In today’s episode ostrich feathers become big business, and some people go to extraordinary lengths to get them.
Check below for a transcript of this episode
The Great Ostrich Heist of 1911
Abigail: Hey, Dad! Dad: Yes, Abigail?
A: Do you know the really big hats women used to wear? What’s the weirdest story you know about them?
Long ago the DeBeers diamond company set out to convince women, and the men who might give them presents, that what they really needed to have some diamonds. “Diamonds,” their jingle ran, “are forever.” Hollywood came onside, too, with a jingle sung by Marilyn Monroe that told women that even if the men in their lives couldn’t be counted on, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
It’s one thing to convince people that they need a lot of sparkly rocks, but you really have to admire the genius who convinced women they needed to wear feathers. Not just any feathers, but ostrich feathers. They needed feathers, from a six foot, flightless bird that can run 40 miles per hour, and has a kick like a mule. That’s pretty specific.
I’m James Dykstra and I’m here with Abigail Dykstra and this is History.icu. Today we’re looking at just how far people will go in pursuit of the things we want, that are so easily blown away on the wind.
In the late 1800s in Europe, the art of women’s hat making became a marvel. The hats became larger and more elaborate and often had large brims that featured flowers, and often feathers. If you were going to include feathers in your hat design, small feathers would not do on a large brimmed hat. You needed the largest feathers you could find, and the largest, fluffiest feathers were ostrich feathers.
In order to supply the women of fashion with the feathers they thought they needed, ostrich farming was pursued on a large scale. For those of us used to cattle or even sheep farming, to picture a pen filled with ostriches is a strange mental image. But ostriches were valuable for their meat, their hide – it made really strong leather – and, of course, their feathers.
When the Titanic sank, one of the cargoes lost was a shipment of feathers insured for the modern equivalent of $2.3 million dollars. That’s big business. There was a lot at stake.
Unfortunately, not all ostrich feathers are created equal. In 1911, in South Africa, ostrich farming was big business. It seems that feather markets were, too, and feathers seemed to have come into the country from far and wide. And every so often, ostrich feathers of rare size and beauty came through these markets. They were thought to be from Barbary ostriches, and no one seemed to know where these ostriches could be found. Though the South Africans controlled about 85% of the ostrich feather market, they wanted not just volume, but the best quality feathers.
That led the newly independent South African government to send out an expedition in 1911 to find those Barbary ostriches. The rumors were that the ostriches could be found in Nigeria, and so the South Africans headed there, and set up camp near the trade routes that would have brought the feathers in. A feather caravan did, indeed, come by, and the South Africans tried to purchase some of their birds. They were told no, and to try going a little bit further north. Unfortunately, that was across the border and in French military territory.
The French didn’t want to sell the South Africans their birds. After all, if you have the secret of the best, why would you share? The South African government told their emissaries to get the ostriches by fair means or foul – if you’ll pardon the pun – and that if they were discovered, the South Africans would deny any knowledge of what was going on.
Some Americans, meanwhile, who were also successful ostrich wranglers, caught onto what the South Africans were doing and tried to thwart them. So picture it: South Africans pushing away from the African coast into the continent, being harassed by Americans who are trying to trick them into buying the wrong ostriches, occasionally attacked by the local inhabitants who weren’t happy to see them there, and continually dodging the French troops that patrolled this area. All in the pursuit of bigger, fluffier feathers.
The expedition finally did manage to acquire the ostriches they sought, at least 150 of them. It’s not clear whether the means were above board, but they succeeded in marching them hundreds of miles to the Nigerian coast. Keep in mind that they were marching 6 foot birds with the kick of a mule somewhere they didn’t want to go.
When they got the birds on board a ship to take them to South Africa, they discovered that ostriches make lousy sailors. When the seas get rough, the birds seem to lose their balance and flip upside down. It seems they can’t right themselves, and, if left that way, will die. That meant someone would need to be on watch 24/7 to check for flipped ostriches.
When they finally arrived home, after intrigue, international espionage, possible theft and a lot of hassle shipping animals that were never meant to be shipped, everything went well for the South Africans, right? Not so much, for about a year later, the ostrich feather market collapsed. It seems that the development of the Model T Ford made cars available to far more people than ever before. A fast moving car didn’t work well with a hat with big, floofy feathers. As well, the start of the First World War a couple of years later took many women out of the home, and sent them into the war in support roles. They needed practical headwear, and feathered hats just weren’t up to the job.
And so after all the craziness of the 1911 Ostrich Heist, the dreams of untold ostrich wealth were gone, blown away like a feather on the wind.
The Strange Tale of the Great 1911 Trans-Saharan Ostrich Heist https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/great-ostrich-heist
This Ostrich Heist Story is the Craziest Ostrich Heist Story You’ll Read This Year https://www.smithjournal.com.au/blogs/history/3691-the-great-trans-saharan-ostrich-heist-story-is-the-craziest-ostrich-heist-story-you-ll-read-this-year
The Trans-Saharan Ostrich Expedition https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/9/27/1695530/-The-Trans-Saharan-Ostrich-Expedition
The Trans-Saharan Ostrich Caper of 1911 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlJwNGpqiX0
Ostrich Feather Trade was Dominated by Jews https://www.cjnews.com/culture/books-and-authors/ostrich-feather-trade-dominated-jews