Why you should care
Because at one point, ostrich feathers were South Africa’s fourth largest export.
In 1890, at age 17, Max Rose arrived in hot, dusty Oudtshoorn — penniless and alone, fresh off the boat from Shavli, Lithuania. From humble beginnings as an ostrich feather buyer, he soon purchased a farm where he raised ostriches and grew alfalfa. Sixty-one years later, when he was buried in Oudtshoorn’s Jewish cemetery, he was lauded as the Ostrich King of South Africa, and he’d even rubbed shoulders with real royalty when he met Princess Elizabeth on her official visit to the country in 1947.
As early as the 16th century, ostrich plumes — sourced from wild birds hunted throughout Africa — featured in the elaborate headdresses of important women like Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette. A few hundred years later, what had always been an extremely rare commodity started to become more readily available, thanks to two South African breakthroughs. In 1863 a farmer successfully domesticated the birds and, a year later, “the first effective ostrich egg incubator, an apparatus called the Eclipse, was patented,” writes Sarah Abrevaya Stein in Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce.
Between 1903 and 1913, ostrich feather exports totaled a staggering £19 million, trailing only gold, diamonds and wool.
Oudtshoorn’s first feather boom started in 1875 and lasted about a decade. It was during this period that Lithuanian Jews started to arrive, according to Gavin Morris, director of the South African Jewish Museum. When Russia gained control of present-day Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, it inherited a population of about 10 million Jews, who were subsequently targeted by czarist pogroms in an unofficial campaign of ethnic cleansing. “That was the push factor,” explains Morris, “but there were many pull factors too.” International travel was easier than it had ever been, and Europeans of all backgrounds were seeking their fortunes in the New World, Africa, Asia and Australia.
About 10,000 Jewish emigrants made their way to South Africa, drawn by the promise of diamonds and gold. While most settled in Johannesburg (site of the gold rush and, along with San Francisco, one of only two modern cities to count large numbers of Jews among its founders), a significant minority ended up in Oudtshoorn, about 250 miles east of Cape Town. Almost all of the Oudtshoorn Jews came from one of two towns in Lithuania, says Morris, simply because “you’re more likely to move halfway around the world if there are people from your own community on the other side.”
Because the ostrich feather industry “depended on the whims of women’s fashion,” writes Leibl Feldman in Oudtshoorn: Jerusalem of Africa, it was always “a speculative one.” Rose arrived in the midst of one of many downturns, but, unperturbed, he proceeded to immerse himself in studying the breeding and eating habits of the flightless birds. He was also one of the first farmers to irrigate alfalfa, known in South Africa as lucerne, which he shipped by train to livestock farmers all over the country — a nifty safety net against the caprices of the ostrich industry and a lesson in the age-old principle of diversification.
The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) devastated the South African economy, but after its conclusion, the feather industry picked up again, with Rose perfectly poised to ride the wave. Between 1903 and 1913, ostrich feather exports totaled a staggering £19 million, trailing only gold, diamonds and wool, and many Afrikaner farmers and Jewish buyers became extremely wealthy men. While most of his contemporaries built elaborate homes known as “feather palaces,” Rose, who had a reputation for being a frugal man but a generous benefactor, never moved from his bachelor quarters in the Central Hotel in Oudtshoorn.
The good times would not last long. In 1914, writes Stein, a monthly report on the trade from Messrs John Daverin and Company confirmed that “as headgear, ostrich feathers are not worn at all in Paris and America, and hardly at all in England or the Continent.” A postmortem revealed the cause of the industry’s death: the motorcar. Because automobiles moved much faster than horse-drawn carriages, fashionistas were forced to choose more streamlined headgear.
Rose, like everyone else, lost everything in the crash, but he “kept his ostriches and fed them” even when he didn’t have “enough to eat himself,” according to a 2007 article in The International Jerusalem Post. When the industry improved in the 1940s with an increase in feather prices and a new demand for ostrich leather and meat, Rose owned one-fifth of the 20,000 birds in the country. (Ostrich populations had peaked in 1914 at 870,000.)
Rose spent his final years worrying not about finances but about the fate of Oudtshoorn’s Jewish community. In the 1930s, as fascism brewed in Europe, South African Afrikaners — still smarting from their horrendous treatment by the Brits during the Anglo-Boer War — sided with Germany. The country’s National Party was openly anti-Semitic, and between 1940 and 1947 many Jewish businesses and factories in Oudtshoorn were torched. The majority of the Jewish community fled to large cities in South Africa and even abroad.
The combined effects of economics and racism have reduced Oudtshoorn’s Jewish population from a peak of 600 families in 1914 to around a dozen today. The bad years of apartheid saw around 50,000 Jews leave South Africa, but many of the 70,000 who remain have an Oudtshoorn connection. Fueled by demand for low-fat meat and haute couture leather, the ostrich industry in South Africa is once again booming.
Oudtshoorn remains the ostrich capital of the world, and tourists flock there to learn about and even ride the athletic beasts — a giddying experience that’s almost as exhilarating as Rose’s life story.