The Forgotten History of ‘Hen Fever’

The mid-19th century was bursting with economic bubbles. There was the speculative bubble in Latin America, followed by the land bubble, followed by the railroad bubble, followed by yet another railroad bubble. And as sure as each was to swell speculator’s pockets, they would all eventually burst, leaving thousands in fiscal ruin.

Often forgotten in the histories of these economic upheavals is the much smaller, although no less significant, chicken bubble. From roughly 1845 to 1855, the United States was infected with an insatiable and unprecedented “Hen Fever,” an obsession with owning and breeding the world’s finest chickens. “Never in the history of modern ‘bubbles,'” writes George P. Burnham, in his book, The History of the Hen Fever, A Humorous Record, “did any mania exceed in ridiculousness or ludicrousness, or in the number of its victims surpass this inexplicable humbug.”

The incubus of this pandemic was the aviary of Queen Victoria. The young monarch was incredibly fond of her royal menagerie, a collection of exotic birds and beast that was constantly being refilled by her brave British explorers returning from their adventures abroad. In 1842, her biological assemblage was blessed with a gift of seven exotic chickens from the Far East known as Cochin China Fowl.

The queen and her fellow countrymen had never seen anything like these birds before. With their slender legs, elongated necks, and vibrant auburn feathers, with the ending flourish of a green-black tail, these elegant Asian fowl made quite the contrast to the scruffy chickens native to the British Isles. The queen was immediately smitten. Victoria built these Cochin a new and extravagant aviary, which was soon filled with other exotic breeds like the Shanghai, and would spend hours luxuriating there over tea. Once they bred, she immediately sent her bird’s eggs to her royal relatives throughout Europe, who too quickly were abuzz over these exotic fowl.

The society papers got wind of the Queen’s new hobby and the English eagerly emulated their monarch’s passion. By 1845, Victorians of all stripes were breeding and exchanging exotic and exorbitantly priced chickens.

Americans were soon infected with this Hen Fever, too, culminating in the pomp and circumstance of the Boston Poultry Show of 1849. Over ten thousand spectators swarmed the Public Gardens to view a veritable Noah’s ark of chirping, screeching, and squawking birds. It was, as one contemporaneous commentator declared, “indeed a magnificent exhibition.”

And from the Public Garden of Boston, the pox of chicken fascination spread to doctors, to lawyers, to farmers, to merchants, and to tradesmen of every color.

The inaugural show hatched a second show in Boston the following year and then a national show in New York. Within the next half-decade, local and regional exhibitions were popping up throughout the country, all featuring an ever-growing number of new, exotic, and expensive chicken breeds.

Brahama hen

The Brahma Hen, Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

If one wanted to pinpoint the beginning of the chicken industry in the United States, this was it. For the first time in the nation’s history, the chicken was important. Where before the bird was so lowly that landowners neglected to record it as property in their farm inventories, now poultry fanatics found themselves spending $1 on a single egg or up to $120 on a pair of fowls, the equivalent of $30 and $3,600 today.

Up until 1845, the chicken was also thought of as the mongrel of the farmyard, left to roam freely and spread its genetic material in whatever ways its birdbrain saw fit. But these shows created standards of judging and perfection, causing self-proclaimed hen men to develop what are now coveted as Heritage Breed chickens. The most notable variety to come out of the Hen Fever was the robust and fluffy Brahma, the “King of all Poultry,” a handful of which George P. Burnham himself sent to an excited and grateful Queen Victoria in 1852.

While the emphasis of the Hen Fever was on a bird’s external beauty, the outcome had an unintended impact on the American plate as well. With more chickens came more eggs, which meant that what was considered a great “thinking food” was now increasingly a democratic food as well. Cheap eggs, remarked one editorialist for the New York Times in 1854, “then, is the practical and excellent issue of the poultry fever.” And for this reason, and this reason alone, the country should “Let it rage,” proclaims the editorial.

But as quickly as the fascination with fowls spread, the chicken bubble burst. The 19th century version of the Beanie Babies craze was through. By 1855, the market was over-saturated with expensive chickens that suddenly no one seemed to have any interest in anymore. Where once these chickens were so valuable fanciers hired bodyguards to protect their chicken coops, the prices commanded by exotic fowls as the pandemic started to convalesce barely covered the freight costs of shipping them over from Asia.

“You can’t get rid of these birds!” wrote one disgruntled chicken owner in 1855, as recounted in Burnham’s book. “It is useless to try to sell them; you can’t give them away; nobody will take them. You can’t starve them, for they are fierce and dangerous when aggravated, and will kick down the strongest store-closet door; and you can’t kill them, for they are tough as rhinoceroses, and tenacious of life as cats.” While some struggled with their lingering birds, Burnham at least found a way to properly dispose of what was once a feathered fortune–a glorious Shanghai dinner, featuring soup a la Shanghai, broiled Shanghai chicks, fricasseed Shanghaes, stewed Shanghai chickens, curried Shanghai fowls, coddled Shanghai stags, and Shanghae chicken pie.

Today we may have much less exotic tastes, but the fever for eating chicken and eggs remains strong (See The Surprising Ways Chickens Changed the World.) But since about one-third of chicken breeds face extinction, thanks to our reliance on a few standard breeds, maybe it’s time to take another peek under those green tail feathers (see Counting on Uncommon Chickens.)

Emelyn Rude is the author of Tastes like Chicken: an Edible History of America’s Favorite Bird,” forthcoming from Pegasus Books, and a National Geographic Young Explorer. Follow her on Instagram @emerrude.

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