DAY 3 in America and as the candles grow in number, I am thinking of a book from the West Coast about a turn of the century trade in ticklish bird feathers, that at first employed many Jews, but by its end, saw a concerted “Hellenistic” trend to force out the Jews. I am talking about, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce
by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, PhD (Yale, November 2008).

light and feathery like a latke

light and feathery like a latke

Professor Stein holds the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles, and she received the Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize for Best First Book in Jewish Studies in 2003. This book is based on an award winning article “Falling into Feathers: Jews and the Trans-Atlantic Ostrich Feather Trade”, which she published in the Journal of Modern History.

Plumes is about the bustling trade in ostrich feathers from the 1880s until the First World War, and the role of Jewish garment workers, ranchers, traders, and business people in the trade. Feathers had to be grown (by Yiddish speaking Litvak ostrich ranchers in South Africa and their Sephardic competitors in North Africa), plucked (or harvested), sorted, graded, shipped, imported, stored, sold, designed, manufactured (by Jewish immigrant women), and retailed. At its height a pound of feathers was as valuable as an equal weight of diamond carats. Ostrich feather for women’s hats, gowns, capes, gloves and shoes peaked from 1905 to 1914.

In just a few decades, feathers grew from a nascent business to a worldwide explosive bubble, only to come crashing down when the war, the growth of bird protection societies, and the advent of car travel changed women’s fashions and attitudes. The book is a story of a forgotten Jewish trade, a trade that was swept under the community’s carpet after so many lost their fortunes and livelihoods. Jewish traders, who people valued for their wise business practices and worldwide contacts, were re-cast as vulgar speculators and promoters of fashion in the face of wartime austerity.

Gee, is this book talking about feathers, or the current economic situation? Hanukkah and this book remind us that fads and fashions come and go, but principles last longer.

About the author