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

Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by:
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The thirst for exotic ornament among fashionable women in the metropoles of Europe and America prompted a bustling global trade in ostrich feathers that flourished from the 1880s until the First World War. When feathers fell out of fashion with consumers, the result was an economic catastrophe for many, a worldwide feather bust. In this remarkable book, Sarah Stein draws on rich archival materials to bring to light the prominent and varied roles of Jews in the feather trade. She discovers that Jews fostered and nurtured the trade across the global commodity chain and throughout the far-flung territories where ostriches were reared and plucked, and their feathers were sorted, exported, imported, auctioned, wholesaled, and finally manufactured for sale.

    From Yiddish-speaking Russian-Lithuanian feather handlers in South Africa to London manufacturers and wholesalers, from rival Sephardic families whose feathers were imported from the Sahara and traded across the Mediterranean, from New York's Lower East Side to entrepreneurial farms in the American West, Stein explores the details of a remarkably vibrant yet ephemeral culture. This is a singular story of global commerce, colonial economic practices, and the rise and fall of a glamorous luxury item.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14285-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Pursuit of Plumes
    (pp. 1-27)

    The plume was of medium length, fairly broad, with a remarkably dense, strong quill. In 1910 it was shipped to a representative of the Cape Colony government by the British consul in Tripoli, who was able to say of its origins only “that it had been brought by a party of Arabs who had crossed the Sahara Desert from the Southern Soudan.”¹ Cape officials immediately recognized it as the feather they had been waiting for. For months these bureaucrats had been collecting feathers from wild ostriches “wherever they were found in the world” with the goal of procuring a special...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Cape of Southern Africa: Atlantic Crossings
    (pp. 28-53)

    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 steamshipSaxon,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 £11,500, the thirteen cases represented a particularly vigorous season’s work for Nurick.¹

    At the close...

  6. CHAPTER 2 London: Global Feather Hub
    (pp. 54-83)

    On June 17, 1884, Myer Salaman visited London’s Billiter Street Warehouse on Mincing Lane to preview plumes being stored for public auction. In recent years, Myer had come to be the powerhouse behind I. Salaman and Company Ostrich Feather Merchants, a company created in 1816 by his father, Isaac, and based in London’s Falcon Square.¹ According to Myer’s son, Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, Myer built I. Salaman from a small one-man operation into “the largest wholesale ostrich feather business in the world, with depots in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban [and] for a time possessed ostrich farms up-country, in addition...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Trans-Saharan Trade: Mediterranean Connections
    (pp. 84-111)

    On February 5, 1914, the High Court of London issued a receiving order certifying that “Isach Hassan, of 101, Leadenhall Street, in the City of London, Merchant, and trading at Jarrow-on-Tyne under the name of W. H. and A. Richardson,” was in bankruptcy. At this moment, the bulk of Hassan’s assets were tied up in materials stored in and near the Port of Tyne, in northeastern Britain; the Jarrow Mill held £17,194 worth of Hassan’s paper stock, while a £1,000 stock of esparto grass (a coarse grass grown in southern Spain and North Africa used in the manufacture of inexpensive...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The American Feather World
    (pp. 112-149)

    In late October 1888, forty women employed by the New York–based ostrich feather manufacturing firm of Lowenstein and Gray went on strike rather than accept a dramatic reduction in wages. By evening, the strikers had chosen to be represented by the Working Women’s Union and the organization had dispatched a representative to meet with the management of Lowenstein and Gray. Lowenstein expressed his willingness to pay his workers their original wages “provided his girls return to work as non-unionists,” but they demurred, declaring “they would never leave the union.”¹ Their actions—and the callousness of their employers—proved infectious....

  9. CONCLUSION: Global Stories
    (pp. 150-154)

    In the wake of the ostrich feather crash of 1914, a bankrupt Jewish merchant left his home and family in disgrace, traveling thousands of miles to a new country in hopes of rebuilding his life. The man settled in a city where one of his grown sons resided and in which he had commercial ties. The son, who had left his homeland as a teenager, was a successful medical professional, husband to a Gentile wife and the father of baptized children. Because of the dishonorable circumstances that surrounded his family’s recent fate, the feather merchant’s son disowned his father and...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 155-204)
    (pp. 205-228)
    (pp. 229-232)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 233-244)