Birds of a Feather

Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce by Sarah A. Stein

Agriculture Books History International Judaism

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.

Why did the Lithuanian Jews end up dominating the ostrich feather trade, asks Stein, a professor of history at the University of Washington. Her answer tends to be couched in distressing academic-ese: “contacts of kith and kin within and across sub-ethnic diasporas and political and oceanic boundaries, copacetic relations with the reigning authorities” and so on. In plain English, the Lithuanian Jews had worked in similar areas of business, notably textiles, tanning, hide, leather, and furs, and they were experienced travelling merchants and traders. They also had a ready-made global network of family and friends in the great trading ports and cities of the era: Livorno, Tripoli, New York and, above all, London, which as the hub of the Empire became the ostrich-feather dealing capital of the world. So successful did the Jewish ostrich-feather dealers become that there were accusations of price-fixing to keep non-Jews out. Professor Stein concludes that while there may have been some substance to the allegations, the fact is that all such trading networks depend in the end on expertise and experience, which the Jews had in abundance.

Then it all collapsed. One reason was animal welfare: the US passed a series of laws to protect wild birds from being killed for their plumage, and ostrich feathers became associated in the public mind with such cruelty, despite the fact that ostriches were well treated, their feathers plucked, like sheep being sheared for wool. Rather more importantly, the First World War halted high fashion in its tracks: women opted for more restrained headgear and the only feathers in demand were white ones, which could be obtained rather more cheaply. The Jews of Outdschoorn were reduced to wandering the streets, bewildered at the loss of their livelihood. An anti-Semitic backlash resulted, from farmers and others who were also ruined.

Professor Stein rather overdoes the lamentations about the end of the trade: new technology and changes in fashion have condemned many once-lucrative commodities to extinction almost overnight, like nitrates in Chile or rubber in Malaya. She also overlooks the fact that the descendants of the Lithuanian Jews moved on to prosper elsewhere in South Africa, forming a key element in the country’s business community today, legitimately feathering their nests while the ostriches went back to the wild.