Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, ignited a fashion trend when she accessorized headpieces and hats with beautiful dyed ostrich feathers. Ostrich feathers quickly became a flamboyant accessory for hats, headpieces, trim on dresses or jackets, along with colorful boas. More than a century after Marie Antoinette was led to the guillotine, ostrich feathers were South Africa’s fourth most valuable export, after gold, diamonds, and wool.
Given the value of ostrich feathers and the fact that Southern California’s climate is similar to the bird’s natural habitat, enterprising southern Californians decided to compete with South African suppliers. Between 1883 and 1911, entrepreneurs established ostrich farms in Fullerton, Anaheim, Norwalk, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and San Diego.
Anaheim had the first ostrich farm in Southern California. In 1883 an Englishman, Charles Sketchley, brought twenty-two ostriches to the Anaheim area. A few years later he partnered with landowner Griffith J. Griffith and moved his farm to Griffith’s Rancho Los Feliz. In 1886, local investors recognizing the potential profits of tourists coming to their area built the Ostrich Farm Railway.
Upon completion it ran from Central Los Angeles to the farm five times a day. It eventually became the first railway linking Los Angeles to Santa Monica. It is interesting to note that the Ostrich Farm Railway eventually failed and fell into disrepair. In 1895, Moses H. Sherman (Sherman Library’s namesake) and Eli P. Clark acquired the company for the right-of-way and track, which they use to extend their Los Angeles and Pasadena Railway.
The Southern California ostrich farm that became most famous was Cawston’s Ostrich Farm. It started in Norwalk, but quickly moved to South Pasadena. In 1885 Edwin Cawston purchased fifty ostriches from the South African Government. When the government discovered he was going to take the ostriches to America to start an ostrich farm, they tried to stop him from taking the birds out of the country. The South African government did not want their centuries-old ostrich industry usurped, so they quickly passed a law requiring a $500 duty for each bird and $25 for each egg. That would be equivalent to about $13,000 today for each bird and $650.00 per egg in 2020 terms. When Cawston found out about this new law, he quickly loaded the birds in his ships and promptly left before the law went into effect.
Edwin Cawston was a smart businessman who, by the late 1880s, turned his South Pasadena Ostrich Farm into a major tourist attraction. Every fifteen minutes the Pacific Electric interurban rail line brought people to see his unique large flightless birds. There was even a “Mobile Wagonette,” a precursor to current tour buses, that would cover several points of interest in Los Angeles, including a stop at Cawson’s Ostrich Farm.
In its heyday Cawston’s Ostrich Farm was like the Disneyland of its day. It was a family destination where visitors could spend an entire day or make a vacation out of it by staying at the nearby famous Raymond Hotel. Visitors would tour the farm’s lush gardens, throw oranges to the ostriches to watch them gulp them down, and take rides in ostrich-drawn carts.
Cawston even turned ostrich plucking into a special event at his farms. People would come from all over to watch workers pluck the feathers from these huge birds. Visitors also loved to watch the workers ride the big birds.
Cawston was extremely successful in his operations. Recognizing the demand for feathers, he opened feather stores in several other states and also had a lucrative catalog business to further sell his merchandise. He smartly recruited German feather dyers that were famous for their dyeing techniques and won medals in Paris, Canada, and America for his colorful plumes. At the height of his business he had over eleven thousand birds.
Like Cawston, Edward Atherton bought land in Fullerton for an Ostrich Farm in 1886. The farm was popular and was run similar to Cawston’s farm with orange feedings, ostrich cart riding, and feather plucking. The Farm eventually went out of business in the 1920s.
Even M. H. Sherman and Harry Chandler tried to get into the trade. In 1914, they heard that a group of Englishmen in Arizona were trying to get rid of ostriches. “Chandler and Sherman reasoned that fickle women could just as well revive a fashion in headwear as drop it, and bought the herd at their own price.” They purchased five hundred ostriches for their Tejon Ranch and hired two South African families to manage the ostrich business. The ostriches were a handful and caused havoc on the ranch. By 1923, Sherman and Chandler had enough and sold the ostriches to a carnival show.
These flightless birds were also popular with journalists. In 1897 the Los Angeles Times ran an article about a woman stealing two boas and a visitor’s pocketbook. The thief wore an old shabby ostrich boa and “deftly” replaced it with two new black boas worth $60.00, about $1500.00 in today’s standards. The large crowd camouflaged her as she escaped with no witnesses. A reward was offered to anybody seeing a “beautiful black boa” on Spring Street and/or any pawn shops nearby.
With the advent of World War I ostrich farms lost much of their business since women did not have extra money for fancy hats. The rise of automobiles also hurt the feather business because feathers flew out of the fast moving automobiles. Although many farms stayed open for tourists, their income dropped so severely that by1930s most Southern California ostrich farms had been forced to close their doors. Even though ostrich farms as a tourist attraction disappeared, ostrich raising continued. Currently there are over two hundred ostrich farms throughout the United States. Interestingly, some historians believe that many ostriches trace back to the Southern California farms of the 1800s. Once again, Southern California makes a mark on the map of unusual histories.
All the images used in this article are drawn from the ephemera and postcard collections of Sherman Library.