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

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"A bold and original work of cultural and economic history, Plumes examines the thriving global trade in ostrich feathers from the "feather boom" of the 1880s to the economically devastating "feather bust" that coincided with the First World War. At that pivotal moment, the exotic plumes that had adorned the hats of women in the capitals of Europe and America-such as the elusive Barbary feather from Sudan, coveted the world over for its "dazzling fullness, width at the crown, and so-called double fluff" - fell precipitously out of fashion." "But this is much more than the story of a vogue. It is also a remarkable portrait of Jewish enterprise. "Jews played a crucial and visible role not only in the South African branch of the feather trade but in its North African, Ottoman, French, British, and American wings as well," writes Stein. "Furthermore, Jews in the industry were immensely diverse: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Judea-Arab, and Anglo; citizens of nation-states, colonial subjects, and proteges of royal courts; white-collar and blue-collar workers; immigrants and native born, men and women, adults and children." Drawing on a vast array of archival sources, Stein covers every facet of the feather trade, from Yiddish-speaking Russian-Lithuanian feather handlers in South Africa to London manufacturers and wholesalers, from Sephardic families whose feathers were imported from the Sahara and traded across the Mediterranean, to New York's Lower East Side manufactories where, according to one commentator, feathers were "saturated with tears and sighs," and to entrepreneurial feather farms in the American West. In Plumes) high fashion, Jewish studies, and modern economic and global historyconverge.
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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

"Plumes—in part the chronicle of a craze in early 20th-century millinery—speaks to our current moment of financial cataclysm. . . . Even though Plumes is a study of fluff, [Stein''s] book is solidly grounded in scholarship."—Stephen Birmingham, Wall Street Journal

— Stephen Birmingham

The Atlantic
"Assorted histories—world, fashion, economic, Jewish—converge in this fluent account of an esoteric trade and its far-flung principals."—The Atlantic

"Stein''s book is fascinating (who knew there was an ostrich-feather bubble?) as well as prescient (over-reliance on credit, neglecting to diversify your assets, the belief that a commodity will never, ever lose value—sounds vaguely familiar). And she maintains that tricky balance between engrossing historical narrative and cultural theory."—Raquel Laneri,

— Raquel Laneri

Literary Review

“I loved this book. I knew nothing about the subject, but Sarah Stein … kept me going right to the last page … her comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating history … [is] a vast subject, which she admirably outlines in straightforward language . . . terrific . . .” — Jonathan Mirksy, Literary Review

— Jonathan Mirksy

Jewish Book Council

Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council

— The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Journal of Modern History

"Amid a raft of commodity histories, Plumes is a rare bird: in flight between cultural and economic history, conceptually expansive, and possessed of an artfully built archival nest."--Deborah Cohen, Journal of Modern History

— Deborah Cohen

Derek J. Penslar
“In this innovative and intriguing book, Stein zeroes in on one colonial commodity—ostrich feathers—and produces the first coherent history of their production and trade. This book is in conversation with, and contributes to, many fields, including colonialism, economic history, and Jewish history.”—Derek J. Penslar, professor of history, University of Toronto and author of Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe
Todd Endelman
“One of the most imaginative books in modern Jewish history that I have read in a very long time.”—Todd Endelman, professor of history, University of Michigan
Mark Kurlansky
"Sarah Abrevaya Stein's meticulously researched Plumes is delightfully intriguing in its detail—a forgotten page of Jewish history that shows the lengths enterprising people will go to for a difficult but profitable niche market."—Mark Kurlansky, author of SALT: A World History
Wall Street Journal - Stephen Birmingham
"Plumes—in part the chronicle of a craze in early 20th-century millinery—speaks to our current moment of financial cataclysm. . . . Even though Plumes is a study of fluff, [Stein's] book is solidly grounded in scholarship."—Stephen Birmingham, Wall Street Journal - Raquel Laneri
"Stein's book is fascinating (who knew there was an ostrich-feather bubble?) as well as prescient (over-reliance on credit, neglecting to diversify your assets, the belief that a commodity will never, ever lose value—sounds vaguely familiar). And she maintains that tricky balance between engrossing historical narrative and cultural theory."—Raquel Laneri,
Literary Review - Jonathan Mirksy
“I loved this book. I knew nothing about the subject, but Sarah Stein … kept me going right to the last page … her comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating history … [is] a vast subject, which she admirably outlines in straightforward language . . . terrific . . .” — Jonathan Mirksy, Literary Review
Jewish Book Council - The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council
Journal of Modern History - Deborah Cohen
"[A] captivating book. . . . Amid a raft of commodity histories, Plumes is a rare bird: in flight between cultural and economic history, conceptually expansive, and possessed of an artfully built archival nest."—Deborah Cohen, Journal of Modern History
H-Judaic - Paul Lerner
"Plumes makes extremely valuable contributions to Jewish history, economic history, and cultural history. [The book] succeeds admirably and eloquently both as historiographic exhortation and historical evocation, richly bringing life to lost worlds of commerce and culture."—Paul Lerner, H-Judaic
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300168181
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,064,101
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies, Department of History, UCLA.

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Read an Excerpt


Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce
By Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Sarah Abrevaya Stein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12736-2

Chapter One

The Cape of Southern Africa: Atlantic Crossings

On August 30, 1912, Isaac Nurick shipped seven cases packed with 1,708 ostrich feathers from Oudtshoorn to London. The cases, which would sail aboard the steamship Saxon, bore his trademark, which featured Nurick's initials and the first letter of his town. The feathers, and six more cases besides, were to be received by the National Bank of London and sold at public auction in December, likely by one of Nurick's favored brokerage firms, Figgis and Company or Hale and Son. Insured for a total of u11,500, the thirteen cases represented a particularly vigorous season's work for Nurick.

At the close of 1912, South African ostrich feather buyers like Nurick had reason to be satisfied with the state of their business. It was true, as Nurick's London-based associate had warned in correspondence as much as a year earlier, that American and French buyers had been losing interest in plumes for some time. Yet fears about waning international demand for feathers had circulated before; for the moment, the ostrich feather market was still quite strong. Reports on the state of"South African Produce Markets" published monthly in the South African Agricultural Journal concluded that the last major ostrich feather auction in London (in June 1912) had witnessed "a good demand for all classes of goods." Overall, nearly a million pounds of ostrich feathers, valued at roughly u2.6 million, were exported from the Cape in 1912, yielding the largest gross income for ostrich feathers ever seen. Over a twenty-year period, the value of Cape ostrich feathers had trebled.

In Oudtshoorn, Nurick was feverishly capitalizing on the ostrich feather boom. In November 1912, he engaged in an ambitious bout of contract farming, purchasing the entire plumage of roughly 1,355 birds that were, at the time of sale, not yet ready to be plucked. Advance contracts like these, which were endemic to the feather trade, had made many feather buyers and ostrich farmers rich. To be sure, some had lost their wealth once or twice over, particularly between 1886 and 1896, when shifts in fashion caused the value of ostrich feathers to plunge by 75 percent, but the ostrich farming district of Oudtshoorn, and the town of Oudtshoorn in particular, were marked by grand "feather mansions" that bore testimony to the success of its wealthier white inhabitants. In the autumn of 1912, as thirteen cases of his feathers wound their way to auction on London's Mincing Lane, Isaac Nurick paid no heed to his industry's own promotional material, which described ostrich plumes as "fancy feathers of fickle fashion" (fig. 5). Yet the mercurial feather market would ensure that in a few years' time ostrich feathers would be nearly worthless, and many buyers, him included, would be deeply in debt and bereft of business, pride, and reputation.

The story of the highly lucrative, if ultimately short-lived, trans-Atlantic ostrich feather trade of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had roots that ramified over several continents and pushed deep into previous imperial and colonial histories. It was anchored, first, in the shtetls, or small towns, of Chelm and Shavli in the Lithuanian province of the Russian Empire. This was the provenance of the vast majority of the feather merchants of the Cape, the first generation of whom had surely never seen an ostrich before arriving in southern Africa as penniless single Jewish men. Once in the Cape, Jews developed business and personal relationships with colored workers and Boer farmers, buying feathers from these locals or entering into business partnerships with them. Some Jewish feather buyers maintained small-scale operations, buying and selling feathers in small quantities or plume by plume and never developing contacts overseas. Others, like Nurick, took their supply to the international market, plying the millinery, fashion, funeral, and costume industries of London, Paris, Berlin, New York and beyond.

The pages that follow tell the story of Jews' preeminence as feather buyers in the Western Cape. I am interested in several interrelated questions: How did Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire come to dominate the lucrative South African ostrich feather trade? Why were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants so well poised (in the language of Leybl Feldman) to "fall into feathers"? Were the Russian shtetls from which these feather merchants came merely sources of abundant, cheap mercantile labor, or did they provide a particularly apposite set of circumstances for incubating feather merchants? Finally, in what ways was these feather merchants' work as buyers and sellers of ostrich feathers structured by their Jewishness, and, conversely, was the texture of their Jewishness influenced by their vocational pursuit?


Before the 1860s, ostriches ran wild in large numbers in southern Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel. In southern Africa, the birds were hunted and killed for their feathers by Khoisan and colored residents and by white settlers and travelers, all of whom valued the plumes as adornment or sold them for profit. In 1863 the first ostrich was domesticated in the Cape; one year later, the first effective ostrich egg incubator, an apparatus called "the Eclipse" that allowed for the controlled breeding of birds, was patented. Over the course of the next five decades, ostrich farming in the Western Cape took hold in the semi-desert Little Karoo region, where the number of domesticated ostriches skyrocketed from next to nothing in the early 1860s to 776,000 in 1913. By that year, when the price of ostrich feathers reached its peak, the plumes were ranked fourth in value among commodities exported from the Union of South Africa.

As international demand for ostrich feathers grew, Boer, British, and some Jewish farmers in the Oudtshoorn District exploited the suitability of the region for ostrich farming to continuously expand and intensify their operations. Hermanus (Armaans) Potgieter recalls being shocked by the sum Jewish feather buyers gave him for wild ostrich hides and feathers that he had acquired on a hunting expedition in the 1860s. Shortly thereafter, he leased a farm in Oudtshoorn District and began raising ostriches himself. Less than a generation later, the firm he established, Potgieter Brothers, was the largest bird holder in the Cape. In the early nineteenth century, grain, viticulture, and tobacco had been the principal crops farmed by Boers in Oudtshoorn District: these crops were cultivated on a modest scale, such that farmers could deliver goods to market themselves. The region's absence of grass made cattle and sheep farming difficult, and low precipitation rates (less than an inch annually, on average) further limited farmers' flexibility. Because of the expansion and intensification of ostrich farming around the turn of the twentieth century, however, Oudtshoorn evolved from a relatively isolated rural economy to an industrialized center linked to the metropoles of Europe and the United States. Thus, though class, labor, and race relations in Oudtshoorn were in many respects distinct from elsewhere in South Africa, the dramatic growth of ostrich farming in the district coincided with South Africa's agrarian and mineral revolutions and contributed to the changes that forever transformed the Cape.

What made the Oudtshoorn region so hospitable to ostrich farming? As ostrich farmer N. H. O. Gavin explained to a state-sponsored irrigation committee in 1913, the Karoo's arid climate was "essential to the production of the finest feathers." The climate in Oudtshoorn allowed ostrich farmers to pluck adult birds three times in two years, or every eight months, a frequency of harvesting not possible even in neighboring Grahamstown, where rainfall was more frequent. Other environmental factors made the Oudtshoorn District well suited to ostrich farming. High levels of lime in the alluvial soil of the region's river valleys presented ideal conditions for growing lucerne (or alfalfa), which provided superb nourishment for ostriches and allowed a high density of birds to be raised per acre of farmland. These conditions, combined with the escalating value of ostrich feathers on the international market, ensured that ostriches could earn a farmer five to six times more than wheat for the same amount of cultivable land. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the quantity of wheat and grapevines grown in Oudtshoorn plummeted as the production of lucerne and ostriches soared. As early as 1864, The Times of London declared the ostrich industry so promising that it was "likely to eclipse the gold mines of Australia, California, and Vancouver." In this and other sources, young British men were advised that they were certain to find both adventure and fortune in ostrich farming.

Indeed, ostrich farming brought great riches to some in Oudtshoorn District. The wealth of Oudtshoorn grew at three times the rate of other rural areas in the Cape Colony, as well as that of the colony as a whole. The value of fixed property grew dramatically, leading wealthier farmers to partake of a land grab and, as a consequence, to a rise in tenant farming in the district. To accommodate Oudtshoorn's growth, the number of wells in the district increased from two to forty-six from 1891 to 1911. Boer and British farmers and Jewish large-scale feather buyers were the principal beneficiaries of the feather boom. As a result of their success, the "valuation per head of European population" rose faster in the Little Karoo than almost anywhere else in the Cape. Farmers built extravagant "feather mansions" to display their wealth: luxurious homes adorned with, in one contemporary's description, "paneled walls, tiled bathrooms, hand-painted friezes; the finest mahogany, walnut, and oak furniture ... imported mostly from Birmingham, but also from the Continent, ... [and] gilt concave mirrors, silver and Sheffield plate, the best Irish linen."

There were, however, many who could not benefit from-and indeed were economically disenfranchised by-the surging ostrich industry. Large numbers of Boers who once worked on local vineyards as bywoners (labor tenants dependent on and employed by landowners) were thrust into unemployment by the feather boom as the high price of land made such arrangements undesirable for landowners. Boer and colored wage laborers of the district also found themselves redefined as surplus labor as a result of the ostrich feather boom. This was because relative to other crops, ostriches-and the lucerne they thrived on-required scant labor. The birds needed little tending, and many farmers hired workers for a short time only every eight months, when it was time to harvest feathers from the adult birds. As feathers translated into wealth for British, Boer, and Jewish farmers, and for Jewish feather buyers in the Cape and abroad, it produced underemployed populations of Boers and colored wage laborers and farmer bywoners. Once employed on vineyards and wheat farms, these families relocated from rural areas to the town of Oudtshoorn itself, which doubled in size between 1891 and 1911.24 In the process, the feather boom served to further narrow the economic opportunities of the colored and Boer working class.

While the ostrich feather boom had diverse effects on residents of the Western Cape, Jews proved a crucial link in the chain of economic changes that shook Oudtshoorn at the turn of the twentieth century. This was because Jews were responsible for readying Oudtshoorn's new agricultural product for consumption and sale on an international market. Jewish immigrants from Russian-controlled Lithuania were able to dominate the buying and selling of ostrich feathers in the Western Cape because they had the human capital this vocation required: practical skills inherited from former homes, commercial and familial ties in requisite locations, shared languages with business partners at home and overseas, and copasetic relationships with the reigning authorities. Through their role as feather buyers, Jews brought the economic realities of a global commodity chain into the heart of the South African hinterland.


Why did Jews of Russian-Lithuanian origin come to dominate the South African branch of the trans-Atlantic feather trade? Lebanese, Greek, and Chinese merchants were, like Jews, among the most visible small-scale merchants in southern, western, and central Africa, but these other groups did not enter the ostrich feather trade. On the other hand, Sephardi Jews, who were well represented as shop owners and traders in southern and central Africa, and perhaps more importantly were crucial middlemen in the ostrich feather industry in northern and western Africa, entered the South African ostrich feather trade in very small numbers. These Jewish and non-Jewish merchants did not penetrate the feather trade because they lacked the precise skills that rendered Lithuanian Jews well suited to South African and trans-Atlantic plume commerce-skills the following pages will continue to explore.

We may measure Jews' influence in the trans-Atlantic trade of ostrich feathers thanks in part to government decree. According to statutes passed in 1883 and 1887, all persons carrying on "trade or business" in the Cape were required to purchase one of a series of licenses, one of which authorized the owner to "deal as a buyer of ostrich feathers" at a cost of u5.28 Feather buyers were further required by statute and under threat of fine and hard labor to note the date on which they purchased feathers; their number, weight, and description; the name, residence, and occupation of the vendor; and the price the feathers commanded. In the years that followed, the Oudtshoorn post office-the agency responsible for dispensing official feather buying permits-was so inundated with requests for them that, in October 1907, the Central Association Farmers Congress resolved that a special board should be created to vet future applications. No less important, in deference to the statutes of 1883 and 1887 and their heightened enforcement in the first decade of the twentieth century, feather buying became an increasingly formal affair.

From 1909 to 1914, Isaac Nurick maintained meticulous "ostrich feather ledgers" detailing the quantity and type of feathers he bought on a daily basis, the price paid, and the name and occupation of the seller. From these quotidian records, we can learn in great detail not only about Nurick's business but about the ostrich feather trade more generally. Over the course of three years (1912-14), Nurick did business with roughly three hundred feather buyers and farmers. But more than 80 percent of those he bought feathers from were feather buyers, and almost all of these feather buyers have recognizably Jewish names (at a time when roughly 1,000-1,500 Jews were permanent residents of Oudtshoorn District). Nurick's habit of buying almost exclusively from Jewish feather merchants was not idiosyncratic but reflected the ethnic economy of the ostrich feather market in Oudtshoorn and the Cape more generally. Leybl Feldman, author of the Yiddish-language study of Oudtshoorn Jewry, has suggested that during the boom years 90 percent of Oudtshoorn's ostrich feather merchants were Jews.

Even before Feldman's account circulated, Jews' dominance in ostrich feather buying was accepted by those inside and outside the industry. In 1887 and 1901, articles in London's Jewish Chronicle reported on Russian Jews' ascendancy in the trade in the Cape, noting that "this business is almost entirely in the hands of the Jews." American accounts also dwelled on Jews' visibility in the feather industry. An 1886 article in Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, and Shooting emphasized the trans-Atlantic ostrich feather trade's Jewish and highly organized nature-two features, it seemed, that went hand in hand. Accounts like these were little exaggerated. The vast majority of individuals who acquired feather buyer licenses were Jews: lists of their names were regularly published in the Oudtshoorn Courant for all the industry to survey. In 1913, almost all of the 277 licensed feather buyers in Oudtshoorn were Jews, and many more no doubt operated illegally.


Excerpted from PLUMES by Sarah Abrevaya Stein Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction The Pursuit of Plumes 1

Ch. 1 The Cape of Southern Africa: Atlantic Crossings 28

Ch. 2 London: Global Feather Hub 54

Ch. 3 The Trans-Saharan Trade: Mediterranean Connections 84

Ch. 4 The American Feather World 112

Conclusion: Global Stories 150

Notes 155

Bibliography 205

Acknowledgments 229

Index 233

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