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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Epic Boom and Bust of the Ostrich Feather Market

If they were going to compete, they needed an edge. They needed the legendary Barbary ostrich.

Kelly Jensen Digital Collections Specialist, California Academy of Sciences, gives one of five Shift Ignite talks earlier this year at the Shift Forum. A fascinating tale of tulip-mania (but with feathers!), this five-minute Ignite talk reminds us all what happens when social behaviors rapidly change.

Kelly Jensen: Hi, I’m Kelly Jensen. I’m a digital archivist and a founding fellow of Odd Salons, a cocktail and lecture series here in San Francisco, and I’m going to tell you a little story about the glory days of state sponsored ostrich theft.

The South Africans knew that if they needed to compete, they needed an edge. 

When the Titanic sank in 1912, the most valuable cargo on board was a shipment of feathers that was insured for $2.3 million in today’s money because in 1912 only diamonds were worth more by weight than feathers. And the reason for this was the hat craze. Everyone needed hats with feathers on them, and they needed to be super big and fluffy, and sometimes people would have entire birds on their hats.

The feather trade was extremely profitable, and South Africa was the ostrich farming capital of the world. Feathers were its fourth largest export behind gold and diamonds, and ostrich feathers were the most profitable because they were the most fluffy. The town of Oudtshoorn was the epicenter of this.

A group of Lithuanian Jews who were fleeing Tsarist rule had ended up in this weird town in the middle of the desert and started Ostrich farming very successfully. The town is still full of feather mansions that were built with Ostrich profits.

There was a problem, namely that the Americans had gotten into Ostrich farming as well. The South Africans knew that if they needed to compete, they needed an edge. They thought that that edge would be the legendary Barbary ostrich.

The Fluffiest of Feathers

Barbary ostrich plumes were what they called double floss, which meant that they were twice as fluffy and, therefore, twice as profitable. Some Barbary ostriches had been imported into South Africa decades before, but no one was really sure where they had come from.

They had a hot tip that the birds had come from Nigeria.

The South African government decided to fund an expedition to go and look for the Barbary ostrich and bring them back alive and breed up the stock. Who else did they get to head this expedition but agriculture professors, of course, very natural.

They had a hot tip that the birds had come from Nigeria. They send the expedition off to Nigeria and they hire about a hundred local guys to carry all of their stuff.

They set up next to a major feather trading route. There was a local tradition of plucking the ostriches bald, so that was weird. They set up next to the trading routes and they’re looking for these Barbary ostrich feathers, and they finally find some. They come from over the border in French military territory.

They go to the French and they ask if they can take some ostriches and the French say, “No.” They cable South Africa and they’re like, “Well, what do we do now? Can we liberate some ostriches?”

The thing about South Africa is it’s only been a real country for like a year at this point, and they don’t need trouble with France. They hem and haw for a couple of months and they finally cable back and they’re like, “OK, you can liberate some ostriches, but if you get caught, we never heard of you.”

The thing about the ostriches is that they’re not good sailors.

Now there’s a problem. The delay means that the Americans have found out about this expedition and now they’re following the South Africans, trying to buy the same fancy ostriches. The Americans start buying up “junk” ostrich feathers, trying to trick the Americans into getting the wrong birds.

Now they’re being chased by French officials, American spies and the Tuareg raiders that keep attacking them. They manage to acquire 156 live ostriches. Then they realize that they now have to get these very large, angry birds back across the Sahara Desert.

Ostriches in Distress

They build these pens out of sticks and, basically, frog march these ostriches like 800 miles back to Lagos, so it’s fine. Then they only have to get the birds onto the ship. The thing about the ostriches is that they’re not good sailors.

In rough seas, they can flip upside down in their pens with their legs waving in the air. If they stay like that, they can die. On the way back, everyone’s on 24-hour call, listening for the sound of upside down ostriches in distress.

The moral of the story is don’t underestimate the effect of women on capitalism.

They make it back, and it’s awesome because they did it and they’re going to be feather millionaires. Like a year or two after they get back, the entire feather industry collapses, like completely.

There’s a couple of reasons for this and one of them is the Model-T because you cannot wear this big, silly hat in an open top convertible. It really doesn’t work.

Fashions started to change. Then the second nail in the coffin of the feather industry was World War I. Not only is everyone suddenly in mourning and not inclined to wear silly hats, but women are taking jobs as nurses and ambulance drivers and postal workers, and they need practical, no nonsense clothing that lets them get their jobs done.

The moral of the story is don’t underestimate the effect of women on capitalism. As the feather boom collapsed, all it left behind it was a legacy of ridiculous photos and one very nearly forgotten story. Thank you very much.

Reprinted from NewCo Shift.

  • Kelly Jensen is a Digital Collections Specialist, currently on leave from the library of the California Academy of Sciences to digitize photos of the making of Star Wars: A New Hope in the image archives of Lucasfilm Ltd.