Ostrich feather hats were all the rage in women’s fashion from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. “A well-dressed woman nowadays is as fluffy as a downy bird fresh from the nest,” wrote an observer during that period. “If you would be fashionable, you would be beplumed.”
Considered chic all the year round, ostrich feathers were popular millinery accoutrements for women old and young and all sizes and complexions. With at least 14 varieties and countless grades available, ostrich feathers’ appeal also crossed class lines.
The trans-Atlantic ostrich feather industry was mainly in the hands of Jewish farmers, dealers, wholesalers and manufacturers, many of whom were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the Russian Empire.
At its height, the industry was truly an international one, supplying gainful employment for entrepreneurs and workers in South Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
It is the subject of Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s fascinating book, Plumes – Ostrich Feathers, Jews and a Lost World of Global Commerce, published by Yale University Press.
Drawing on a vast array of archival sources, Stein, a professor of history and Sephardi studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, has written a rigorous account of a “feather boom” that ended ingloriously with a “feather bust.”
As she suggests, the feather trade originated in southern Africa, where the birds were hunted and killed for their spectacular plumes.
In general, the hunters were the indigenous inhabitants and white settlers of the area.
The ostrich – an obstreperous bird whose kick could injure or kill a handler – was domesticated in 1863 in the Western Cape district of South Africa.
By 1913, when the price of ostrich feathers reached its peak, the plumes were ranked fourth in value among South Africa’s exports.
The industry, which also attracted Boer and British farmers, was centred in Oudtshoorn, a region that was deemed hospitable to ostrich farming.
Its semi-desert climate allowed feather handlers to pluck adult ostriches about every eight months and enabled farmers to easily grow alfalfa, which provided superb nourishment for the birds, says Stein.
The trade was profitable, permitting a farmer to earn five to six times more than a farmer who cultivated, say, wheat on the same plot of land.
Two additional factors contributed to its success: the existence of a cheap pool of wage labourers and the policy of the British imperial government.
The workers had the most physically taxing job, tending to the birds and plucking and sorting their feathers. In South Africa, workers of mixed races performed these roles, which were dirty and dangerous. But in North Africa, Britain and the United States, this task fell to Jews, who had experience as both artisinal and industrial workers.
The state, in South Africa at least, was essential to the industry’s viability and success, building roads and railway lines that facilitated its expansion.
Interestingly enough, the European and North American side of the industry was characterized by a clear-cut division of labour.
Feather processing in London and New York was monopolized almost entirely by Ashkenazi Jews, while Sephardi Jews in these cities tended to be found in the manufacturing and wholesale sectors.
In the Middle East, wealthy Moroccan and Livornese Jewish merchants financed the conveyance of feathers to North Africa’s ports via trans-Saharan camel caravans and ships plying the Red Sea and the Nile River, while working-class Jews in Cairo, Alexandria, Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and Aden sorted and packed the feathers.
All too often, workers in the manufacturing sector toiled under sweat-shop conditions.
In New York City, for example, labourers in ostrich feather factories worked in hot and crowded spaces and breathed in tiny bits of feather fluff. The persistent ambient dust generated by feathers made ailments of the nose, throat and ears ubiquitous.
Stein writes that while the market was booming, observers compared feathers to diamonds in terms of their value as durable luxury goods.
She quotes one such observer, who declared that a fine ostrich feather “is an investment for life” and that the plume “has been in fashion for centuries past, and will probably be for centuries to come.” As if to underline his argument, he added, “It holds its place like the diamond.”
But, as we know, ostrich feathers did not share the fate of diamonds.
The De Beers diamond syndicate, in an an astonishingly successful advertising campaign, convinced consumers that diamonds were enduring and classy, a girl’s best friend, in the words of one classic jingle.
The feather industry made similar attempts to influence buyers, but, as Stein points out, they were insubstantial, underfunded and ill-timed.
By 1915, she says, ostrich feathers were viewed as fragile, dated and even tawdry.
What accounted for their fall from grace?
Ostrich feathers had adorned the hats, fans and clothes of rich European and American women from the second half of the 18th century, but were not widely used until the 1880s.
But as the 20th century dawned, “bird preservationists,” as Stein succinctly describes them, launched a campaign to phase out their usage. As a result, anti-plumage bills were passed in the United States and Britain.
Yet before this development, European and American women began demanding more utilitarian clothing as they were pressed into the workforce.
The popularization of the automobile had an effect as well.
As Stein puts it, “Enormous hats were impossible to keep in form or place in open cars. Elaborate feather accessories fared badly in such circumstances.”
The resultant feather crash, which started in the winter of 1914, was devastating, bringing financial ruin to farmers, merchants, manufacturers, sorters, wholesalers and handlers from South Africa to the United States.
Stein, in this valuable volume of social and economic history, traces the trajectory of an industry that prospered and died on the whim of fleeting fashion.