Ostrich Feathers and Global Commerce

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January 1, 2009
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Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce
Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Yale University Press, 2008, 256 pp, $30)

Reviewed by Shulamit Reinharz 

One day, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, an historian and private collector of illustrated works in Yiddish, came across a book by Leybl Feldman (1940) with the grandiose title, Oudtsboorn, Yerushalayim d’Afrike. How could Feldman imply that this small town in the South African province of the Western Cape deserved comparison with Jerusalem, Stein wondered. Was it because Oudtsboorn had its own Diaspora — in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, France, Great Britain, and the United States — wherever ostrich feathers flew?

Stein’s study is much more than this charming story. For various compelling reasons, it is a historic breakthrough. As she informs us, “Economic historians…have not interrogated the involvement of ethnic communities…in the shaping of individual commodity chains. Cultural historians… have…avoided the terrain of supply. Historians of modern global commerce, colonial economics, and consumer culture…have neglected Jewishness as a category of analysis. And, finally, scholars of Jewish culture have been understandably wary of linking Jews to the global market in luxury goods — or to the proliferation of capitalist markets in colonial settings — for fear of reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes.” (7-8) The result? “Little serious research on Jews’ involvement in transnational or trans-hemispheric commerce….” (8) [italics added] Until Plumes. Stein is not interested in standing alone, however. She argues forcefully that “we must dispel the stigma associated with linking Jews to capital and international exchange,” (8) and get on with the studies.

In her lively introduction, Stein enumerates how “Jewishness was an asset to many in the feather trade.” (9) But she also argues that “it would be misleading to pin Jews’ success in feather commerce on [their] general traits.” (9) Many Jews in the trade failed, of course, and yet remained Jews. 

Many other factors also played a role in the plume boom: modern forms of communication and transportation, increasing consumer 
demand for exotic fashion, and the actions of nation-states. Nevertheless, Jews were over represented in the feather trade because “they had a background in similar industrial and mercantile trades, because they had contacts across the Anglophone Eastern European and Mediter ranean Diasporas, and because many were immigrants poised to move into new or expanding industrial niches.” (12)

The time was right. Mass immigration brought Eastern European Jews to New York and Western European cities where they were ready for new pursuits just when feather trading was opening up. The movement of Jews throughout the world meant that businesses could develop far-flung branches headed by brothers or other family members. By page 17, Stein presents what she calls one of her central arguments: “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.” Each subsequent chapter spells out these elements in sumptuous detail.

But what about the demand side of the equation? As it turns out, women of impeccable taste were drawn to ostrich feathers between the 1860s and World War I for a number of reasons: First, the feathery fashion statement emanated from Paris, the city that defined style. Moreover, women’s magazines, as today, marketed particular choices, including ostrich plumes, intensively. But most important, ostrich plumage was not tied to a season; nor was the fashion associated with the age of the woman, her size, or complexion. “With at least fourteen varieties and countless grades available, ostrich feathers’ appeal also crossed class lines.” Coming as they did from Africa, they represented colonial conquest as well. And, best of all, they were considered sexy, a symbol of emancipation and mobility, because the feathers — and by implication, the women — moved freely. The ideal product: “colonial booty and cosmopolitan trope” combined to create a voracious market. (21)

For every boom there is a bust, and Stein explains why the allure of ostrich feathers did not persist. Today they are an anachronism.

While one might predict that a book of this sort could explain how Jews affected the trade, it may come as a surprise that Stein reminds us how “deeply trans-hemispheric currents of capital, bodies, and goods affected modern Jews….” (27) By asking both questions, she intends to blur the line that divides economic and cultural history.

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Shulamit Reinharz is Jacob S. Potofsky Professor of Sociology, director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

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