Hen Fever

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

Your Chickens - - Contents -

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

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