By October 1913 the ostrich feather industry was hovering on the brink of disaster. The European markets were over-stocked.
This was mainly due to the ostrich feather rapidly losing its popularity in women’s fashion, which now dictated a new, more casual dress mode. The advent of the automobile also meant that ladies could no longer wear large wind-catching hats bedecked with plumes.
In 1914 the South African farmers had a stock of more than 1 million birds of which more than 750 000 belonged to the farmers of Oudtshoorn and the “greater” Little Karoo which included the surrounding towns of Ladismith, Uniondale, Calitzdorp and De Rust.
The export of feathers was not controlled by Government regulation, nor did it conform to the economic law of buying and selling, or supply and demand. Traders simply stockpiled huge quantities of feathers in London, a vast export venture quite unrelated to market gaps created by consumer demand.
When the First World War broke out in September 1914, farmers panicked and sold their feathers at whatever price they could get. This set the chain in motion for events that brought on the inevitable drop in prices, and when the Ostrich feathers became cheap, it also became common, until hardly any woman would look at it. Soon the whole feather industry collapsed, leading to many farmers of the region and prominent local traders and businessmen going insolvent.