The ostrich is an exceedingly ugly bird with beautiful feathers - so beautiful that for four decades until 1914 they were among the world's most prized commodities, as ostrich farmers, buyers and a sophisticated network of middle-men sought to feed the seemingly limitless demands of the fashion industry. Ostrich feathers were the height of chic for the women of the rapidly expanding middle classes around the world in the final quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, and there were plenty of people happy to cash in. Most of the ostriches came from South Africa and most of the middle-men were Jewish; it is their story that forms the heart of Professor Stein's rather original book.
Ostrich feathers had always been valued for their beauty but it was the discovery that ostriches could be farmed that transformed the industry. It turned out that not only was the bird easy to breed but it was low-maintenance too, happy to live on arid ground and costing little to feed and water. The ideal place was the Western Cape region of South Africa, where in 1863 the first ostrich was domesticated. By 1913, there were 776,000 of them, and their feathers could be plucked every eight months. Ostriches could earn farmers five or six times more per acre than wheat. The centre of the trade was the town of Oudtschoorn, which doubled in size between 1891 and 1911. The farmers were Boers and Britons, plus a few Jews, but the men who bought their feathers and sold them round the world were all Jews, most of them originally from Lithuania, then under Russian control. Indeed, almost all could be traced back to two towns, Chelm and Shavli, from which they had fled Russian persecution to seek a new life abroad. So many ended up in Oudtschoorn that it was known as Little Jerusalem.