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Ostrich feathers craze

Some facts:
When the Titanic sank, the load of plumes £20,000 worth was lost.
Some 20,000 women and 2,000 men were employed in the feather industry in London in the end of 19th c. and in the first decade of 20th c.

Ostrich feathers were once the height of fashion, the trade was booming between the 1880s and the first world war. In South Africa, feathers were rated fourth in value as an export - after gold, diamonds and wool in South Africa.
At the time, every woman wore a hat. For more than 30 years elaborated, wide-brimmed, ribbonned and feathered creations had been in fashion.
All stylish ladies wore feathers (which were and in 1912 a good quality item cost more than £5, which is about £400 today. Ostrich feathers worth £2.2 million (£175 million today)imported into Britain in 1912.
Feather auctions were held every other week. The already lucrative business was expected to go into orbit.The best feathers, the Barbary, thought to be from the native ostrich of Africa's Barbary coast.

Gustav Klimt. The Black Feather Hat, 1910Gustav Klimt. The Black Feather Hat, 1910

In 1911 a party was set out on a expedition to Barbary (middle and western coastal regions of North Africa - what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya), led by a South African government official Russell Thornton. Its goal was to catch breeding pairs of Barbary ostriches and bring them to the ostrich farms of the Western Cape, where the first ostrich had been domesticated in 1863.


However, the birds were not found there, but in Sudan. By foot, train, horseback and paddle boat the team journeyed to Kano, in the north of Nigeria, the major trade thoroughfare, to check the stock of incoming feather caravans for the right type of feathers. Finally they found what they were looking for - the sellers were Arabs from beyond the Timbuktu. They lived in French territory, isolated by the desert, hundreds miles away from any inhabited lands.
Thornton asked the South African authorities the permission to proceed. The team waited months for the approval. They were allowed to spend seven thousand pounds to buy 150 ostriches. But the French banned the export of live birds from their territory. Anyway, the explorers proceeded into the prohibited lands.
Pursued by French spies, they divided into 3 parties and in effort to put them off the scent they had been buying bales of worthless feathers. Somehow they contrived to get 156 Barbary ostriches. Thousand miles the porters carried the birds to Lagos. Then there was another 3 thousand mile trip to Cape Town. Surprisingly, 140 ostriches survived.

Unfortunately, in 1914 the whole feather business shattered due to the inconstant world of female fashion. Almost overnight women tossed away heavily ornamented hats.
One of the expedition men said: 'Ostrich feathers were no more in demand as articles of adornment, and the only use for them was for making feather dusters.'
The onset of WWI created a new craze for practical clothing. And then, it was tricky to get in the automobile wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
Thus the capricious women's fashion put an end to the successful industry and brought financial ruin to wholesalers, manufacturers and farmers in Africa, the United States and Europe.

Source: Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews And A Lost World Of Global Commerce by Sarah Abrevaya Stein

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1 comment:

  1. I approve of this ostrich feather trend, and it should be brought back post haste.


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