The History of the Ostrich
Approximately 20-60 million years ago, ostriches were found around the Mediterranean Sea in the west, China in the east and Mongolia in the north. Together with many other large mammals, ostriches only migrated south across Africa about a million years ago. It’s a well-documented fact that large ostriches were already roaming the Western Cape at the time of the landing of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.
Today ostriches prefer open land and are native to the savannahs and Sahel of Africa, both north and south of the equatorial forest zone. In Southwest Africa they inhabit the semi-desert or true desert. They rarely go above 100m. Farmed ostriches in Australia have established feral populations. The Arabian Ostriches in the Near and Middle East were hunted to extinction by the middle of the 20th century. Ostriches have occasionally been seen inhabiting islands on the Dahlak Archipelago, in the Red Sea near Eritrea.
BOOM, SLUMPS & CRASHES
Like any other industry, the ostrich feather industry had its boom years, slumps and crashes.
The first ostrich feather boom was between 1875 and 1880 where ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1000 a pair.
These feathers had become very popular in the fashion industry in Europe. The farmers over-produced, and then there was a sudden slump in 1885, which was compounded with a horrific flood that same year. The ostrich industry slowly recovered and only after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, was there a second and bigger boom for the ostrich industry.
This boom ended in 1913 and crashed in 1914, and was blamed on Henry Ford and the arrival of the motor car. The dilemma the feather industry had, was that women weren’t able to wear their elaborate feather headdresses when they drove in cars without roofs, so the stylish hats for women became irrelevant.
Ostrich feathers have been a sought-after fashion article since medieval times. Queen Elizabeth I of England and the French queen, Marie Antoinette, were famous for their partiality to them. Royalty used the ostrich feathers in their elaborate headdresses, and later, ladies presented at court in England were expected to feature the plumes as their formal headdress.
The ostrich feather was regarded as a symbol of truth and justice by the Egyptians, because – unlike other feathers – they are beautifully balanced as they are divided exactly in half by their central shaft.