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

Sarah Abrevaya Stein

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An unexpected and fascinating examination of the vanished Jewish trade in ostrich feathers, which thrived on three continents

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.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein is Professor and Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies, Department of History, UCLA.

“In this innovative and intriguing book, Stein zeroes in on one colonial commodity—ostrich feathers—and produces the first coherent history of their production and trade. This book is in conversation with, and contributes to, many fields, including colonialism, economic history, and Jewish history.”—Derek J. Penslar, professor of history, University of Toronto and author of Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe

“One of the most imaginative books in modern Jewish history that I have read in a very long time.”—Todd Endelman, professor of history, University of Michigan

"Sarah Abrevaya Stein's meticulously researched Plumes is delightfully intriguing in its detail—a forgotten page of Jewish history that shows the lengths enterprising people will go to for a difficult but profitable niche market."—Mark Kurlansky, author of SALT: A World History

"Plumes—in part the chronicle of a craze in early 20th-century millinery—speaks to our current moment of financial cataclysm. . . . Even though Plumes is a study of fluff, [Stein's] book is solidly grounded in scholarship."—Stephen Birmingham, Wall Street Journal

"Stein's book is fascinating (who knew there was an ostrich-feather bubble?) as well as prescient (over-reliance on credit, neglecting to diversify your assets, the belief that a commodity will never, ever lose value—sounds vaguely familiar). And she maintains that tricky balance between engrossing historical narrative and cultural theory. . . . [Plumes] also gives us an economic parable, a morally complex narrative and lends some gravity to one of the most deceptively airy fashion trends."—Raquel Laneri,

"Assorted histories—world, fashion, economic, Jewish—converge in this fluent account of an esoteric trade and its far-flung principals."—The Atlantic

"This interesting book examines the world trade in Ostrich feathers (mostly for women's hats) from the 1880's to the World War I era. It also tells the previously untold story of Jewish cultureal and economic history. Anyone interested in fashion, Jewish and economic history will find this book interesting."—Ian Paulsen, Birdbooker Report

"A fascinating and timely new book . . . explores the fragility of an economy driven as much by fashion as by greed. . . . Stein's new book reminds us that the modern Jewish experience has had far more than its share of economic ups and downs, but also that Jewish life and those who cherish it somehow manage to go on and on."—Jenna Weissman Joselit, Forward

“I loved this book. I knew nothing about the subject, but Sarah Stein … kept me going right to the last page … her comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating history … [is] a vast subject, which she admirably outlines in straightforward language … a terrific [story].”


Jonathan Mirksy, Literary Review, March 2009

“I loved this book. I knew nothing about the subject, but Sarah Stein … kept me going right to the last page … her comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating history … [is] a vast subject, which she admirably outlines in straightforward language … a terrific [story].” - Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review

“It is impossible to read this story of boom and bust without drawing on parallels to today’s market: Stein lucidly analyses how a single global commodity was shaped by modern consumer desires, and how it was destroyed almost overnight by a sudden shift in fashion.” - Judith Flanders, Sunday Telegraph

‘Stein follows the path of the feathers from South Africa to the sorting houses and manufacturers of London and New York … and … discusses in some detail the working life of the young women and girls who prepared the feathers for sale … She makes interesting points about the origins and rise of the South African trade and explains the consequent decline of the market from the north African ports of Tripoli, Benghazi and Essouaria.’ - Prudence Hone, Guardian

"In telling the story of the rise and fall of the ostrich plume market and its intersections with a particular Jewish cultural world, Sarah Abrevaya Stein  aims to reframe Jewish social history as we know it. . . . Stein has opted for an innovative approach that provides precisely the right tools for the job."—Emily Benichou Gottreich, American Historical Review

"[A] captivating book. . . . Amid a raft of commodity histories, Plumes is a rare bird: in flight between cultural and economic history, conceptually expansive, and possessed of an artfully built archival nest."—Deborah Cohen, Journal of Modern History

"In telling this story, Stein challenges both the taboo against discussion of Jews and commerce and some of the existing work on this somewhat controversial topic."--Katherine Sorrels, Religious Study Review

"Plumes makes extremely valuable contributions to Jewish history, economic history, and cultural history. [The book] succeeds admirably and eloquently both as historiographic exhortation and historical evocation, richly bringing life to lost worlds of commerce and culture."—Paul Lerner, H-Judaic

The author's article "Falling into Feathers: Jews and the Trans-Atlantic Ostrich Feather Trade", which is the basis for her book, Plumes, is the 2008 winner of the Higby Prize, which is granted by the American Historical Association every two years for the best article published by the Journal of Modern History.

Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council
ISBN: 9780300168181
Publication Date: September 28, 2010
256 pages, 5 7/8 x 9 1/16
17 b/w illus + 1 map