Stephen Birmingham: When ostrich feathers were in vogue, traders thought they would remain popular forever. Fortunes were lost.





[Mr. Birmingham is the author of, among other books, "Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York" and "Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address."]

When Sarah Stein told her friends that she was writing a book about feathers, they might have assumed that her subject was a light one. If so, they couldn't have been more wrong. It turns out that "Plumes" -- in part the chronicle of a craze in early 20th-century millinery -- speaks to our current moment of financial cataclysm. If there have been recent reminders that markets can go quickly from booms to busts, it may be comforting to learn that it has been always thus -- not since the invention of the wheel, perhaps, but at least since the invention of such devices as interest and credit.

The great ostrich-feather craze -- for adornment of women's hats, gowns, capes, gloves, shoes and a great deal else -- lasted from roughly 1905 to 1914. The showy plumes had a surprisingly long run, considerably longer than the better-known tulip mania of 1634, when speculation in tulip bulbs from Holland reached such heights that one collector paid 1,000 pounds of cheese, four oxen, eight pigs, 12 sheep, a bed and a suit of clothes for a single Viceroy bulb. The tulip market collapsed barely three years later; hundreds of investors were ruined, and thousands of bulbs lay rotting in warehouses.

It is the tulip craze that is most often cited in discussions of speculative bubbles, like the frenzy for Internet stocks a decade ago and the more recent madness in the mortgage and credit markets. But the rage for ostrich feathers a century ago is instructive, too. When ostrich feathers flounced into vogue among the fashionable set in Paris, London and New York, traders assumed that the popularity of plumes would stay permanently aloft, as if floating on an endless zephyr.

Of course there were a few cautious voices. One South African ostrich farmer warned members of the feather industry that they were dealing "with an uncertain, arbitrary, whimsical love of luxury . . . at our own risk. We cannot expect it to be durable." Such spoilsports were booed off the stage. Another dealer more typically crowed that a fine ostrich feather was "an investment for life" and that the plume "has been in fashion for centuries past, and will probably be for centuries to come. It holds its place like the diamond." At the height of the boom, Ms. Stein notes, the price per pound of plumes almost equaled that of diamonds.

In South Africa, where the Barbary ostrich (prized for its extra-fluffy plumage) was domesticated and raised on ranches, and in London, where the feathers were brokered, and on New York's Lower East Side, where the feathers were applied to garments, most of the men and women in the feather business were Jewish. These were Sephardic Jews, whose forebears had been expelled from Iberia by the Inquisition, and Ashkenazi Jews, who had escaped from czarist pogroms in Eastern Europe. While the feather trade flourished, the Jews were praised for bringing to the business what Ms. Stein calls their "vast international contacts." Fortunes were made.

But when world war broke out in 1914, fashion took on a new pose of austerity, and feathers were the first frivolity to go. ...




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