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.

similar articles

Make it yourself (What's different elsewhere)

A birdie with a beard

by Alfredo Trejos

About a special animal from Costa Rica


Make it yourself (World report)

An overdose of egoism

by Malaika Mahlatsi

While politicians in the USA and Europe discuss herd immunity and booster shots, many African countries are still lacking vital vaccines. Once again, the West looks the other way.


Guilt (Topic: Guilt)

“This is not about redemption and guilt”

an interview with Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte Savoy

In an interview, art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr explain why European museums should return African art treasures.


Finally! (World report)

Outrageous rhyming

by Gundula Haage

Ethiopia’s centuries-old poetic tradition has long been the domain of men. Young women are now making this artform their own.


Under the Earth (Topic: Under the ground)

“Anxiety is always there”

by Luthando Mampintsha

Four kilometres below the earth's surface lies the deepest mine in the world. A worker tells of his day-to-day life in South Africa’s Mponeng gold mine.


Taboo (I think that)

... we should be more critical about China's role in Africa

By Basma Abdel Aziz

On the African continent, Chinese investors are buying up infrastructure on a massive scale. A plea for more criticism.