Regency Authors, might one of these ornate and elaborate bird cages have a place in one of your upcoming novels? Perhaps one of these grand architectural confections has been relegated to the attics of the family home as being out-of-style or is no longer needed, since the family no longer keeps exotic birds. But what important item might be secreted within the structure? Mayhap a crucial document has been hidden under the tray at the bottom of the cage? Or, might Father’s or even Grandfather’s, signet ring, with the family seal, be lodged between the porcelain food and water dishes? Does one of your characters need a unique hobby or pastime? From the late eighteenth century, right into the Regency, some gentlemen enjoyed designing and building their own elaborate bird cages. Many were replicas of famous buildings, and a few were built as doll houses, though it appears that they were never inhabited by either birds or dolls and were intended strictly for use as interior decor. Perhaps the impoverished heroine has a pair of song birds, maybe left to her as a legacy from a wealthy older relative. She takes very good care of them, and enjoys their song, since she has no musical instruments available to her. Will the villain or another cruel character try to deprive her of her beloved pets in order to sell them and their elaborate cage for his own gain? How might that bring her into contact with the hero? How else might a lavish and elaborate bird cage be made to serve your story?
Author’s Note: Unfortunately, very few antique bird cages have survived into modern times. Some were destroyed by their inhabitants, who regularly chewed the various parts of their cages since their need to sharpen their beaks was not fully understood and few were given a cuttle bone or any other material on which to chew. Many of these early cages were quite delicate, and even if they were spared damage by their occupants, they were not appreciated or maintained and were discarded or destroyed when they no longer served a purpose. Some of the very largest were converted into cabinets or bookcases when they had lost their avian residents. Therefore, antique bird cages are a highly sought-after collectible today. But a word of warning to anyone thinking to acquire one to house a bird today: Sadly, since many of the earliest cages were designed and built as interior decor, to display a prized exotic bird whose needs were not understood, parts of them were coated with paints, lacquers and resins which were poisonous to their residents. While structurally stunning, these lavish antique bird cages did little to provide for the real needs of the birds which inhabited them. They were difficult to clean, and were often covered with toxic materials. It is a wonder that so many birds survived life in these cages. It was not until the last decades of the twentieth century that the physical needs of birds was fully understood and that knowledge applied to the making of bird cages. If you have a pet bird, do not expose it to the dangers of an antique bird cage. If you must have a cage in an antique style, there are a few manufacturers which make replicas to modern standards. Such modern replicas are easy to clean and maintain and would be a safe and comfortable home for your beloved feathered friend.