Plumes: Ostrich Feath­ers, Jews, and a Lost World of Glob­al Commerce

  • From the Publisher
October 25, 2011

The thirst for exot­ic orna­ment among fash­ion­able women in the metrop­o­les of Europe and Amer­i­ca prompt­ed a bustling glob­al trade in ostrich feath­ers that flour­ished from the 1880s until the First World War. When feath­ers fell out of fash­ion with con­sumers, the result was an eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe for many, a world­wide feath­er bust. In this remark­able book, Sarah Stein draws on rich archival mate­ri­als to bring to light the promi­nent and var­ied roles of Jews in the feath­er trade. She dis­cov­ers that Jews fos­tered and nur­tured the trade across the glob­al com­mod­i­ty chain and through­out the far-flung ter­ri­to­ries where ostrich­es were reared and plucked, and their feath­ers were sort­ed, export­ed, import­ed, auc­tioned, whole­saled, and final­ly man­u­fac­tured for sale.

From Yid­dish-speak­ing Russ­ian-Lithuan­ian feath­er han­dlers in South Africa to Lon­don man­u­fac­tur­ers and whole­salers, from rival Sephardic fam­i­lies whose feath­ers were import­ed from the Sahara and trad­ed across the Mediter­ranean, from New York’s Low­er East Side to entre­pre­neur­ial farms in the Amer­i­can West, Stein explores the details of a remark­ably vibrant yet ephemer­al cul­ture. This is a sin­gu­lar sto­ry of glob­al com­merce, colo­nial eco­nom­ic prac­tices, and the rise and fall of a glam­orous lux­u­ry item.

Ruf­fling Feathers

By Sarah Abre­vaya Stein

In 2004, on a research trip to South Africa, I took leave of the book I was research­ing, leav­ing the archives of Cape Town for Oudt­shoorn, a small town on the inte­ri­or of the West­ern Cape. Oudt­shoorn had been the pri­ma­ry sup­pli­er to a glob­al ostrich feath­er indus­try of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, and, accord­ing to a 1940 Yid­dish-lan­guage his­to­ry, Jews had count­ed promi­nent­ly among its feath­er deal­ers. This unlike­ly con­flu­ence — that an ostrich feath­er boom exist­ed, that Jews had a role in it, and that its only his­to­ry should be penned in Yid­dish — war­rant­ed an archival pilgrimage. 

The archives of Oudtshoorn’s C.P. Nel Muse­um, small and low tech but lov­ing­ly main­tained, revealed fas­ci­nat­ing traces of Jew­ish his­to­ry. It did not, how­ev­er, yield papers of Jew­ish feath­er traders — doc­u­ments that might allow me to recon­struct their his­to­ry. Shar­ing my frus­tra­tion with my infor­mal hosts, third gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish ostrich farm­ers in their eight­ies, they gen­tly sug­gest­ed I was look­ing in the wrong place: the mate­r­i­al I craved, they explained, was not pre­served in Oudtshoorn’s archives, but was on dis­play in the asso­ci­at­ed muse­um. Jews’ involve­ment in the glob­al ostrich feath­er indus­try, it seems, was viewed less as the stuff of his­to­ry, more as a cab­i­net of curiosities. 

Return­ing to the muse­um, I dis­cov­ered an ostrich feath­er merchant’s office” con­tain­ing rough­ly 30 years of the quo­tid­i­an finan­cial records of Isaac Nurick, a Jew­ish feath­er mer­chant of Russ­ian Lithuan­ian ori­gin well con­nect­ed across the glob­al feath­er world. Blessed with access to this aston­ish­ing trea­sure, I was launched on a his­tor­i­cal jour­ney that car­ried me to three con­ti­nents, to troves of hith­er­to neglect­ed archives, to the descen­dents of feath­er fam­i­lies in six coun­tries, and to the unex­pect­ed sto­ry of Jews’ promi­nence in the ostrich feath­er boom and bust of the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the sub­ject of Plumes

Due to the over­whelm­ing thirst for plumes as items of adorn­ment by female con­sumers in the metrop­o­lis­es of Europe and the Unit­ed States, the val­ue of ostrich feath­ers per pound almost equaled that of dia­monds. For some 40 years, from the 1880’s to rough­ly World War One, ostrich plumes proved a pop­u­lar dec­o­ra­tive ele­ment and ubiq­ui­tous fea­ture of trans-Atlantic women’s fash­ion. Ostrich feath­ers could be found wher­ev­er there were arbiters of style: a con­sign­ment of £20,000 worth went down with the Titanic. 

Aston­ish­ing­ly, in all hubs of the glob­al feath­er trade — North and South Africa, Yemen, Lon­don, Paris, and New York — Jews were the prin­ci­pal plume mid­dle-men and women. In the West­ern Cape, over 90% of feath­er mer­chants were Yid­dish-speak­ing immi­grants from Russ­ian Lithua­nia. In North Africa, whence the feath­ers of wild ostrich­es were shipped, Sephar­di Jews dom­i­nat­ed feath­er exports and Judeo-Arab Jews dom­i­nat­ed the feath­er pro­cess­ing indus­try. In Yemen, Jews over­saw the sale of feath­ers of Ara­bi­an ori­gin at Aden’s bustling port. In Lon­don, the ostrich feath­er trade was con­sid­ered one of the city’s chief Jew­ish monop­o­lies.” In New York, the Amer­i­can cen­ter of ostrich feath­er man­u­fac­tur­ing, most feath­er work­shops were owned by Jew­ish men and staffed by Russ­ian Jew­ish women. In the Amer­i­can West, South­west, and South, Jews con­sti­tut­ed the financiers and feath­er go betweens” for entre­pre­neur­ial ostrich farmers. 

Plumes explores how Jews nur­tured the feath­er trade across a glob­al com­mod­i­ty chain and through­out the far-flung ter­ri­to­ries where ostrich­es were reared and plucked, and how their feath­ers were sort­ed, export­ed, import­ed, auc­tioned, whole­saled, and final­ly man­u­fac­tured for sale. The book con­sid­ers how Jew­ish­ness was a mag­net to the indus­try for some, for oth­ers a ton­ic that facil­i­tat­ed com­mer­cial rela­tion­ships. How, I ask, did Jews in var­i­ous ech­e­lons of the ostrich feath­er mar­ket ben­e­fit from the par­tic­u­lar skills, exper­tise, and con­tacts they pos­sessed as Ashke­nazi, Sephar­di, Maghre­bi, and Anglo­phone Jews — and as rich and poor, immi­grant and native-born, South African, Mediter­ranean, British, and Amer­i­can girls, boys, women, and men? Why did Jew­ish­ness prove to be the cru­cial ingre­di­ent that knit togeth­er this lucra­tive but ulti­mate­ly short-lived market? 

While the fact of being Jew­ish helped some in the feath­er trade, it insu­lat­ed none when the indus­try entered a pre­cip­i­tous col­lapse in 1914 — brought on by shifts in fash­ion cat­alyzed by World War I, ram­pant over-sup­ply, and the suc­cess of the inter­na­tion­al bird preser­va­tion move­ment. The feath­er crash brought finan­cial dis­as­ter across the globe and to all in the busi­ness, Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish. The most tena­cious tried to ride out the bust; many more were left bereft of busi­ness, pride, and rep­u­ta­tion. Slums in South Africa housed entire com­mu­ni­ties dis­en­fran­chised by the crash, feath­er mer­chants com­mit­ted sui­cide rather than face their debts, hus­bands sold their wives’ jew­el­ry to remain solvent. 

One does not write a book about Jews and feath­ers with the expec­ta­tion that it will prove time­ly. And yet the con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance of this sto­ry is breath­tak­ing. At the moment Plumes appeared, news of a glob­al finan­cial down­turn, of the cat­a­stroph­ic deval­u­a­tion of goods and indus­tries once viewed as invi­o­late, and, no less, of Jew­ish wealth, loss, and eco­nom­ic mis­be­hav­ior dom­i­nat­ed the air­waves. For this, the his­to­ry of the ostrich feath­er indus­try of the last turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry offers a poignant his­tor­i­cal mod­el. It sug­gests, first, how fal­la­cious is the assump­tion that things have an endur­ing and know­able val­ue: how wrong it is to assume that prof­its earned in a spec­u­la­tive, volatile, and inflat­ed mar­ket are guar­an­teed, even deserved. Sec­ond, it teach­es that Jew­ish his­to­ries are found in unex­pect­ed places. To fath­om Jew­ish com­merce, cul­tures, and lives in all their mul­ti­plic­i­ty, we must be pre­pared to peer beyond the places, leit­mo­tifs, and sources that have been con­sid­ered cen­tral to the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence hereto­fore, find­ing new cab­i­nets of curios­i­ty whose weighty his­to­ries are yet to be written.

Discussion Questions