The sign introducing Leominster, a city off picturesque Route 2 in north-central Massachusetts, is faded, but the lettering is clear: ‘Leominster: Pioneer Plastics City’.

But a colourful new sign could be erected; a bright one depicting two long-legged, exotic pink birds; one that states ‘Leominster: Birthplace of the Plastic Pink Flamingo’.

Because it was here, in 1957, the much derided and yet equally beloved icon of kitsch Americana came into being. Their creator, the late Don Featherstone, a graduate of nearby Worcester Art Museum’s art school, was part of the design team at Leominster’s Union Products, a plastics company that mass-produced functional items as well as fantastical pieces for the home and garden. Featherstone was tasked with coming up with new ideas for plastic lawn ornaments.

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Featherstone had never seen a real flamingo, so he based his design on photographs he found in a National Geographic magazine.

His birds had long slender (metal) legs anchoring them into the ground – legs so thin they barely seemed able to support the froufrou bright-pink body billowing out at their top. Their elegant necks ended with a gently curved head and noble hooked beak.

Fittingly, as real flamingos are highly sociable animals, Featherstone’s birds were created and sold in pairs: one arched down, as if feeding, and the other standing tall, at watch. Real flamingos feed in mud, not on grass though.

“He was always clear that he never intended them to look lifelike,” said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As for the criticism and unexpected fame the flamingos brought Featherstone? “He was a very talented painter, but he disguised that. His attitude was to just go along with it,” Abrahams said.

In 1996, the magazine’s annual Ig Nobel awards included Featherstone as a belated recipient for his flamingos.

“These prizes are different in that they are purely for things that make you laugh and then think more about them. Part of the attraction of Don’s flamingos is that it’s hard to explain why they are fascinating or special.”

In the bright new world of post-World War Two American optimism, Featherstone’s pink birds were a symbol of the American dream and its ideals of the good life, like jetting off to an exotic locale – or at least dreaming about it. Plastic was the cheap, miracle material that aided America’s new consumer culture.

Not everyone admired Featherstone’s flamingos, though.

“They were at first considered tacky,” said Nancy Featherstone, Don’s wife, “but Donald always said the flamingo isn’t tacky, it’s what people do with them that can be tacky. At one point,” she added, “there were some places that banned plastic pink flamingos. So Donald went and made blue ones. He had a wonderful sense of humour,” she recalled fondly.

By the mid-1960s, the environmental back-to-nature movement more-or-less declared the very word ‘plastic’ an adjective for fake, and the American Dream was exposed as an empty ideal based in consumerism. Somehow, though, the plastic pink flamingos survived and landed on the kitsch-cool list. Some dubiously credit this to John Waters’ absurd 1972 movie Pink Flamingos, which questioned ideas of taste and celebrity. 

“I was aware of the John Waters film, but that wasn’t why I liked them,” said Massachusetts native Beth Lennon, author of the Retro Roadmap travel guides and collector of pop-culture Americana. She has several pairs of Featherstones, as the authentic flamingos are fondly known, at her Pennsylvania home.

“I am quite a Featherstone snob and can spot the fakes a mile off. The real ones are a specific shade of pink,” she mulled. “They are elegant looking; their necks have that graceful curve. Also, the detailing for the feathers is something the knockoffs don’t have.”

Their bellies also bear Don’s signature, which was embedded in the original moulds for the birds’ 30th anniversary.

The birthplace of another American icon

Nineteenth-Century naturalist John Chapman, nicknamed Johnny Appleseed for his apple-tree plantings, was born in Leominster and is commemorated by the small Johnny Appleseed nature reserve on the edge of town.

Featherstone didn’t just create an ornament; he created an icon of exotica culture, which ran parallel with the Tiki craze, honouring Hawaiian dreams.

The flamingos fed flights of fancy, and continue to do so: designers like Lilly Pulitzer have used the birds on sundresses and beachwear; on Etsy, pink flamingos are printed on everything from aprons to toilet seats.

Certainly in 1950s New England, they were a symbol of the exotic in the everyday.

“They are made in Massachusetts, not LA or Florida,” Lennon said of Featherstone’s birds. “Not somewhere exotic.”

Leominster is certainly not exotic.

By the early 1800s, Leominster was known as Comb City due to its importance in the painstaking craft of comb making, using animal horn and ivory. As those natural materials became more scarce and expensive, the comb industry turned to the newly developed celluloid, starting in the late 1800s. By this time, railroads had opened up the area and new waves of immigrants provided more labour. By the early 20th Century, long before the movie The Graduate extolled plastics as the future, Leominster’s Viscoloid company produced raw plastic and, along with increased mechanisation, spurred companies like Union Products, Tupperware (which was invented by Leominster native Earl Tupper), and Foster Grant (which was founded by onetime Viscoloid employee Sam Foster).

By the 1950s, Union Products had adopted injection-mould technology, switching its novelty lines of home and garden ornaments from flat to three-dimensional. Featherstone was tasked with designing these ‘blow moulds’, as they are known.

Nobody expected they would be anything special

“I think his first design was a duck,” Abrahams said. “The flamingos were second. Nobody expected they would be anything special or have such a great commercial life, but they kept on selling. They took Don’s career to places he never imagined.”

Featherstones are still produced locally by the Cado Company in the neighbouring city of Fitchburg, which bought the moulds after Union Products folded in 2006. Central Flag & Gift on Leominster’s sleepy Main Street stocks them, along with other pink flamingo knick-knacks. The Johnny Appleseed Visitors Center on Route 2, just before the Leominster turn-off, is a trove of local information and local goods, including new Featherstone plastic pink flamingos for purchase. When I visited, two large display birds overlooked their smaller boxed brethren, including one remaining pack of black Zombie Flamingos left over from Halloween. T-shirts and hoodies proudly stated Leominster as the birthplace of the birds.

A half hour’s drive away, in the tiny village of Lunenburg, Jeffrey’s Antique Co-Op Mall also had bigger 1980s versions of the Featherstone with built-in propellers that turn in the wind, and a collection of vintage Featherstone blow moulds in different designs.

It seems that the birds are no longer considered tacky. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has a pair in its permanent collection, and when Featherstone died in 2015, obituaries ran far and wide, including in the New York Times and Washington Post. The Post’s added, “More than 20 million of the birds reportedly have been sold since their debut in 1957.” 

Featherstone documented his creation in The Original Pink Flamingos: Splendor on the Grass, published in 1999, and kept 57 pink flamingos on his lawn, marking the year of their birth.

“They were his first-born children, they were like his kids,” Nancy said. “Donald always said, ‘Where else can you get tropical elegance for less than 10 bucks?’”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Ig Nobel awards. We regret the error.

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