Willowed ostrich plume c. 1900

by | Democracy (↓) | Longevity (↑) | 0 comment | 0 question

This is a willowed ostrich plume that dates from the great 'plume boom' (1880-1914), when the head, wings, bodies and feathers of birds from all parts of the globe were used to adorn hats.

Ostriches were the only birds during this period to be farmed for their feathers. They were farmed in the Cape of South Africa and given that I found this example in a New York vintage shop, the plume likely followed the journey of the 'feather road': a global colonial commodity chain, from the Cape of South Africa where ostriches were reared and plucked, and then exported to the feather warehouses and auctions of London where they were then sent on to the fashion markets and manufacturing centres of Europe and North America.

According to Sarah Stein’s study of the feather industry the United States imported between $1.08 million and $1.63 million worth of ostrich feathers annually from 1907 to 1911. In order to manufacture these feathers New York’s entrepreneurial Lower East side fostered the emergence of pop-up plumage sweatshops. In these oppressive workrooms young women and girls, largely Jewish and Italian immigrants, prepared and 'widowed' feathers, usually for vey low wages.

This plume also shows evidence of willowing. ‘Willowing’ consisted of lengthening the short strands, called flues, of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three flues until the feather has the desired depth and grace. The tiny knots you can see in the image below indicates where the extra flues have been tied on as ‘feather extensions’

A poem from the Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children 1911 underlines the exploitation of children employed in doing “finishing work” for feather manufacturers:

How doth the manufacturer
Improve the ostrich tail?
By willowing the scraggy ends
Until they’re fit for sale.
How cheerfully he sits and smiles
Throughout the livelong day,
While children knot the tiny flues
And make the plumes that pay.

Where and how is it used?

I use it in my research and teaching on the historical geographies of the plumage trade.

see www.fashioningfeathers.info for more information.

What did you or someone else pay for it?

I bought the plume from an online New York vintage shop for $45

Why do you want to add it to the museum?

Although this commodity is over 100 years old, it shows evidence of intensive farming and labour production processes, which to me define a 'contemporary commodity'. The fact that plumes like this one are still circulating online also demonstrates that they still have both cultural and economic currency.

How was it made?

Is made in a factory

Is farmed

Is mass-produced

Is produced by local cottage industry

Is made to particular specifications

Is craft / hand-made

Is foraged

Is found

Is colonised

Is a service

Materials & Making

Who made or produced your commodity?

an ostrich, colonial South African farmers, female immigrant sweatshop workers

Who was paid to make it?

farm labourers, sweatshop plumassiers

What skills does it take to make it?

ostrich husbandry and 'wrangling', 'plumassier' skills of dying, curing and willowing feathers

Where was it made?

the Cape of South Africa, and New York's garment district

What does it cost to make it?

this is very difficult to estimate

What is it made from?

1. ostrich feather:
2. over 1000 'feather extesions':
3. millinery attachment :
4. ribbon:

Buying & Owning

Who decides how much it costs?

Then and Now: the market, which in the early 1900s only diamonds were worth more by weight than ostrich feathers. Now vintage retailers decide cost.

Who or what assesses its quality?

Then: 'feather room' manager, feather traders, sweatshop managers, milliners

Where is it sold?

Then: wholesale feather sales, milliners and hat shops. Now: online auctions and vintage retailers.

Who or what sells it?

Then: milliners. Now: vintage merchants.

How did this thing arrive from where it was made to where you got it?

various modes of transport, cart, lorry, ship,

Where is it used?

Then: wherever hats worn. Now: in exhibitions and teaching classrooms.

Where is it kept?

my office

How and by whom is it cared for?


How long will it last?

hopefully at least another 100 years if my students are kind to it.

Where will it go when it's finished with?

I will pass it on to someone who wants to keep telling its story.

What is it worth?

Its priceless to me but on the vintage marketplace £30-60

How do you and others value this commodity?

See the values contributed by visitors and those of the donor. And add your own values to this commodity.

Total times valued3
Positive (↑)Longevity
Negative (↓)Democracy
Overall Positive157
Overall Negative-215
Controversy48.666666666667 (0 = most controversial)

What do these numbers mean?

This data that we have collected over time in our database means nothing without interpretation. A relational database, which we are using here, is technology that enables designers of websites and software to compare, contrast, interrogate and infer relations within data. The act of designing a database is not objective but driven by the agency of its creators and owners.

Within the MoCC Collection data is used to help think through the relations between values, commodities and data. Can we describe our values using sliders and numbers? How do we infer meaning such as controversy from data?

Below is a brief explanation of the some calculations and how these help make decisions about what is shown on the site.

  • Controversy Score:
    (Total Positive Values) + (Total Negative Values)

    The closer the value is to zero the more controversial it is in relation to other commodities. Used to infer that values associated with one commodity divide opinion more than another.

  • Average Value Score (used in the sliders):
    (Total Positive for Value + Total Negative for Value) ÷ Total Times Valued

    Used to infer a collective value associated with a commodity.

How do you value this commodity?

To add your own values click VALUE THIS COMMODITY and move the sliders left and right to add your own values - then click SUBMIT
show donor's original values
- 0
21 +
- 0
20 +
- 0
17 +
- 0
16 +
- 7
18 +
- 0
12 +
- 5
14 +
- 4
10 +
- 2
7 +
- 4
4 +
- 3
2 +
- 4
4 +
- 8
4 +
- 10
4 +
- 7
0 +
- 5
0 +
- 9
0 +
- 13
4 +
- 12
0 +
- 15
0 +
- 16
0 +
- 14
0 +
- 14
0 +
- 19
0 +
- 22
0 +
- 22
0 +

Questions and answers

Help to reveal unknown quantities, properties and uses of this commodity by answering this MoCC curator's questions.

There are no questions.


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