The Historical Impact of Standard Breeds

The Historical Impact of Standard Breeds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Standard breeds carry their strength, hardiness, and beauty from the past into the future. The first breeds to be recognized back in the American Poultry Association’s first Standard in 1874 came through the devastation of the Civil War to provide food, income, and inspiration to a struggling nation. 

Chickens and other poultry, as “everyman’s livestock,” suffered and flourished alongside their human keepers. War took its toll, while wealth and status favored the significance of breeds after conflict. 

Age of Science 

Science was advancing fast in all areas. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the most revolutionary book of the 19th century. Botany, zoology, geography, and other sciences became true scientific disciplines. Improvements in lenses and the advent of electricity to light specimens in the late 19th century advanced microscope technology to study microbes. 

The American Museum of Natural History opened in New York City in 1877, filled with exhibits illustrating Darwinism, scientific achievement, geographical discovery, and the natural sciences. 

The intellectual changes influenced agriculture. Breeders examined their programs in light of Darwin’s insights. The APA organized, one of many professional organizations to advance the interests and knowledge of their specialties. 

Need for Conservation 

Wildlife was taking a beating. Bison were nearly exterminated from the Great Plains. Birds were in the public eye, especially wild birds. Whole wild bird populations collapsed. Carolina parakeets were hunted to extinction, along with the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the great auk, and the Labrador duck.  

The frenzy for feathers and even whole birds was catapulting to catastrophe in women’s fashions. Plume hunters in Florida took roseate spoonbills and great white herons, taking hundreds of thousands of birds of many species. 

Theodore Roosevelt, whose father was influential in founding the Museum, became president after President McKinley became the third president assassinated in Roosevelt’s lifetime (Lincoln and Garfield were the other two). A dedicated bird lover, he created the first National Bird Refuge by Executive Order in 1903 at Pelican Island. 

Domestic animals were included in the fervor. The humane movement gathered momentum, focusing public attention on the treatment of domestic animals as well as wildlife.  

Chickens and Human History 

Chickens have the advantage of being small and easy keepers. Arising in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago, they traveled with armies and explorers up to China, across India, and along the Silk Road to Greece and Rome. They became part of the livestock, the entertainment, the religion of every society that adopted them. Their bounty of eggs and meat, easy reproduction of the flock, became an important protein mainstay of the diet.  

During the 16th and 17th centuries of European naval exploration, a small flock could be kept on board ships to provide eggs and meat. As ships docked in exotic ports, new chickens could be added. So different from the chickens at the home ports, those chickens became exciting and valuable cargo when the ships arrived back home. 

All those chickens had to be strong, adaptable, domesticated, and productive. Their astonishing plumage made them eye-catching. Their rarity enhanced their value, not only in money but also as a cachet of prominent estate holders. The points of a cock’s comb are reflected in the points of a king’s crown. Chickens carry cultural importance. Chickens were prestige accessories. 

The 17th-century breeds, although no formal system was in place, were recognizably different. Generally, they fell into five categories: Game Cock, Top Knot, Italian Hen, Malay, and Bantam. The prosperous middle class of professionals kept them and showed them off. Breeding them selectively to keep their unusual traits strong became part of the fancy.  

Breeds emerged, breeding recognizably and reliably true. A Leghorn is a good egg layer but doesn’t brood her own eggs. Dorkings lay well, are meaty, and make good mothers. The unique qualities have the advantage of identifying their owners. Gamefowl today have a broad palette of colors and feather patterns, many recognized and many others kept only by their fanciers. 

As livestock, they were included in shows. By the middle of the 19th century, the first show exclusively for poultry was organized. The Boston Poultry Show in 1849 was a sensation.  Breeds were well established by then. Plymouth Rocks, Yankee Games, Great Javas, and Pearl White Dorkings were on display. 

The Civil War tore the country apart in the 1860s. Chickens sometimes traveled with the troops, and occasionally a rooster became a mascot. More commonly, invading soldiers slaughtered local flocks, leaving nothing behind to start the new flock. 

The APA Standard 

The path to the future was clear, though. Poultry breeders continued to organize. Local clubs needed common standards to compare their birds. England had published its first standard in 1865. Those dedicated breeders published the first American Standard in 1867, expanded in 1871. By 1873, a group of poultry leaders formed the American Poultry Association and went public with a 102-page Standard that included 46 breeds in many varieties. The next year, the new edition had 79 breeds. 

The early Standards had few illustrations. In 1905, illustrations became important to show what the word descriptions meant.  

This Buff Cochin portrait by A.O. Schilling is in the Watt Poultry Collection.

Asian chickens had exerted influence on American and British chicken breeds by then. The Langshans, Brahmas, and Cochin Chinas were a sensation when they came off the boats. Buff color became so popular that it was bred into nearly every breed. 

That first Standard had 11 classes, now reorganized into six. American, English, and Mediterranean classes still exist, but HamburgsPolish, and French are now subsumed into the Continental class. The Miscellaneous class is now included in the All Other Standard Breed class, covering the Malays, Sumatras, and Cubalayas of the former Oriental class as well as both Modern and Old English Games, which formerly had their own class, Sultans, Frizzles, and others. 

Breeds Reflect America 

American breeds such as the Dominique and the Barred Plymouth Rock took the lead in that first Standard. They remain the classic American birds, with their dappled feather patterns that are so adaptive in the sun and shade of the barnyard. Rocks have a single comb, Dominiques rose comb. The cover beauty shot of the November 1911 Poultry Item magazine shows a Plymouth Rock champion. The back cover advertisements play on that popularity. They remain popular brown egg layers, although Dominiques are now rare.  

Hamburgs, now seldom seen at shows, were so popular back then, they had their own class. L. Frank Baum, before he wrote The Wizard of Oz in 1900, wrote The Book of Hamburgs. It was published in installments from July through November 1882 in Poultry World magazine, then as a book in 1886. He also served on the new APA’s executive committee in 1880. PBS focused on him in an American Experience documentary, American Oz. 

The current Standard is the exhibition and small flock bible. Breeds wax and wane in popularity, but those that have stood the test of time continue to delight their keepers. The vitality they carry in their genes is a bridge to the future.  

Featured image: The Bearded Buff Laced Polish was added to the Standard in 1883, after the buff color became popular in the 19th century, in this 1928 A.O. Schilling portrait. Watt Poultry Collection. 

Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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