Historical Henhouse: “The Biggle Poultry Book” Is a View Into Chicken-Keeping History

The author, famous more than 100 years ago, gave advice on keeping chickens that remains relevant today.

by Sue Weaver
PHOTO: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

More than a century ago, Jacob Biggle was a household name in towns and farms across the U.S. and Canada. The noted author had written a series of inexpensive and wildly successful books about subjects as diverse as horses, orchards, pets, berries and bees that saw as many as 10 editions printed in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. One of them was The Biggle Poultry Book: A concise and practical treatise on the management of farm poultry.

Biggle was also a frequent contributor to Farm Journal, the leading agricultural publication of his day. His books were produced through the Farm Journal’s publishing house, which was based in Philadelphia at the time.

Jacob Biggle, however, wasn’t his real name; it was a pseudonym. To this day, no one is certain who he really was. Some say that Biggle was Wilmer Atkinson, a Quaker farmer and the then-publisher of Farm Journal, whose writing style mirrored that of the Biggle books. Whoever he was, Biggle knew his stuff.

Big Opinions

Biggle advocated kindness toward animals in an era (1894-1917) when that wasn’t always the norm. In The Biggle Horse Book, he wrote: “If you must put frosty bits in some mouths, let it be your own. Suffering begets sympathy.” In his books about cattle and sheep, he wrote: “No animal responds to good treatment so quickly as the cow” and “Do not scare [sheep] to death when you go among them, nor yell at them when trying to drive them.”

He also advised readers of his poultry book that kindness will work wonders among the fowls: “Treat them kindly in all ways, and they will appreciate it.” He was a man ahead of his time.

Readers must have appreciated his sense of humor, too. “The public know where Peter Tumbledown’s chickens roost by the appearance of his wagon when he drives into town,” he wrote, and “A hen hatching ducks is brooding over trouble for herself.” About keeping peafowl, he wrote: “One pair is enough for a whole neighborhood, as by their shrill cry they can awaken everybody within a radius of half a mile.” He must have liked to make his readers smile.

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The 18 chapters in The Biggle Poultry Book cover topics including breeds, hatching eggs, growing broilers and keeping a flock of hens in town. He also discusses raising turkeys, ducks, geese and pigeons, and he lightly touches upon guinea fowl, swans and peafowl.

The most relevant chapter for modern chicken-keepers is Chapter 10: “The Village Hennery.” In it, Biggle wrote that persons living in towns and villages may oftentimes find pleasure and profit in keeping a small flock of poultry. “The mistake most frequently made by those who undertake to do so is in attempting to keep too many,” he wrote. “When confined in small yards they become unhealthy and unproductive; if permitted to roam, they become a nuisance in the neighborhood and a prolific source of unneighborly feeling of disputes which only a justice of the peace can settle. … To maintain a peaceful mind and quiet community, attention should be paid to the variety of fowls kept and to the yard fences.”

Biggle recommends the Asiatic breeds—Brahmas and Cochins—because they thrive better in close confinement than the smaller and more active breeds and are more easily confined. “Those who prefer the smaller and more active breeds must provide higher fences, or where the runs are small, make the fences low and cover the entire top with netting,” he wrote.

To feed his favored Asiatics, he advised that “all scraps from the table that would commonly go to dogs and cats should be fed to the chickens. Milk or other liquid wastes may be mixed with bran. They should have a liberal supply of grass from the lawn and waste green vegetables from the garden and only a small ration of grain. Thus fed, they will lay and will not grow fat. Lawn clippings, dried in the shade and stored in bags, make the choicest of winter greens for a village flock or indeed for any fowls.”

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Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

Nonstandard Fare

Biggle wrote about other topics as well.

Bantams: “A flock of bantams will be found useful where room is limited. Although their eggs are small, they are prolific layers. The birds themselves being small do little injury to lawns or gardens when at liberty, while they destroy many harmful insects.”

Turkeys: “In the fall when the harvest fields are gleaned, the grasshopper crop gathered in and insects become scarce, the birds are well-grown and lusty. The corn fields are now their favorite haunt, and they are inclined to linger longer around the farm yard and are eager for anything in the way of eatables their owner has to offer. Thanksgiving comes along about this time, and the first installment of flock should be prepared for market and one of the best of the lot reserved for the owner’s own table.”

Guineas: “Their peculiar cry when alarmed will scare hawks and crows in the day-time. At night they are light sleepers and when aroused by thieves or other marauders their noise will arouse the neighborhood. They are great rovers and foragers, destroying many insects and weed seed, but doing little damage to crops. For making a gamey pot-pie, no other domestic fowl equals the guinea. They lay many small but rich eggs … In the hennery, they are pugnacious and abusive toward other fowls, and their unceasing chatter is annoying to some people. Their good traits over-balance their bad ones, and a few should be in every farm yard.”

Old-Fashioned Advice

Among the best features of the Biggle books by far are the blocks of handy tips scattered throughout.

  • “It is all right to have coops wind-tight, but all wrong to have them air-tight. Chicks must have ventilation as well as warmth. If insufficient air be admitted, the atmosphere of the coop becomes not only foul but damp.”
  • “Rub off the dusty windows, and let in the light.”
  • “Lettuce affords a quick-growing and choice green food.”
  • “Use small hens to hatch thin-shelled eggs.”
  • “If the hen deserts the nest for a few hours and allows the eggs to become chilled, do not throw the eggs away. Let them have another trial; they will stand exposure for a long while and yet hatch well.”
  • “It is bad policy to keep the big, slow-
    motioned fowls and the small, nervous, quick-
    motioned breeds together in one flock. They require different feeding and treatment; they do not harmonize.”
  • “A hen’s teeth are in her gizzard. Sand, gravel and like substances are the teeth. Keep them sharp.”
  • “A state of fear and excitement is unfavorable to egg production. Every movement among a flock of hens should be gentle.”
  • “To break up a broody hen, shut her in the coop the first time you see her on the nest. The longer she sits, the more ‘set’ in her ways she becomes.”
  • “Notice with what pleasure a hen scratches among the forest leaves in summer. This is a hint to save the leaves to scatter on the floor of the poultry house in winter.”
  • “A large proportion of the substance of an egg is water. Eggs cannot be made out of dry grain and dried grass. Hens that lay in winter must have a liberal supply of water from some source.”
  • “Drinking water in cold weather should be neither hot nor ice-cold, but simply cool, and always clear and fresh.”

As you’d expect, some of the information in the book is dated, but a surprising amount is still appropriate today. Give The Biggle Poultry Book a try. It’s available as a paperback reprint from Skyhorse Publishing and downloadable as a free PDF file from the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Google Books. It’s interesting, entertaining and a first-class guide to poultry keeping in days gone by.

Free Library

biggle poultry book cover history chickens
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

All the vintage poultry books we’ll discuss in upcoming issues of Chickens magazine 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.

Visit the library’s website and download the 10th edition of The Biggle Poultry Book quoted in this story. More than 200,000 titles are available, among them five editions of The Biggle Poultry Book, 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 January/February 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.

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