Feathers worth more than diamonds
April 8, 2014 11:37 AM   Subscribe

For forty years around the turn of the 20th century, ostrich plumes were the height of fashion, and a major industry: at its peak, ostrich feathers were, ounce-for-ounce, nearly as valuable as diamonds, so much so that £20,000 of feathers went down with the Titanic. The market for feathers was, in large part, run by Jews: Sephardi Jews exported feathers, Jews in London and New York traded them, and Eastern European Jews left Russia and Lithuania in the thousands to farm feathers, flocking to Oudtshoorn "The Jerusalem of Africa." In 1914, the boom ended, leaving many destitute and leading to anti-semitic backlashes. A brief but entertaining history of the feather trade can be read in this PDF excerpt. Some of the beautiful "Feather Palaces" of Oudtshoorn still survive, as does a small Jewish community and some vintage fashion.
posted by blahblahblah (10 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Beauty and cruelty, vanity and death.

Charles Edwin Gilbert is especially remembered for a widely published drawing (a memento mori or vanitas) titled All Is Vanity. The drawing employs a double image (or visual pun) in which the scene of a woman admiring herself in a mirror, when viewed from a distance, appears to be a human skull. The title is also a pun, as this type of dressing-table is also known as a vanity.
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:54 AM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Twenty thousand pounds of feathers? No wonder it sank.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:17 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

at its peak, ostrich feathers were, ounce-for-ounce, nearly as valuable as diamonds

Which weighs more: A pound of rocks or a pound of feathers?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:26 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

and leading to anti-semitic backlashes.

Anti-semitism is a terrible thing, but one really can't blame those birds for having some hard feelings.
posted by three blind mice at 12:49 PM on April 8, 2014

Twenty thousand pounds of feathers? No wonder it sank.

In all fairness, twenty thousand pounds of feathers weighs less than twenty thousand pounds of gold. Duh.
posted by sourwookie at 1:07 PM on April 8, 2014

Which weighs more: A pound of rocks or a pound of feathers?

Well if you want to be pedantic, in the US at least, a pound of feathers weighs more than your average pound of Earth rock, owing to the average rock being significantly below the Earth's crust and thus not experiencing any average gravitational force from the rocks at a higher altitude, and the pound being defined in the U.S. in terms of the kilogram and thus as a unit of mass since the Mendenhall Order of 1893.

(sorry, couln't help it - this post is actually quite an interesting bit of history, thanks!)
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:29 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

that's £20,000 pounds sterling, the British monetary unit

Also, in regards to the link about feathers in fashion, I would like to say one word: BUGS.

Feathers are swarming in mites, and because of their ribbonlike, kinked barbules, feathers have innumerable lodging places for bacteria.

The internet is telling me that there is small likelihood of catching West Nile Virus or avian flu from feathers, but the Straight Dope advises to be cautious of visible organic debris aka bird poop.
posted by ohshenandoah at 1:36 PM on April 8, 2014

Mardi Gras Indians.
posted by bukvich at 2:34 PM on April 8, 2014

This is very interesting. It made me curious as to how they farmed the feathers. I found the information in Handbook to South Africa including Cape Colony, Natal, The Diamond Fields, The Transvaal, Orange Free State, Etc. S.W. Silver and Co. 1880, p233. I'll put the pertinent text here because the link is to a 636 page digitised book.
The birds begin to feather at eight months from hatching, but the yield is then poor and of little value. In another eight months there is a fresh and improved crop, and the plumes become better with each season. The art of separating the feathers is one which requires practice. Plucking is not looked upon with favour, as it irritates and produces fever. Nipping, or cutting, is considered to be safer. The feathers are severed close to the point of insertion, and the stumps are allowed to remain until they can be easily removed. Dr. Atherstone says:— 'My own opinion is that the best plan is that adopted by a farmer in the Western Districts, who had seventy or eighty ostriches, and found the plan the best and most convenient. To show me the whole process he had the whole flock driven into the waggon-house, and we then insinuated ourselves by wriggling among the densely packed birds. He had previously shown me what to do in case of any birds proving vicious; they are perfectly in your power if you seize them by the neck; you may choke them as far as you please until you find them powerless, and you can then run away. Having got with my friend into the middle of the crowd, so packed that they were unable to move, he quietly selected two or three of the best feathers, and with a carved sharp knife in his right hand, the blade protected by lying flat against his finger, he pressed it down as near to the root as he could, and cut it off obliquely upwards. The bird was quite unconscious of the operation, standing perfectly still as he handed several to me. He then picked out a blood-feather, very beautiful, which, on being cut, bled a little; but the sharp knife separated it without being felt. In a month or six weeks he took out all the stumps, if they had not fallen out. By this means the health of the bird is not impaired; no irritative fever is produced, as in the case of my brother's birds; and you can select only the feathers that are in prime condition, leaving the others to ripen in due course.'
It then goes on to talk about weights obtained and pricing but I'll leave that for the reader to investigate if they feel so inclined.
posted by unliteral at 7:23 PM on April 8, 2014

...or, if you're impatient, you pluck em right off someone else's ostrich.
In South Africa, there was so much ostrich feather theft that the Cape of Good Hope’s parliament passed specific laws dealing with the crime in 1883, with revisions in the following years. In 1907, with the crime still raging across the country, the parliament again sat down to hash out a new law to deal with the issue and — in boring bureaucratic fashion — titled it the Ostrich Feather Theft Suppression Bill.
posted by hellopanda at 12:07 AM on April 9, 2014

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