The following is a guest post by Beverly Brannan, Curator of Photography, picking up on a thread from an earlier post about the “Not an Ostrich” exhibition in Los Angeles, California. The title of the exhibition prompts viewers to ask “What are we really looking at?” Beverly demonstrates how that question can trigger an exploration that turns up interesting facts and even more images…
Not an Ostrich” may seem like a strange name for an exhibit of photographs selected from over 16 million items in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, but the background turns out to be really intriguing. The title comes from the caption of a photograph that shows Miss Isla Bevan holding an oddly-plumed Floradora goose that won a prize at New York’s Madison Square Garden’s poultry show in 1930.
The information about the photograph piqued my interest: I wondered why a poultry show was at a location I associate with sporting events and dog shows. Well! That led me down a winding path, as I learned there’s quite a history to poultry shows.
It started in 1842 when British naval officer Edward Belcher, who surveyed Southern Asia, brought Queen Victoria some Cochin chickens, distinctive for their feathered “leggings.” The recently married Queen was so taken with the animals that she had an aviary built for them with an apartment so she and her consort Prince Albert could relax observing the chickens. “Hen Fever” took over the upper echelons of society and soon hen “Fanciers” everywhere sought out exotic chickens.
The first U.S. poultry show was held in Boston in 1849 followed soon after by a national show in New York. Madison Square Garden began hosting poultry shows in 1887. Specimens arrived from Western and Eastern Europe, the United States and Australia. Shown were not just hens: ducks, rabbits, fawns, homing pigeons, doves, swans, turkeys, wood chucks, game cocks and dogs were all on display.
The Madison Square Garden poultry show was still present in the public consciousness in the early 1900s. Author Robert Frost wrote a story entitled, “Dalkins’ Little Indulgence—A Christmas Story” for the December 18, 1905 issue of Farm Poultry Monthly magazine. It’s about a chicken fancier who regretted selling his prize chicken and went to the Fancy Chicken exhibition at Madison Square Garden to try to assuage his conscience.
Hen fever apparently even reached the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt famously had a one-legged pet rooster while he lived there.
At the 1915 Madison Square Garden show, as war raged in Europe, Poultry and Pigeon Show officials released pigeons with peace messages to fly to President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C. During the World War periods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture participated in the shows by providing instruction in feeding the birds to increase meat and egg production while agricultural workers were at the battle front.
The poultry shows continued until at least the 1950s when fear of spreading avian flu through the transportation and display of birds seems to have led to the termination of poultry shows. Although pet chickens continue to have their advocates, dogs have become more popular pets. The Westminster dog shows, which began at the Garden in 1877, continue and attract huge audiences to this day.
What a world of winged wonders that single “Not an Ostrich” photo in our collections led me to!
- For more about the poultry craze, see: Emelyn Rude, “The Forgotten History of ‘Hen Fever,” The Plate (blog), National Geographic, Aug. 5, 2015, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2015/08/05/the-forgotten-history-of-hen-fever/. Enjoy Robert Frost’s story, “Dalkins’ Little Indulgence—A Christmas Story,” Farm Poultry Monthly (December 18, 1905) 16:513, available online via Internet Archive. For more on Roosevelt family pets, see: “The Roosevelt Pets,” Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, National Park Service, last updated Feb. 25, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/thrb/learn/historyculture/the-roosevelt-pets.htm.
- Immerse yourself in a variety of images of poultry and depictions of birds featured in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. And revisit an earlier blog post about the movement to preserve birds and their habitats in the first decade of the twentieth century: “Sanctuary for Birds—A Remarkable Pageant’s 100th Anniversary.”
- Explore fascinating facts about pigeons, geese and other zoological matters in Science Reference Services “Everyday Mysteries”
- Does another of the exhibition photos lead you down an interesting path? View photos digitized for the “Not an Ostrich” exhibit, including the many free to use and re-use photographs. The “Not an Ostrich” exhibition is open until September 9th, 2018 in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography.