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Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce Paperback – September 28, 2010
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Feathers had adorned hats and clothes for centuries, but in the 1880s they became a fashion essential, used on women's large, elaborate hats and on boas. The South African trade in ostrich feathers was coincident with the boom of the area in diamond and gold mines. Stein shows that Jewish workers, traders, manufacturers, and financiers were all involved in the feather trade. Her review shows that this was a process of history rather than any coordinated Jewish effort; Jews had spread out and had mercantile, lingual, and industrial skills that could flourish in new areas. "Jews brought certain elements of human capital to the ostrich feather trade: background in like industries, contacts of kith and kin within and across sub-ethnic diasporas and political and oceanic boundaries, copacetic relations with the reigning authorities, geographic mobility, and, no less important, economic need." That there could be this sort of Jewish involvement made it almost inevitable that some would use it as a focus for anti-Semitic thought, but it is hard to see any great conspiracy at this remove, especially since any such conspiracy would have to be one of the least successful ever. Before the bust things looked bright indeed. The harvesting and preparation of the feathers was surprisingly complicated, and the industry employed thousands. A big problem for American ostrich feather manufacturers was that there were import duties to be paid on feathers from London, so that ostrich farms sprang up in the South and Southwest. Governmental aid for such farms was sought, one Arizona representative declaring to his colleagues in the House in 1913, "No one need have any fear for the future of the ostrich industry. The feather is undoubtedly the most beautiful ornament of its kind, and as such is independent of fashion."
Counting on continued demand proved to be an unwarranted gamble. There were various reasons for the bust, beyond the mere capriciousness of Dame Fashion. There was a nascent preservationist movement which sought laws to halt the obliteration of wild birds at home and overseas, and laws were passed to protect them and their feathers. Ostriches, of course, were domesticated birds in no danger of extinction, but when the public started linking feathers and cruelty or extinction, ostrich feathers were included. World War One influenced women to dress practically to enter the workforce. The automobile made wearing big, feathered hats or boas impractical. Brokerage firms that had invested in feathers, and those that had stockpiled large amounts in order to take advantage of an expected upsurge in value, were ruined. The downfall provided some humor in the popular press, which suggested an ostrich for the Thanksgiving table ("Heaven help him who gets the neck."). There was a short relief from a fad of dressing kewpie dolls in feathers, and eventually some of the stock got turned into less-than-haute-couture feather dusters. This is a story of "livelihoods lost to the caprice of global markets," and any twenty-first century reader is going to find familiar its themes of luxury, greed, and economic chaos.
But her main argument - that the Jews who ran the industry were particularly suited to it through the training they had received in similar European industries, because of the Jewish diaspora and because of the opportunities they had to set up an industry from the beginning and all the way along, that their languages - Yiddish and Judaeo-Arabic - allowed them to communicate with others significant to the trade - I loved this argument, answering the implicit anti-Semitism of any comment on Jewish control of any industry. The thinking, knowledge and wisdom of that position are inspirational, and evoke my gratitude. And my admiration. This is such an excellent work.
And she illustrates this argument with detailed knowledge of the industry, drawn from its records and personal letters, showing its development through Africa (I wanted to know more about the desert camel trains, carrying huge bags of feathers) and the development of the markets, in Europe and America, through family and relationship contacts.
i heartily recommend this book - I loved it.