Period Poultry

by Linda TrenT & Bill Watson

The Shanghai, also called Buff Cochin, were first written about in 1844, in the London Illustrated News, when it was announced that Queen Victoria had some of these "rare and curious birds," and were not imported into the States until 1847. *The American Poulterer's Companion*, Caleb Bement, 1856

Chickens were divided up into two main categories: Asiatic and Domestic.

In my personal possession are copies of Ohio Cultivator, 1850; Domestic and Rural Affairs, Elliot Storke, 1859; The American Poulterer's Companion, Caleb Bement, 1856; Ohio Agricultural Report, 1857; USDA, 1862; Sloan's Complete Farmer's Farrier, 1868. Unfortunately the Ohio Cultivator article isn't really about fowl in Ohio at all; in fact it's about a poultry exhibition held in Boston

The way I start my research is recording every variety of fowl I run across in my research and the date that it appeared in, so... The following is some of what I've been working on, and I added links to pictures of each of the following breeds, so you can see what they look like. Some of them are really wild looking

Of Asiatic fowl:
The Shanghai appeared in sources from 1850, 56, 57, 62, and 69. However, according to Sloan (68), "no attempt is made and no care taken to keep up the pure bred Shanghai." And it was left to run with the farm-yard fowl.
Sometimes the Cochin-China and the Shanghai were used interchangeably, however, some argued they were two different species. "There seems to be considerable difference of opinion as to whether the Cochins and Shanghais are varieties or distinct breeds. 'There is a doubt which had better be removed from the very threshold, usually conveyed in the question--'Are Cochin-China and Shanghai fowls the same?' We have always entertained the opinion that they are..." The APC, on the other hand, says the Cochin are "usually smooth-legged, while the Shanghai are more or less heavily feathered."

More typical in the States, in the earlier years, at least, were the following Domestic fowl:

The Dorking appeared in 50, 56, 57, 62, 69

The Game in 50, 57, 62, and 69
Iíve been unable to find the old-fashioned game hen.

The Hamburg in 50, 56, 62, and 69.

Black Poland/Crested/Top knot in 50, 57, 62, 69

Black Spanish 50, 57, 62, and 69

The Dominique in 62, and 69

Common Barn-yard in 62. Unfortunately in every case I've run across the author says something to the effect of "I shall not trouble my readers by repeating what has been so often advanced... I shall therefore omit it..."

The main problem that you will have is that unless you want to portray a "poultry fancier" you will want to buy a mix and let them inter-breed

Another way to find out what was typical for your own area is to look in newspapers at period Agricultural Fair reports. These tended to be held around October . For example, in 1855, in Gallia County, Ohio there were classes offered for turkeys, Polands, Shanghai and Dorkings -- but only the Shanghai showed up

There were other breeds as well, but they were just minor in comparison to the ones mentioned, here.

I tried to scan some photos for my website that I could link you to, but my scanner (only 2 months old) has decided to go on strike.

Linda Trent


Chickens have a hierarchy,

and like many reenactors, worry a great deal about where they find themselves in the pecking order

... it's one of the things I miss now that we decided to be town mice instead of country mice for awhile.

My interest in chickens predated my involvement in reenacting, so I'm not up on exactly what breeds are period-correct. I know some of the most popular breeds commercially didn't exist in the civil war.

Chickens require dry, draft-free shelter. If they can run free, they will wipe out the insect pests in your garden. If you must pen them, they will require a steady source of food and water and possibly a supplement of oyster shell-- helps build eggs.

If left to themselves on a free range, they'll shelter in a tree, with the top-ranking birds highest up If you need to have a roost inside, make sure it has perches at various heights -- something like a splitrail fence running at a slant from floor to ceiling. Chickens have a hierarchy and, like many reenactors, worry a great deal about where they find themselves in the pecking order. They need to have a roost commensurate with their status, otherwise they get peevish.

Their manure is, when composted, excellent fertilizer. Chickens will also clean up vegetable scraps. They are like a supercharger for your garden system.

Another animal much overlooked but correct for the period is a guinea fowl. They are barnyard sentinels, and shriek out an alarm at intruders ranging from people to raccoons to hawks. Some of those intruders are real threats to chickens and you may need to add predator control to your list of rural skills. Or get a goose. Geese are territorial and pretty good at running off the lesser vermin.

Chickens are available through the mail. If you do a web search with "chickens" as the keyword, I'm sure something will turn up.

Oh, and did I mention eggs? The eggs you get fresh from your own chickens will bring joy to your eyes and your palate -- firm enough to stand upright in a two-inch-diameter circle, without running watery across the bottom of the pan; dark orange in the yolk, rich in taste. About as much like a supermarket egg as real slab bacon is to a hot dog.

Yup, get some chickens. They are definitely worth the trouble.

Bill Watson
Chickenless in Stroudsburg, Pa.