Today, Richmonders are reimagining their backyards as a melding of landscape, ornamentation and functionality. The father who created this north Richmond backyard where chickens strut with family pets, edible plants, bees and children's toys explains:
“We love living in the city but that environment can sometimes make you feel disconnected from life. This is a way to reconnect to nature. You often see a lot of wasted space in backyards – just grass and shrubs – that doesn’t impact you or the planet positively. We wanted to create a functional space that provides food year-round and that shows our kids where food comes from. They complain when they have to go to the store to buy eggs.”
The owner of this Southside home discusses what her family has discovered while living with chickens:
“My husband and I got our hens as baby chicks in the spring of 2013. They lived in a clear plastic tub in our basement, where our 13-year-old found they liked listening to rock-violin. We built a coop that summer, and, by the fall, they were each laying almost an egg a day, which they have managed to keep up, with a few brief winter pauses.
The eggs are incredible - golden-orange yolks that put lemony store-bought eggs to shame in color and taste. We eat them and gift them with abandon, and still overflow.
They are no longer allowed free access to the bikes. They gunked up my gears with their dust-bathing.”
Richmond did not restrict domestic chicken-keeping until 1997, when City Council imposed one-acre minimum zoning restrictions, effectively outlawing the birds in city neighborhoods. Some residents chose to ignore the ban, at times antagonizing neighbors but also charming them with eggs and coop architecture. Chicken-keeping remained clandestine until the pro-chicken advocacy coalition Chickunz, with the support of frustrated animal enforcement officers, successfully lobbied to revise a network of relevant city ordinances. Since 2013, Richmond has allowed up to four hens – no roosters – in most backyards with the purchase of an annual $60 permit.
As Americans increasingly moved into urban environments during the 20th century, nostalgic echoes of rural life made their way into cities’ architecture. This rooster weathervane has observed horse-drawn carriages give way to automobiles and to generations of Virginia Commonwealth University students from its perch atop a former stable.
In the mid-19th century, English adoption of the Chinese Cochin fowl, with fluffy plumage that extended down its legs, started a chicken-breeding craze. Breeders participated in competitions much like today’s dog shows. Allen & Ginter’s Prize and Game Chickens cigarette card series featured 50 popular breeds, one of which is shown here. Imagine chicken breeds being so popular that their portraits could drive sales and spark the collector’s impulse.
A hen’s coop may be her castle, but the small building embodies the chicken-keeper’s aesthetic, technical skills and budget. In compact urban yards, coops not only need to protect chickens from predators like hawks, foxes and raccoons, but these small buildings also shape landscape views and garden plans. Coops vary widely in size and style, from the Modernist, plastic Eglu to the $100,000 Beau Coop to hand-made structures using salvage materials.
While their materials have changed with the times, the tools of chicken-keeping have the same function today as in past eras. Colorful plastics and aluminum have replaced burlap and stoneware. Owners can choose from dozens of specialized feed brands and formulas. Some tools can’t seem to be improved, such as fake, wooden eggs used to encourage hens to lay. All in all, a 19th-century chicken owner would recognize the equipment in today’s coop.
Until the mid-20th century, chickens were valued more for their eggs than for their meat. Eggs, a key source of protein, are prepared and served in numerous ways, some requiring specialized gadgets and tools.Round-bottomed deviled eggs call for a dedicated plate. Soft-boiled eggs require an egg cup, cozy and spoon to eat neatly the solid egg white and liquid yolk.
Today, deviled eggs evoke Southern comfort food traditions and summer potluck parties. Transporting open-faced, stuffed eggs from kitchen to fridge to car to table requires task-specific gear to assure unmarred presentation. Since these popular appetizers are often quickly devoured, deviled egg plates are designed to look attractive empty or full.
Post-World War II American backyards evolved into manicured lawns and picturesque gardens. Today, we have come to reexamine the use and the environmental impact of these spaces, bringing back utility as virtue, conservation as practice and chickens as residents – all while retaining an appetite for thoughtful garden design and pleasing views.
At the start of the 20th century, home egg production could meaningfully reduce a family’s food costs and be sold for income. In 1900, the average family spent 43% of its income on food. A combination of post-World War II government policies and technological advancements helped lower American food costs. By 1950, 30% of a family’s income was spent on food; by 2003, just 13%.
Retail eggs, even more than other common pantry items, have become dramatically cheaper. Consider this: in 2015, a dozen eggs cost $2.81. In 1915, a dozen eggs cost only $0.34, but that's $8.01 in today’s dollars!
This Great Depression-era photograph shows a property in Jackson Ward, at the time the center of Richmond’s African-American community. The substantial structure with chickens in the background begs the question: were these egg-producers used for home consumption only or were they part of a commercial venture? Was this unidentified woman a matriarch, entrepreneur or both?
The four hens in this Church Hill backyard lay at most a dozen and a half eggs a week. The costs of feed, housing and Richmond City license could easily exceed the retail value of their prized eggs. A 2014 national survey cites that the vast majority of owners have chickens for home egg consumption, to keep them as pets and for their environmental benefits (such as eating food scraps) as opposed to the potential income from selling eggs.
The owner of this Church Hill property shares why her family started to raise chickens:
“Our family has a farm, and growing up I was familiar with having animals around. I wanted my kids to experience that so we decided to try it out. When we started to raise chickens, it was still illegal because our property size couldn’t meet the city requirements. We passed the idea by our neighbors, who were supportive. Chickens are funny…they are a lot more fun and enjoyable than I thought they would be.”
When siblings Denise and Freddie Haines traveled from Pennsylvania to visit their grandmother Emma Cooper Haines (1894-1966), they spent time feeding the family chickens in the backyard of her home at 3602 Noble Avenue, the house her parents had built in Ginter Park in 1909. Mrs. Haines, a widow, began keeping chickens about 1950 as a source of fresh eggs and meat.
Kathleen Emma Hill Marks, donor of these photographs and niece of Mrs. Haines, recalls that her aunt repurposed dog kennels on the property by building a large henhouse inside the chained link fencing.
“I remember chicken feed being delivered from Producers Co-Operative Exchange, now Southern States. My aunt and mother made pillow cases and tea towels from the decorative bags.”
In response to late-20th century industrial farming practices, we increasingly question where our food comes from, how far it travels and the manner in which it was grown. The owner of this south Richmond property shares:
“I like knowing my chickens are treated humanely and that their eggs are truly organic and free-range. It’s great always having fresh eggs to cook for my daughter, who also gets an education seeing the whole life cycle of a chicken.”
Despite naming their birds, Mary and Lily were unlikely to view Peck Mouth, Lucy, and the rest of their flock as pets. Although cute, these chickens would have been “working” livestock. Hens can live well beyond their egg-bearing years. Whether because of feed budget, city flock-size rules or real estate constraints, chicken owners must eventually confront what to do with old hens.
While backyard chickens are adorable – even huggable – they can carry germs like other pets. Developing healthy habits like washing hands after handling birds, equipment and bedding, and keeping coops and runs clean, are keys to maintaining the health of one’s family as well as one’s flock. The bacteria Salmonella is most commonly associated with factory-scale chicken farming and meat processing, but the Virginia Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control remind backyard chicken keepers to use care and common sense when handling their pet chickens.
The owner of this Fulton Hill property discusses her family’s evolving relationship with their chickens:
“When we first got the chicks, they were a day old and so cute that we began to name them after our favorite authors. We have a somewhat pet-like relationship with them. However, we keep them out of the house and try to maintain a natural order. We feed them well – sometimes better than what we’re eating. We haven’t yet had to deal with aging chickens. My husband and I have different feelings about what to do with them – whether to pass them along to someone who can benefit from their meat or keep them on simply as pets.”
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe introduced four hens to the Executive Mansion after taking office in 2014. Virginia’s “First Chickens” have since become a sensation with visitors and the media. Gubernatorial flocks have sporadically graced Capitol Square, although Governor Philip McKinney (1890-1894) would be fined under today’s law for having a rooster and one-too-many hens.
Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe shares:
“Our backyard flock fulfilled a campaign promise to our children and they have been a great addition to our new home in Richmond. The chickens provide fresh eggs for our family meals and show our youngest children and visitors the importance of urban agriculture. They have been a fun and interesting learning experience.”
From farm house to row house to state house, 21st-century chickens are back in our lives and in our yards - truly a chicken in every plot.
Wendy and Tom Rosenthal
Ellwood Thompson’s Relay Foods
Image360 – RVA
Leanor and Kenneth Myers
Alyssa C. Salomon
Meg Hughes, Curator of Archives
Gordon Stettinius, Candela Books + Gallery
The many families that opened their yards, chicken coops and homes to Alyssa Salomon's camera.