“A well dressed woman nowadays is as fluffy as a downy bird fresh from the nest.” So read a line in a magazine nearly 100 years ago, when ostrich feathers represented the height of chic (and fashion copy had a long way to go). For decades, women from Berlin to San Francisco wore hats and boas festooned with long, lush plumes harvested and exported from many regions of Africa—its southern tip, its Atlantic coast, and its northernmost reaches. The United States alone imported five million dollars’ worth of ostrich feathers in 1912, the height of the market.
Two years later everything changed. In 1914, the industry that had boomed went bust, leaving everyone, from the immigrant girls who processed the feathers to the importers who bought them in bulk, jobless. Many of those people were Jews.
As Sarah Abrevaya Stein argues in her book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce, Jews were key players in this industry at every level. She speaks with Nextbook about how and why they came to dominate this business, the economic and political factors that led to its irreversible decline, and the difficulties in making generalizations about Jews in commerce.
And in case you’re wondering, the answer to the question that stumps Stein in the podcast is: “Between 30 and 70 years.”
Photo: Mrs. Harry K. Thaw, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.