Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Strange History with Its Head in the Sand

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Strange History with Its Head in the Sand

Article excerpt

Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy By Rob Nixon Picador USA 256 pp., $23

Dreambirds" could not be more aptly named. The book begins with distant memories of the author's upbringing in Port Elizabeth, a settlement on the southern edge of South Africa. The town not only borders the ocean but a desert called the Karoo, meaning "Big Thirst" in the native tongue.

Enter the ostrich and its peculiar history. The big birds are native to the scrub desert and relatively easy to capture - they don't bury their heads, they just run in a large circle giving their predators multiple chances. They quickly became a valuable commodity in an otherwise barren landscape.

As with any lucrative commodity, and especially an uncommon one, there were uncommon characters involved. Word arrived in Europe of an enormous "golden goose," and hopeful immigrants, mostly Lithuanian Jews, arrived in the Karoo shortly thereafter. They built vast fortunes and feather palaces during the several decades that the Parisian-based belle poque fashion lasted.

One such settler, Max Rose, became "the world's wealthiest fashion farmer." Like many of the new arrivals, Rose began as a feather trader, walking several hundred miles per week to buy feathers to trade or sell at the feather "palaces." Eventually, he accumulated farms worth $300 million in today's money.

"In the quest for extravagance and upward lift," Nixon writes, "the ostrich feather had no rivals. A prime plume could tower 22 inches above the head.... The 1880s and '90s saw the dead come into vogue - most conspicuously, dead feathered things. These weren't just fussy hats, they were mobile museums."

During the heyday of this fashion, 100,000 tons of the Karoo's feathers were consumed annually, but it couldn't last. "The First World War may have knocked the ostrich boom on the head," Nixon writes, "but it was Henry Ford and Coco Chanel who together buried it. …

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