Historic Henhouse: What Were the Best Chicken Breeds a Century Ago?

Before hybrid broilers and superlayers, authors of poultry books in the early 1900s recommended some chicken breeds that are still prevalent today.

by Sue Weaver
PHOTO: Faenkova Elena/Shutterstock

The vintage poultry books we highlight in this column were written around the turn of the 20th century, long before Cornish Cross broilers and superlaying hybrids came to be, so they’re a rich source of information about heritage breeds, such as the ones promoted by The Livestock Conservancy and Slow Food USA.

In addition to specific breed information, these old-time tomes contain advice on choosing the right chicken for your situation. Myra Norys, a graduate from Rhode Island College Special Poultry Course and writer for the American Poultry Journal, wrote in Pocket Money Poultry (1904) that people should select a breed they like and the one they know the most about, if possible. “Another principle, the consideration of which may save taking the back track sometimes, is this,” she says. “The easy way and the safe way to work into poultry is to choose a variety that is easy to breed, easy to raise and easy to sell.”

Other authors of the time agreed. “Speaking broadly, the amateur will be wise to select the breed and variety which makes the strongest appeal to him,” wrote Edward Farrington in The Home Poultry Book (1919). “He will have a wide choice, both as to size and markings.” Author Homer Jackson concurs in Chicken Money (1913): “The only practical answer that can be given to the question which is continually asked as to what breed is best for the farmer is ‘The one you like best.’”

Picking a breed specific for your purpose was a wise move, too, they advised. Stephen Beale wrote in Profitable Poultry Keeping (1884), one of the older books we’ve reviewed, that success in poultry keeping means not only the proper feeding and management of the birds but the selection of a breed that is suitable to the place where they are to be kept. “In addition to this, the question of what is most in demand must be taken into consideration,” he wrote.

“For in poultry keeping, as in every other pursuit, opportunities must control circumstances, and circumstances adapt themselves as far as possible to opportunities. It would be folly for any one to select a breed that is most suitable for table purposes in a place where eggs are wanted, or on the other hand, to keep laying fowls, where table chickens are sought for most of all and eggs very plentiful. And it is equally foolish to rear birds of no breed whatever, which, having no special characteristics, are neither suitable for one purpose or the other.”

W. M. Elkington said much the same thing in Popular Poultry Keeping for Amateurs (1907). “Which is the best breed of poultry?” he asked. “This question is continually being asked by those who contemplate keeping fowls. The only answer that can be given to it is that there is no best breed that excels all others in every respect.” Elkington explained that some breeds are best suited for one situation while different breeds are the right choice for another. For example, certain varieties excel as table birds while others take first rank as layers and still others combine both qualities.

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“But in spite of frequent announcements that such a kind of bird is coming, we have never yet been able to discover a breed that will, under all circumstances, head the list in beauty, table qualities and laying powers,” he said.

White Leghorn

chicken breeds white leghorn
Faenkova Elena/Shutterstock

Those who want a pure breed, and whose object is eggs alone, will naturally keep one of the lighter, nonsitting varieties. Even then, the Leghorn stood almost at the head of these.

“For hardiness, laying powers, and beauty, it is probably unrivaled,” Elkington wrote. “To see the beauty of the White Leghorns fully, or for that matter, to see the beauty of any white breed, they must be kept on a grass lawn in the country. Their graceful bodies, with their snowy-white plumage, yellow legs and brilliant red combs, shine out in striking contrast to the bright green grass and make them appear real things of beauty.”

Elkington also noted that Brown Leghorns will be found more suitable for town runs than White, as their dark plumage doesn’t so readily show the dirt as that of their fairer sisters.

Many books written in that era agreed with Elkington’s premise that Leghorns were the best layers of the day. Alfred Gibson expressed doubt in My Poultry Day by Day (1917) that any bird was ever so popular as the White Leghorn among egg farmers.

“It is an egg machine pure and simple,” he wrote, “and can be bred in April to lay in September. Probably no bird will give the same return for money, since it becomes productive long before any other prolific fowl and is not a big eater. It is a representative of the Mediterranean type, a nonsitter, full of energy and pluck, and has a carriage that suggests pride and gracefulness.”

The Black variety is better adapted for town life, he advised, but it’s an almost equally good layer. There were also Brown, Blue and Buff varieties of Leghorns, he noted, but the White was the most popular. While it made fair eating, Leghorns aren’t adapted for table purposes.

Norys sang the Leghorn’s praises, too. “The very word ‘Leghorn’ is a synonym for the highest possible egg production. What does ‘equal to the Leghorn’ actually mean in detail? It means early laying; it means large eggs; it means small eating; it means nonsitting capacity; it means a bird of small size, of which more in number can be housed in proportionate space that in the case of a large breed.”

Darker Shades

chicken breeds brahma
Faenkova Elena/Shutterstock

When it came to multipurpose breeds, Norys preferred the Plymouth Rock or the Light Brahma (pictured above). For a broiler, it was the White Wyandotte.

“For the place of leading general-purpose fowl, the contest between Plymouth Rock and Light Brahma was hot and long,” she wrote. “The one thing that quieted it to some extent was the instant leap of the White Wyandotte into a place above both with the broiler men.”

Fanny Field, writing in the Excelsior Poultry Book (1891), preferred Plymouth Rocks. “For a general-purpose fowl—for general farm and market fowls for those who desire to keep but one breed and want that one good for pretty much every purpose for which fowls are kept—the Plymouth Rocks stand at the head,” she wrote, noting that the Dominiques and Wyandottes could also be considered.

Elkington preferred Plymouth Rocks, too. “Wyandottes, Langshans, Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons must take the foremost place as general-utility fowl—fowls, that is, which will lay a fair quantity of eggs, sit occasionally and, when killed, will render a satisfactory account of themselves under the carver’s knife.”

In short, these were the kind of birds that the farmer and small householder at the time required. Close behind them, he noted, were Dominiques and Scotch Greys.

More Breeds

Some authors suggested breeds for specific needs, such as Field when she advised taking Cochins, Brahmas or Langshans for winter layers. “These breeds will also, if given full range and forced to scratch for part of their living, do fairly well at the egg business in summer,” she wrote. For those who must keep their fowls confined to yards the year round, the Cochins, Brahmas and Langshans have no superiors, she suggested.

chicken breeds wyandotte
Faenkova Elena/Shutterstock

For people who wanted layers that laid year-round, Field preferred Plymouth Rocks, Dominiques, Wyandottes (pictured above) and Javas, and for spring chickens—chickens to sell for broilers—Plymouth Rocks were at the head of her list, followed by Wyandottes, Dominiques and Houdans. For large chickens to sell or harvest in the fall or winter, the Brahmas, Cochins and Langshans were the best in Field’s eyes.

If you love these old-time breeds, check out the scores of vintage poultry books downloadable from the Heritage Biodiversity Library. Besides the books we’ve quoted, you’ll find fascinating breed-specific works such as The Book of the Dorking, History of the Anconas, Minorcas of Every Comb and Color and The Feather’s Plymouth Rock Book. All of these downloads are free.

Free Library

All the vintage poultry books we discuss in this column are available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of libraries dedicated to making digital a huge array of old-time natural history and agricultural books and journals so they’re available as free downloads to anyone who wants to read them.

Some 200,000 titles are available, including more than 50 general-interest poultry books, and a plethora of books just about chickens including breeds and bantams, geese, ducks, turkeys and guinea fowl. It’s a resource every poultry keeper should have.

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.

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