The 19th Century proved pivotal for poultry. In the fifth part of his history series, Andy Cawthray looks at how the royal family jumped on the collecting bandwagon and new exhibitions showed off fancy fowl to the masses
History of the hen, by Andy Cawthray
Poultry has been kept by mankind for centuries. In the Western world, it was primarily for the production of eggs and then, latterly, as a form of meat for the table. The birds were kept and bred with one or both of these objectives in mind and selection revolved around maximising the food contribution the birds would make, while minimising the cost of rearing. As such, up until recent history, chickens were left to their own devices and, generally speaking, no particular standard could be said to have existed.
While old paintings do depict ‘standard bred’ chickens as far back as the 16th Century, these tended to be Asian breeds, such as the Japanese bantam and the Silkie.
It wasn’t until the early 19th Century, when trade channels were properly initiated with China, that Europe and the Americas started to get a glimpse at the spectrum of fancy fowl. Paintings of exotic chicken breeds became popular and copies of works by the Dutch Masters began to adorn the walls of the day.
Imports of Cochins and Brahmas provided a perspective of poultry not seen before, with these huge stately birds stimulating interest among the wealthy classes. They would pay huge fees to acquire a flock that they would house on their estates and which were indicators of wealth and status. Before long, a craze for poultry breeding began to evolve, fuelled by this new social phenomenon. In fact, it can’t be understated just how immense this trend was. Queen Victoria herself was caught up by the new fashion and she kick started the royal interest in chicken breeding that still exists today.
Keepers throughout the Western world started to appreciate the incredible diversity of breeds. They began to understand more and more how to create and modify the look of a bird through selective breeding. The showing of birds was not a new idea, with the likes of Seabrights and Pheasant Fowl being exhibited competitively for a number of years, but these tended to be at small, local events. Now, with the influx of new breeds and the hen fever it caused, larger shows were inevitable. In 1845 Britain held its first sizable poultry show at London Zoo, with America not far behind when, in 1849, 10,000 people turned out to view almost 1,500 birds penned at Boston Public Gardens.
AN APPETITE FOR THE EXOTIC
By the mid 19th Century, chickens made a significant shift from backyard egger to prize poultry, the frenzy of fancy fowl emerged and a period known as Hen Fever took hold. As the appetite for exotic chicken breeds became increasingly insatiable and profitable, so did other forms of potential profit.
Chickens were no longer simply a farm commodity, but they had become an accessible source of income and prestige to anyone with some space, time and commitment to evolve new breeds and colours. They also became a profitable area in terms of artwork and, in particular, illustrations and words as poultry books began to flood the market.
Standard Poultry for Exhibition, by John H. Robinson, is a classic example of the wide ranging, all embracing studies of the chicken breeds of the time. What it contains is illustrated by the comprehensive list of contents that covers care, husbandry, judging fundamentals, the ethics of
readying birds for exhibition, selection of breeding stock, selection of exhibition stock, care of the show team in transit and at shows, final preparation of the birds on show day, plus the methods and philosophies of poultry judging for each breed. In fact, it could be said that comprehensive is an understatement.
In depth books like this are still referenced today as they set the benchmark for exhibiting birds. They are littered with pictures of the basics that all exhibitors needed to know, namely how to teach the bird to pose and how to wash and dry their charges. They even demonstrated how to bleach and bend feathers.
Included too in such books are incredible compendiums of the prominent poultry breeders and exhibitors of the time. Often they would be split into groups according to the breed type they were best known for, such as the Asiatic breeds. These clean cut, suited gentleman, often sporting moustaches and staring out from the pages as if they were lords of the land, frequently wore a serious expression. In fact, if looked at in isolation today, it is unlikely that the conclusion reached for the selection of gents would be that of chicken breeders.
What stands out, however, perhaps less obviously at first is the fact that this collection of people is nearly always white and male. In the early days of hen fever, it was a white male dominated activity, perhaps indicative of the times, but it didn’t remain that way for long. With the royal interest from Queen Victoria, and birds from her own flocks regularly appearing on the show circuit, as well as being sought after for breeding purposes, it wasn’t long before equally sharp and perhaps chiselled looking galleries of portraits containing female fancy fowl breeders appeared in such books.
Within these old tomes it is interesting to note that the postures of the people mirror the postures of the poultry also illustrated within the pages. Hen Fever had totally gripped a section of society and, while it might be hard to comprehend when compared with the local agricultural shows of today, it was huge in so many ways.
Next month: The fancy fowl frenzy continues, which in no way reflects the unlikely future that lies before the chicken.
Poultry shows in the late 19th Century proved to be hugely popular, as did one of the first poultry books (above right)
Jimmy, a Glasgow fancier. The caption that accompanied this picture in the 19th Century ran: ‘This bird certainly likes to be handled and admired’
LEFT: An advert from The Old English Game Fowl ABOVE: The first page of Standard Poultry for Exhibition
The Madison Square Garden Poultry Show, in New York