Fashionable feathers

by Nick Dall

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


An ostrich. Illustration: Shutterstock

It is the largest living bird: Some 24 chicken eggs would fit into a single ostrich egg. But these animals are widely appreciated because of their feathers, not their eggs. So far through history around 1,550 ostrich feathers adorned the heads of European queens. But it was not until the 19th century that the rare commodity became more affordable, thanks to two South African innovations. First, in 1863 the birds were successfully domesticated for the first time. Then, one year later, the first incubator for the eggs was patented.

The ostrich industry has always been concentrated around the town of Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo region, where it attracted immigrants from all over the world. Ostrich farmers and traders have made (and lost) great fortunes. Their magnificent villas still stand proud in an otherwise barren landscape. Since the ostrich-feather trade depended on the whims of fashion, it was always risky. A big setback was the outbreak of the First World War. Another was the invention of the cars. The sheer speed of motorised vehicles was too fast for the plumes which adorned ladies' heads. Since the 1940s the industry has been recovering, but the boom years never returned. Today, ostriches are more appreciated for their low-fat meat and their fine leather. And, ironically enough, they are also popular with car manufacturers, which use the anti-static properties of the feathers to dust off the paintwork.

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