In the history of finance, many diverse objects have become the center of speculative attention, even perishable items. Agricultural commodities have caused investment crazes that boom and bust as dramatically as any. These are not always the major ‘cash crops’ that are obviously commercially important. Included are even novel crops or livestock that, at least for a moment, seem transformational. In the middle of the 19th century, breeds of chicken unfamiliar in the West were examples of such novel products, kicking off a speculative episode called ‘Hen Fever’.
Between independence and the American Civil War, the United States saw a series of speculative manias around agricultural commodities. One of the first of these crazes after the country’s independence centered on Merino sheep. Between 1807 and 1810, the market value of a merino lamb increased by ten times. Sea captains on European or Mediterranean routes were given instructions to keep an eye out for these sheep while near Spain and North Africa. This boom ended when imports of the sought-after sheep rose and their scarcity in North America ceased.
Later in the century, Chinese mulberry trees and Berkshire hogs would also have their moment in the sun. Mulberry trees were sought in the 1830s as feed for silkworms. This was a time when American states were introducing legislation to promote the creation of a silk industry. Meanwhile, Berkshire hogs were sought because they produced desirable bacon. In short, the century witnessed a carousel of speculation centering at each time on some novel crop or livestock. Hen Fever would rival even the worst of these other episodes of speculative excess.
There were three people most responsible for kicking off the speculative mania that was Hen Fever. They were Edward Belcher, Queen Victoria, and George Burnham. The first of these to appear in the story is Captain Edward Belcher, who left England for a circumnavigation of the world in 1836. He was interrupted by the First Opium War in which Belcher participated, commanding two ships and seizing the port of Hong Kong. On his return to London, Belcher collected flora and fauna from the region for the British Museum.
Belcher thus introduced Cochin-China chickens to England in 1842. He gifted five hens and two roosters to Queen Victoria, who had built an aviary not long before and was always a keen collector of foreign animals. These chickens Belcher brought, more likely from Sumatra than from China, left a favorable impression; they were larger, calmer, and more elegant than English chickens.
The Queen gifted offspring to relatives abroad and sent a pair of Cochin-China chickens to the Dublin Cattle Show in April 1846. This was in the midst of the Irish famine; the gesture was a hopeful one, anticipating that the larger birds could solve hunger. While these chickens didn’t solve the famine, interest in the animals grew. There was some commercial value to the chickens of course but the excitement was initially the result of the emergence of a new hobbyist, the poultry fancier. These fanciers raised and collected their own birds, emulating Queen Victoria and her aviary.
In Britain, Cochin-China and ‘Shanghai’ chickens increasingly sold for high prices in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Around 1849, the birds were imported to the United States. There, speculative mania for Cochin-China and other breeds of fancy chickens took hold from 1850 to 1855. George Burnham, a Massachusetts newspaperman and poultry breeder, was particularly important to the bubble. He got into the trade in 1849, the same year the unfamiliar breed was introduced at the first ever ‘Exhibition of Fancy Poultry’ in Boston’s Public Garden. In America up to then, raising chickens was largely done on a small scale for eggs, mostly in New England. There was no large-scale industry raising chicken for meat.
Cochin-China chickens were soon featured in shows around the country. Other novel breeds of chicken were also exhibited so that the Cochin-China and Shanghai were now complemented by new breeds like the Chittagongs, Dorkings, Spanish, Boobies, and others. Special poultry shows were hosted twice annually in Boston, attracting a curious crowd. Not only farmers but even miscellaneous professionals like doctors and lawyers paid a visit to these exhibitions; middle class sorts not usually involved in agriculture seem particularly involved in the speculation that was getting underway.
Some twenty-thousand people attended the subsequent Exhibition of Fancy Poultry in autumn 1850. That year, Burnham was selling his chickens for $25 per pair and eggs for $1 each; $1 then was worth the equivalent of $30 today. These were unheard of prices but just the beginning of Hen Fever in the United States. On an estate he purchased with this newfound income, Burnham was raising over a thousand birds by 1851; his buyers were poultry fanciers elsewhere. The craze had spread from Britain to the Northeastern U.S. and was now spreading from the Northeast to virtually every other part of the United States.
My Dear Sir:
The cage of Cochin-China chickens you were kind enough to send, reached me in safety; and I am much obliged to you for this favor.
They are, beyond comparison, the finest domestic fowls I have ever seen, and I shall breed them with such care that I hope to be able to give you a good account of them in the future.
They are very much liked by all who have seen them, and you will please accept my thanks for your attention.
I am, resp’y, yours,
Geo. N. Briggs. (Governor of Massachusetts)
Prominent men, like the Governor of Massachusetts George N. Briggs, were gifted Cochin-China chickens by Burnham. New breeds also emerged including one called the Brahma, of which Burnham sent a handful to Queen Victoria, a gift reported in the London Illustrated News in January 1852. Others had to pay prices for fancy chickens that rose to over $100 per pair, or over $3,000 in today’s money. In Britain, prices were similar. In 1852, the Cottage Gardener reported that “a gentleman near London sold a pair of Cochin-China fowls for 30 guineas (£31, 10 shillings), and another pair for 32 guineas. He has been offered £20 for a single hen; has sold numerous eggs at 1 guinea each”. According to New York’s Scientific American, some pairs of chickens were sold for as much as $700, or over $20,000 in today’s dollars.
Geo. P. Burnham, Esq., Boston.
My Dear Sir: I duly received your obliging letter, informing me that you had sent by the Express of Messrs. Adams & Co. a cage containing four fowls for me, and I postponed acknowledging it until the fate of the fowls should be ascertained. I have now the satisfaction to advise you that they all reached here safely.
They have been greatly admired, not only for their enormous size, but for their fine proportions and beautiful plumage. I thank you, my dear sir, most cordially, for this very acceptable present. It has been my aim, for many years, to collect at this place the best improved breeds of the horse, the cow, the sheep, swine and the ass though the last, not the least valuable, in this mule-raising state.
To my stock on hand your splendid Cochin-China fowls will be a congenial and valuable addition; and, if we succeed with them, I will take care not to monopolize the benefit of them. I am greatly obliged to you, and,
With high respect, I am
Your obd’t servant,
H. Clay (U.S. Senator, Kentucky)
Unfortunately for Burnham and other fanciers with commercial interest in the birds, public fascination with exotic poultry waned in the middle of the decade and prices fell, particularly in 1855. It was no longer profitable to bring new birds from Asia and local breeders were stuck with unwanted chickens. Some advertised the fine pedigree of their birds to entice buyers. Other promoters came up with new dishes making use of these peculiar chickens to rid themselves of some of their holdings. Burnham produced one more fruit out of the bubble though and wrote a book about the mania he had such a large role in fomenting, or at least importing into the United States.
Hen Fever was consequential, perhaps to a degree unusual for such niche manias. The most popular breeds of chicken today can be traced to the Cochin-China. Their large size eventually allowed chickens to be raised primarily for meat rather than primarily for eggs as they had been in the 19th century. Up to then, chicken was an expensive meal, a luxury for special occasions, and raising sheep and cattle was the more economical choice for American farmers. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the United States began to develop a large industry raising chicken for meat and even this remained a seasonal business until the 1940s.
“Agricultural scientists seem never content with nature’s ways and are producing fluffy little chicks at all seasons of the year so frying chickens will always be obtainable. They are producing hens that lay the year-around, eight-pound apartment-house turkeys, and broad-breasted poultry with more white meat. Fluffy little chicks…will grow into hens that lay 300 or more eggs a year.”A.C. Monahan in Science Newsletter, April 20, 1946
The mania triggered by the avian interests of Edward Belcher, Queen Victoria, and George Burnham may have seemed, by 1860, to have been a terrible folly. However, the events did give rise to a new industry, and a new diet, in a large part of the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that eventually new breeds of chicken would allow the changes that took place to occur anyway, as similar processes took place with other livestock.
Nonetheless, Hen Fever illustrates the unexpected but fruitful outcomes of seemingly disorderly events like speculative episodes. When they were in their infancy, were introduced to new people, or were undergoing great change, other products from indigo dyes to rubber to bicycles have caused similar crazes as that of Hen Fever.
More from the Tontine Coffee-House
Read about agricultural bubbles driven by natural indigo and rubber as well as the infamous Dutch tulip mania. The introduction of Corriedale sheep and new refrigeration technology allowed New Zealand to become an exporter of frozen lamb, rescuing it from an earlier depression. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter or checking out book recommendations, which include many of the sources often referenced in my posts.
1. Burnham, George P. The History of The Hen Fever. James French and Company, 1855.
2. Cole, Arthur H. “Agricultural Crazes. A Neglected Chapter in American Economic History.” The American Economic Review, vol. 16, no. 4, Dec. 1926, pp. 622–639.
3. Grinder, Brian, and Dan Cooper. “How Hen Fever Led to the Chicken of Tomorrow (Part 1: Hen Fever).” Financial History, summer 2015, pp. 9–11.
4. Marks, Ben. “Fancy Fowl: How an Evil Sea Captain and a Beloved Queen Made the World Crave KFC.” Collectors Weekly, 3 June 2021.
5. Rude, Emelyn. “The Forgotten History of ‘Hen Fever.’” National Geographic, 5 Aug. 2015.
6. Wright, Lewis. The Illustrated Book of Poultry: With Practical Schedules for Judging, Constructed from Actual Analysis of the Best Modern Decisions. Cassell, Peter, Galpin & Co., 1880.