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

Author(s):Stein, Sarah Abrevaya
Reviewer(s):Godley, Andrew

Published by EH.NET (June 2009)

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. xii + 244 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-300-12736-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Andrew Godley, Henley Business School, University of Reading.

It has become a noteworthy feature of recent years that cultural historians in the United States have begun to interact with the broad topic of capitalism in sometimes fruitful ways. And Jewish history has galvanised itself within cultural studies. Sarah Abrevaya Stein?s study of the esoteric world of the ostrich feather trade is an example of how ?thinking about global commerce we deepen our understanding of modern Jewries? (p. 153), and how, in contrast to traditional areas of Jewish history, ?Jews? involvement in global commerce … is uniquely and usefully peripatetic,? so facilitating ?an integrated history of modern Jewries? (p. 152) that challenges the ?indignity? (p. 151) of the populist stereotypes of Jewish commercial behavior common in the past. Stein here is joining with several other relatively young Jewish historians interested in interrogating the historical record on Jewish business behavior as cultural practice in what is clearly an ambitious research agenda; a research agenda that economic and business historians will wholeheartedly welcome.

Plumes focuses on the international trade in ostrich feathers, which underwent a boom from the mid-1890s only to collapse in 1914. She traces the development of commercial ostrich rearing from the Sahara to South Africa to the United States, and focuses on the role of London as the dominant commercial entrepot. Known by contemporaries as a ?Jewish? trade, Stein is fascinated by this combination of Jewish over-representation at all levels and in all places within the sector and its global ubiquity. The detective work involved in uncovering such a trail of a forgotten industry deserves to be highly commended ? we are witnessing the output of a talented and assiduous historian. But, and there has to be a ?but,? for economic and business historians this will be viewed as something of a missed opportunity.

There are two main caveats. First this is a study that is crying out for some sort of sensible quantification. Contemporaries judged the industry to be Jewish and Stein, broadly speaking, seems to agree. But how over-represented were the Jews in the industry, at what levels, and where? These are essentially quantitative questions. And while inevitably there is inadequate data for complete answers, Stein herself has produced numerical evidence that offers partial answers. Yet these remain underdeveloped in the book. There is, for example, partial evidence on wages and profits, on firm sizes, and on market size. Much of this could have been usefully employed to inform the second caveat.

This is methodological and simply reflects my own bias towards trying to explain economic phenomena using economic conceptualization first, before then moving on to develop insights about social and cultural phenomena. It seems to me that the risk of approaching economic activities through the lens of cultural studies without any prior economic conceptualization is that the outcomes are easily diluted. Stein?s explanation of the rise of the South African ostrich feather sector, for example, doesn?t consider either the underlying economic characteristics of a fashion product (the unpredictability of demand and so the volatility of prices for feathers of particular types or characteristics) or the implications for the industry?s structure (successful participation will be reduced to those traders with capital to build up sufficient stocks to optimize returns over several fashion cycles). While formal barriers to entry are close to zero (anyone can buy a feather, and certainly many impoverished Russian Jewish immigrants tried to cash in on the boom), the trade was seemingly dominated only by a few. Only some of these larger firms were Jewish, indeed the largest South African producers were seemingly non-Jewish. A second example is Stein?s explanation for why London emerged as the leading commercial hub. She emphasizes London?s position as the imperial capital and South Africa?s role as the dominant supplier of feathers. But this ignores any discussion of the growth in the domestic British demand for ostrich feathers, which, from data reported by Stein, seemingly made up some two-thirds of global demand in 1912. This relatively short-lived and overwhelmingly British fancy for ostrich feathers would figure highly in any economic interpretation of London?s emerging role.

This underlying conceptual weakness then dilutes the book?s emphasis both on the ?global? nature of the trade and its ?Jewishness? ? Stein?s main concerns. Of course this reviewer may have interpreted the industry?s structure incorrectly ? I claim no expertise in the Jewish ostrich feather industry of 1890 to 1914 (and in which case I apologize unreservedly to the author for these criticisms). But at the very least the book would have benefited enormously even just from a conversation with an interested economic or business historian at some point. Indeed, I would have happily had just such a conversation with the author! Now please let me be clear with the reader. This is a well researched, beautifully written book that uncovers a captivating story about which we previously knew next to nothing. But it is simply that for such a great topic as this, that lack of a conversation just seems a shame.

Andrew Godley is a Professor of Business History at the Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK, and was a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania, in Spring 2009. He has published on a range of topics including on Jewish economic history, notably Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London, 1880-1914: Enterprise and Culture (2001), and on evolving industry structures, including ?Democratizing Luxury and the Contentious ?Invention of the Technological Chicken? in Britain,? (with Bridget Williams), Business History Review 2009, (Summer); and ?Internationalisation and Technological Leapfrogging in the Pharmaceutical industry,? (with Suma Athreye), Industrial and Corporate Change, April 2009.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII