10 Questions for Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Ostrich feathers for women’s hats were worth nearly as much as diamonds just prior to the First World War, when the bubble burst. In “Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce” (Yale University Press), a book that resonates with the current financial crisis, UCLA historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein describes a European and American vogue for African feathers in the 1880s and recounts sad tales of a global market crash that struck particularly hard at Jewish merchants. How big was the global market for ostrich feathers in the early 1900s?
It was big. For South Africa, it represented the fourth-most lucrative export item, after diamonds, gold and wool. The quantities going through Britain, France and the United States were really quite amazing; for example, $5 million imported to the United States in 1913. What sets the stage?
Women are choosing to buy feathers as items of adornment, and they’re particularly drawn to ostrich feathers, which are considered beautiful and light. Why does the market crash?
First, changing fashion norms. Women are going into the workplace because of the First World War and desiring more utilitarian clothing. Second, social politics. There was a bird protection movement that succeeded in passing anti-plumage bills banning the sale of feathers from wild birds. Ostriches weren’t killed for their feathers, but now women didn’t want to wear feathers anyway. You write about this as a forgotten episode.
It’s not only forgotten because to us it seems like a frivolous chapter of history; it’s also forgotten because Jews’ place in it was sort of written away after the feather market went under. At that point, Jews’ prominence in the trade becomes something of an embarrassment for those involved. And it also becomes a reason for Jews to be blamed. Was their place in the trade ever acknowledged?
During the height of the ostrich trade, the fact that Jews are overrepresented in every geographic hub of the trade and in every link along the commodity chain — from a blue-collar worker in a sweatshop in the East End of London to a feather trader who sends exports across oceans and political boundaries — was actually quite obvious. For example, in London the ostrich feather trade has its own calendar, and auctions were cancelled if they happened to coincide with a Jewish holiday. What allowed Jews to dominate the trade?
Jews have crucial connections in what become various global hubs of feather commerce, especially Paris, New York, London, Tripoli and Cape Town. So you have family firms with a brother or a brother-in-law in each of these cities across various Jewish diasporas; not only the East European Jewish diaspora, but also the Sephardic and Livornese Jewish diasporas. Were there regional winners and losers?
In the late 19th century, South Africa edges out North Africa as the world’s principal supplier, and London edges out Livorno and Paris as the world’s feather hub. And that is really because the British imperial government poured money into developing an ostrich farming infrastructure in its colonial outpost in South Africa. Why was the crash so awful?
People involved in the industry engaged in risky behavior. That left everybody in the industry incredibly vulnerable when the market crashed. It made it a bust, rather than a few people’s failure. This is a boom-and-bust story, but it’s timely only because we’re in a bust.
That’s true; people aren’t reflective in a boom market. Would it help if they were?
We all have become overly self-confident about assigning value to things, while we expect other objects to empirically have no value, like a feather. From a historian’s point of view, it is bombastic to presume that we can project and know the inherent value of goods. To realize that none of us can predict when boom turns to bust, and that no one could, historically, is also usefully humbling.