Treasures from the Oregon Vault: Handmade Magda Berg Designs

September 8, 2020

By Nicole Yasuhara and Kathleen Daly

This detail of a feathered cape, handmade by Magda Berg, is one of over 75,000 objects the Oregon Historical Society’s museum safeguards. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.2.

The Oregon Historical Society is dedicated to making Oregon’s long, rich history visible and accessible to all. For more than a century, OHS has served as the state’s collective memory, gathering and preserving a vast collection of objects, photographs, films, manuscripts, books, and oral histories. Those collections, cared for by museum and library staff, are held in a 100,000 square foot facility sometimes referred to as the Oregon Vault.

In this new series, “Treasures from the Oregon Vault,” museum staff will highlight their favorites from the over 75,000 objects they safeguard, including costumes and textiles, Native American belongings, artworks, and everyday items. Some are powerful, some are ordinary, and some are totally bizarre.

Beginning in 1947, Mrs. Magda [Magdaline] Berg (1892–1982) began fashioning hats and clothing using bird feathers she, her husband, and son hunted. A short piece in the Oregonian, dated January 28, 1952, opens with: “Mrs. Otto Berg doesn’t hunt for hats. She hunts for pheasants and makes them hats.” Berg also describes in the article the process of preparing the bird and feathers for her creations using salt, toothpicks, and milliners glue. The Berg family also ate the bird meat.

Cloche-style hat handmade by Magda Berg. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.1.
Magda Berg made this feathered cloche-style hat from pheasant feathers collected during a hunting trip in eastern Oregon. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.1.

In 1969, Berg donated several pieces of clothing she had created to OHS, including a matching hat and cape (OHS Museum 69-202.1,.2). For this creation, Berg used feathers from birds her family hunted in eastern Oregon and was inspired by royal Hawaiian feathered garments (ʻahu ʻula) she had seen in the 1940s and 1950s. The women’s hat is made of pheasant feathers glued and sewn to a stiff synthetic hat form. Its helmet or cloche-like shape is overlaid with bronze feathers with iridescent dark blue-green tips around a narrow, rolled brim and has an inner band of pleated black grosgrain ribbon with two plastic combs. According to donation records, Berg made a similar hat for Mamie Eisenhower.

Feathered cape handmade by Magda Berg. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.2.
Magda Berg was inspired by Hawaiian feathered garments (‘ahu ‘ula) she had seen in the 1940s and 1950s. OHS Museum 69-202.2.2.

This women’s wrist-length cape is also adorned with pheasant feathers; colors are burnt orange, brown, and red with iridescent black on the body. Blue and green feathers were used for the mandarin collar and border along the center front opening and hem. The edges are trimmed with dark green braided cord and the lining is dark green satin. There is a single hook and eye closure at the center front neckline.

Detail of feathers along collar of cape handmade by Magda Berg. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.2.
Detail of feathers along collar of cape handmade by Magda Berg. OHS Museum, 69-202.2.2.

A historic property survey form from 1991 describes her husband, Otto Berg (1889–1966), as being born in Scappoose and an engineer by trade, and a member of the Oregon Brewers Association, Portland Chamber of Commerce, and the Mt. Tabor Masonic Lodge. Otto Berg and Magda Berg had two children, Otto, Jr., and Frederick Berg. Because it’s difficult to choose just a couple of Magda Berg’s designs to share, we’re including in the slideshow below a few other details of her vivid work.

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Kathleen Daly’s Other Posts

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