At the turn of the nineteenth century some Emm(s) emigrated to South Africa to run an ostrich farm and, being a curious sort of person, I wondered why. After all, this was before ostrich steak was a gastronomic delicacy as it is today not that I, as a vegetarian, have ever tried it.
In the 1880s, after gold, diamonds and wool, South Africa’s largest export was ostrich feathers,
At the height of the ostrich bonanza, a pair of birds could sell for £1,000. Back in blighty (the UK), a pair of the best feathers could be sold for the eye watering price of, yes, you’ve guessed it, £1,000!
My great grand aunt is seen here wearing the poshest hat I could find in the family album. This photo was probably taken at her wedding in 1909.
I doubt for one moment her feather is ostrich! Considering a working class family might pay (depending on location and accommodation) 10s a week rent (£26 a year), you can see how much out of her reach an ostrich feather would be.
By 1914, the ostrich feather industry had crashed completely. It took just under a year for the market to fail… Why so fast?
The Boer War (1899-1902) didn’t help…. but what really did for it was a new invention – the horseless carriage.
How could you flaunt your feathers if the wind whipped them off? And feathers in a roofed car were unceremoniously squashed. Not only this, but people began to worry about the welfare of birds and animals and killing a bird just for fashionable whimsy was anathema. Between 1913 and 1914, the industry failed spectacularly. Feathers stored in South African warehouses were worthless. I think that is when the Emm family returned to the UK. Please let me know if this is wrong.
Click for more information about the history of ostrich farming in South Africa.