Continuity in change

It was a fashion trend that transformed the Oudtshoorn district into one of the richest in the Colony. From the 1880’s, women’s hats were worn large and elaborately trimmed, for which the ostrich feather was the perfect adornment. According to Stein,
‘fashion critics called the feathers sinuous and sensual and noted that, when moored to a hat (fan or boa), they lent the wearer the impression of movement and freedom.’
In a sense, the feather embodied liberation and mobility, both emerging conditions for the modern woman at the time.

A combination of factors had made Oudtshoorn suitable for raising ostriches. The Karoo’s arid climate allowed ostrich farmers to pluck adult birds frequently – every eight months – and high levels of lime in the region’s river valleys presented ideal growing conditions for lucerne, the feed essential to promoting a high density of birds.

Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich prices reached up to £1,000 a pair. Realising that ostrich-farming was more profitable than other crops, farmers ripped up large tracts of wheat and grapevines in favour of planting lucerne. The wealth that ostrich farming brought to Oudtshoorn grew at three times the rate of other rural areas in the Cape Colony, as well as that of the Colony as a whole. In 1878, the district was one of the richest in the Colony; by 1880, the first Jewish immigrants had begun to arrive. Their numbers grew to 30 in 1884 and between 200 and 300 in 1888. It was towards the end of this year that the first of two synagogues opened its doors.

Control of the feather trade was largely dominated by Jews from the towns of Chelm and Shavli in Lithuania. They brought with them a familiarity with textile, tanning, hide and leather, and fur trades, industries that had synergy with feather production. Once in the Cape, they developed business and personal relationships with Coloured workers and Afrikaner farmers, buying feathers from or entering into business arrangements with them. Some of the migrants went on to become key players on the international market, the wealth that accrued from their dealings manifest in the ‘feather palaces’ that became a feature of the local landscape in the early 1900’s.

Many of these immigrants were urbanised small traders and simple craftsmen. Eastern European Jews were experienced itinerant merchants, used to trading between country and town. The transition from European peddler to South African smous or travelling salesman, was an easy one for the smaller feather dealers. Stein reports that,
‘every Monday, itinerant buyers would leave town on foot or by donkey, horse or oxcart to roam the district on feather buying journeys that lasted a few days or a week at a time. Their dealings with Afrikaner farmers were, in general, cordial, facilitated by the linguistic similarities between Yiddish and Afrikaans.

But it was also their shared views on religion that bound the two groups. In The Birth of a Jewish Community, Rabbi Israel Abrahams notes that,
‘the Afrikaner trader treated the Hebrew trader with respect due to a scion of the People of the Book. The Jewish ‘smous’ was invariably made welcome at the farmstead. His horses were outspanned, stabled and given fodder; he himself was invited to have a meal and was accommodated for the night. If his observance of Jewish dietary laws prevented him from sharing the farmer’s meat, he was offered eggs, bread and coffee.’

It was into this world that Sarah Edelman and her two sons stepped in 1881. For the next seven or eight years, this was their environment. Harris Edelman’s previous occupation as ‘hawker’ suggests that he operated more at the level of itinerant feather dealer than in the heady atmosphere of the feather barons. The great leveller was Oudtshoorn’s Friday feather market where all participants, irrespective of scale of operation or social standing, gathered each week. After several days on the road, itinerant feather buyers returned to town on Friday morning to sell their feathers and to spend the Sabbath in town with their families. They were joined by Jewish merchants from the surrounding district and by larger-scale feather buyers who lived and worked in town.

Apart from the birth of three sons and the death of one, the Edelman family left an almost indelible footprint on the town. My inquiries of the CP Nel Museum, CJ Langenhoven Library and various other parties in Oudtshoorn who are in a position to shed light on this, turned up nothing. But some things can be inferred.

The family was in Oudtshoorn when overproduction caused the first market crash in 1885. The misery that this inflicted on the townsfolk was compounded by severe flooding which washed away the newly constructed Victoria Bridge over the Olifants River. The industry recovered slowly, but it wasn’t until 1902 that a much larger feather boom would start to take shape.

A small one-room school opened in 1858 and a boys’ school was erected in 1881. Harris Saltman and his half-brothers may have received instruction at the latter. More substantial educational establishments would come later.

Statutes passed in the Cape in 1883 and 1887 required all persons carrying on a trade or business, including feather buyers, to purchase a licence at a cost of £5. Feather buyers were also required, by statute and under threat of fine and hard labour, to record details of the provenance and characteristics of feathers purchased. No such records for Harris Edelman survive. But correspondence to the Colonial Secretary about a 1903 application for a distiller’s licence in Bloemfontein hints at his attitude towards compliance.
‘He now, for the third time in six months, ignores the law and, for the third time, pleads ignorance. He is not, in my opinion entitled to any consideration if – after two warnings – he still neglects to comply with the requirements of the law relating to his business. PS: the Civil Commissioner informs me that he issued a licence to Mr Edelman by mistake last year, and took it back from him on discovering the error, informing him that he would have to apply for a licence at the December meeting of the (Licensing) Court. Mr Edelman’s plea of ignorance is, under these circumstances, still more incomprehensible.’

A second and larger feather boom peaked around 1913. The following year, the market crashed, for the same reason that had given birth to the booms: a change in fashion. As European and American women entered the workforce in greater numbers, demand grew for a more utilitarian look, including that for hats. The rising popularity of the motor car also called for more practical attire. The elaborate, deep-brimmed hats of the preceding three decades gave way to more austere options such as the toque or cloche.

The impact on Oudtshoorn was devastating. Farmers and feather buyers who had been millionaires one day, were poverty-stricken the next. Liebl Feldman, whose Yiddish-language book, The Jerusalem of Africa, was published in 1940, wrote of the effects of the crash:
‘The (ostrich feather) dealers, speculators and exporters were reduced to poverty, feeling as hard done by as the ostriches had formerly felt after being plucked. Their poverty grew so great that they found themselves literally without a crust of bread. The majority of Jews in Oudsthoorn were reduced to starvation. The Oudtshoorn shopkeepers formed relief organisations. They obtained wagonloads of fish from Mossel Bay and collected donations for other food. Jews no longer went out to buy feathers. Instead they wandered the streets of Oudsthoorn in dire straits like victims of fire, dejected and desperate. The prosperous town of Oudtshoorn lost the glitter of its former wealth and the winds of poverty began to blow from all sides.’

The Edelman family were spared the ignominy and hardship of the second crash. By 1914, some of the older boys, including Harris Saltman, had moved away from home to forge their own lives and careers; the younger ones had returned to Britain with Harris and Sarah Edelman in 1911.  The older Edelmans spent their remaining days in Edinburgh. For someone who’d had a few careers spread across two hemispheres, it was the years in Oudtshoorn that left their mark on Harris Edelman. His death notice in 1924 states his occupation as ‘(retired) feather dealer.’

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the ostrich trade recovered and expanded to include skins, meat and tourism. In 2011, almost 100,000 people were living in the Oudsthoorn district, of whom more than three-quarters were Coloured. The Jewish population has largely spread to other parts of South Africa or the rest of the world. Bernice Kaplan, a long-term Oudtshoorn resident with whom I corresponded a year ago, summed it up thus:
‘This is what happens in all the small towns. I get quite heart sore when I read this (about Oudtshoorn) as in those days there were so many (Jewish) families that lived in Oudtshoorn. When I came to Oudtshoorn there were about 600 families and now we are so few of which most of the families that are left are old and sickly. A lot of our community have moved (overseas) and are staying there with their children, or moved because their children are there.’

The sadness – yearning? – for a period passed, is palpable. But the circumstances that shaped that time have changed forever. As communities come and go, pulled and pushed by economic, political and social imperatives, our towns rearrange themselves accordingly. Nor are cities immune to these forces. In my lifetime, I’ve seen inner urban areas transmogrified from working class suburbs to industrial estates to trendy high-rise for wealthy professionals. Ethnic groups that clustered around schools in the suburbs, started to disperse once their children entered university or the workforce. I can’t remember which philosopher of my undergraduate days remarked about the existence of ‘continuity in change’, but this has stuck with me ever since.  There is an inevitability about change, a rapidity that has never been more so than now.  While change involving conflict can make us miserable, adapting to innovative change can make us grow.  And one doesn’t have to leave town to do so.

 

Notes:

  • Chelm is part of Poland; Shavli is still in Lithuania, but now called Kaunas
  • Texts consulted include Sarah Abrevaya Stein Plumes: Ostrich feathers, Jews, and lost world of global commerce, Yale UP, 2008; Coetzee, D Immigrants to Citizens, civil integration and acculturation of Jews into Oudtshoorn society MA Degree in History, University of Cape Town, 2000; Derrick Lewis The Sanders Story: a family saga
  • The term, smous, derives from the Dutch, probably after the Yiddish shmues – talk, chat.  South African for peddler; obsolete – Jewish
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