Raising Chickens in the Early 1900s
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
Believe it or not, chickens have been around for centuries - I’m talking prehistoric evidence of possible chicken bones in archeological digs. Today, we don’t think much about the lineage of the chicken that produced the eggs we eat for breakfast or the ones we use to bake a birthday cake, we just open the refrigerator and grab a couple from the carton. The way that chickens are raised today, especially on a mass-level of egg production, is not the same as it was when Shoenberg Farms was providing eggs and poultry to the National Jewish Hospital during the 1900s. In fact, raising chickens on a farm was much different…
1900s Home Life for a Chicken
Despite roots that span back centuries, in the early 1900s, chickens were not considered “necessary” livestock in the farming landscape. Unlike the dairy cattle, whose needs were tended to regularly, chickens were more or less left alone to do their own thing. Their meat was considered to be a delicacy and with the living conditions, hens laid less than 150 eggs.
Unlike traditional coops today, there was no supplemental lighting or Vitamin D. So during the winter months, most chickens were left to beat the odds. This would often thin the flock significantly - the idea of a flock of 400+ hens was unfathomable during this time. Instead of feeds made specifically for chickens, these birds were left to fend for themselves and forage for the grass of the farm or the occasional kitchen scrap.
The Purpose of Chickens
Although poultry and eggs are a staple part of our diets today, in the early 1900s, eggs were sold as a means of income for farm families. Unless it was a special occasion, the chicken was not used as a meat source - they were too valuable as an egg producer. Many farm families didn’t eat the eggs produced either unless it was a special occasion. Those chickens selected as a meat source would receive sustenance that the others were not afforded, essentially fattening them up for the slaughter.
Most of the chickens in early 1900s farm flocks had a 40% mortality rate, which was primarily due to the lack of purpose-built coops. It was in the 1920s that Vitamin D supplementation was introduced to help improve the mortality rate of the chickens during the winter months. The innovation would also help them bring healthier chicks into the world come spring.
During the 1920s and 1930s, major innovations were made to increase the health of chickens, including their housing. The confined housing structures would make it easier for care and the mortality rate took a nose dive - down to 5% by the end of the 1930s. This was considered the “broiler age” of chicken - purposefully raised chickens for the use of meat. With the innovations made, the chickens were also laying more eggs per year, up to 250!
Shoenberg Farms - Egg and Poultry
The purpose of the farm was to create sustenance for the National Jewish Hospital. In addition to milk and dairy products, the farm supplied the hospital with eggs and poultry for its patients. The Shoenberg Farms Restoration Project is about more than just creating a historically rich space for the community, it is about bringing awareness of farming in the 1900s. There were many different ways of doing things during this time, which have been replaced by technology and long forgotten. Through the project, visitors will get to see what it was like for farming in the 1900s and the impact it made on the region.