Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: Relishing in the history of chickens

I’ve mentioned in the past how my father raised chickens and sold eggs, as well as chickens for meat, from about 1940 to 1950. As his helper during the last half of that decade, I’ve never been very enthusiastic about the flighty birds and pretty much detested them back then.

However, I recently got to wondering about where chickens came from no, not from the Devil, although I probably thought so back then, as I fervently wished he had them back.

And this has nothing to do with the age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Afraid I can’t answer that one. Chickens probably were developed from the Red Junglefowl in Southeast Asia for cock fighting, with little emphasis on eating the eggs or meat.

Long history

That however, must have changed because Chinese historical writings describe the way eggs were hatched artificially as far back as 500 B.C. by suspending a basket of eggs in a mud barrel over a charcoal fire. The Romans kept sacred chickens believed to be able to predict the future.

Before an important event, the bird’s cages were opened and they were given special soft cakes of grain. If the birds ate greedily, the omen was good; if they refused to eat or flew away it was bad.

One Roman commander consulted his chickens before a big naval battle with the Carthaginians, but the stubborn birds refused to eat the proffered grain. With his superstitious and frightened crews noting the dire warning, the commander ordered the sacred birds thrown overboard, supposedly saying: “If they won’t eat, let them drink.”

He was badly defeated and when he returned to Rome he was exiled, not so much for the defeat, but for his sacrilege in drowning the chickens. In 1356, an Englishman visiting Egypt wrote: At Cairo there is a common house that is full of small furnaces; and there women bring their eggs of hens, geese, and ducks to put in the furnaces.

Global influence

At the end of three weeks or a month they come again and take their chickens and nourish them and bring them forth, so that all the country is full of them. So although chickens seem to have been common in Europe and Asia, there apparently was no equivalent bird in the New World, although the Araucana, or South American Rumpless, a variety of chicken which lays blue-green eggs, is believed to have originated in Chile.

Many historians agree that the Spanish explorers first brought European chickens to America, while others were brought by colonists from other European countries.

Until the 1800s, chickens in this country were purely an individual farm undertaking, with small flocks furnishing eggs and meat for the farm dinner table. Hens would stop laying during certain seasons, and eggs were a seasonal food.

Although the meat was important, there was lots of wild game available to supplement the staples, salt pork and beef jerky. By the 1840s, farm periodicals and progressive agriculturists began to study and to write about poultry breeding and husbandry. There was a story in the May, 1841 Prairie Farmer about a Mr. Wood of Hadonfield, N.J., who has crossed the blue and black breeds and had produced a bird weighing only 19 pounds when killed and dressed.

Now that’s a BIG chicken! He also got eggs that were claimed to weigh six to the pound, which would be considered jumbos in today’s market. One reporter in 1846 wrote that the egg trade in Cincinnati was said to rival the pork trade of that city and could change the city’ s nickname from Porkopolis to Eggopolis.

In 1847, a Mrs. Dakin wrote that she had 30 hens and, in about eight months, had gathered 3,532 eggs and had raised 200 chickens, returning a profit of $60.32, which she considered quite good. The U.S. Census held in 1880 was the first to count fowl, and there were 102 million chickens reported, that had produced 457 million dozens of eggs during 1879.

More chickens!

The number of chickens kept increasing, with 234 million in 1900, 360 million in 1920, and 429 million in 1940. Apparently, the census gave up trying to keep track of chickens and it seems to be a mystery how many of the feathered cluckers are in the United States today, but some authorities estimate there are as many chickens as people.

Poultry and eggs are a big business and, although estimates vary, possibly as many as 45 billion chickens are eaten every year in this country, along with 75 billion eggs. It reminds me of the old joke about the guy who was eating ham and eggs and reflected upon the fact that while the hen may have had to suffer a little for his breakfast, the pig had to make a real commitment.

Probably until the 1950s, most poultry was raised on small farms. I know that Dad’s operation, with about 10,000 birds was considered large, at least for our area, but it pales in comparison with today’s commercial growers. A modern broiler farm can have several hundred thousand birds. And while our hens produced maybe two 24-dozen crates of eggs each week, an egg-laying operation today puts out 500,000 or so eggs daily.

Modern poultry

Most birds today are raised under contract to the producers, who furnish the chicks, feed, and support, while the growers provide the housing, labor and utilities. Tyson, for instance, begins with eggs from one of their breeder farms, which are hatched, inoculated and trucked to one of Tyson’s 6,000 contract farms.

Here, the fowl are kept in large houses, each holding around 24,000 chickens, with thermostatically-controlled heating and cooling systems to keep the birds comfortable. Nipple drinkers are provided to provide fresh, clean water, and a specially-formulated ration is provided by automatic feeders.

It seems to me that it took about 12 weeks before our broilers were ready to sell, but in about six weeks, the Tyson birds have reached processing weight and are picked up by trucks and taken to a processing plant, where they are turned into food. My father would be astonished to see a modern contract chicken operation.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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