Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Let me tell you about a particularly notable time in the life history of the humble chicken: Chicken Fever! Between 1845 and 1855, people were obsessed with collecting chickens. Like tulips during tulip mania in the 1600s or Beanie Babies in the 1990s, for a brief period, chickens were "as expensive as precious metal."
It all started when Queen Victoria was gifted some exotic chickens that had not been seen in Britain before: the Cochin China fowl. They were very hardy birds and much taller than other chicken breeds, as was often depicted in cartoons of the day.
Queen Victoria built an impressive aviary for her growing flock that gained some publicity (side note: I was most impressed with how much attention was paid to the behavioural needs of the birds, which is a relatively modern concept. The aviary was designed to resemble the natural environment of the birds so it included perches, brambles, shrubs; it was heated and had a sheltered veranda -- a mix of form and function that would still stand up today). London's first poultry show took place in Regent's Park on June 14, 1845. And the public was hooked.
It wasn't long before the chicken craze spread to the United States. The height of the chicken craze was marked by the 1849 Poultry Show in Boston, and soon poultry shows were popping up all over.
Before this, chickens had not been seen as a lucrative business. They were the afterthought of the barnyard, surviving off of table scraps and providing little money to their keepers (who were usually women). But Chicken Fever changed that.
Even though the bubble burst in 1855, we still feel the effects today. The chicken breeds that were introduced from Asia that kicked it all off brought some crucial new genetics into the mix. Selective breeding for external traits like feather colour, texture, and comb size had unintentional effects on other characteristics like body size and egg yield. Our modern chicken and egg industries owe a huge debt of gratitude to this period.
One last little tidbit that I love about this story. After the bubble burst in 1855, chickens of all different varieties became quite affordable. So Charles Darwin used them to help prove his theories about how one species can have such outrageous variations, published in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868). These are just some examples of the weird and wonderful chicken.
For more information:
The Forgotten History of ‘Hen Fever’ by EMELYN RUDE, National Geographic (Link)
Why did the Chicken Cross the World by ANDREW LAWLER (Link)
The History of the Hen Fever : A Humorous Record by GEO P. BURNHAM, 1855 (Link)