If you've checked out Richmond backyards recently, you've probably seen hens roaming the urban landscape, clucking, scratching and producing very local eggs.
Richmonders are keeping chickens, building coops and purchasing feed, fees and care. We give our hens names as well as love. This interest in chicken and egg is not simply about the birds and their benefits. In Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, Andrew Lawler writes, "The backyard chicken movement sweeping the United States and Europe is a response to city lives far removed from the daily realities of life and death on a farm, and the bird provides a cheap and handy way for us to reconnect with our vanishing rural heritage."
Twenty-first century Richmond, with ample real estate, love of home and geographic site as both old south and new north, is fertile ground for backyard chickens to roam. Contemporary chicken-keeping engages how we think about where our food comes from, in addition to how we want to utilize the land on which we live, spend our time and lead our families. With our flocks come creativity and idealism, as well as breakfast.
A Chicken in Every Plot is the culmination of two years of collaboration between Richmond artist Alyssa C. Salomon and the Valentine to bring together art and artifact on the topic of backyard chickens. Since 2012, Salomon has used her camera and local word-of-mouth network to explore the city’s engagement with a national return to chicken-keeping. Extensive mining of the Valentine’s holdings highlight the continuous presence of chickens, real and symbolic, in everyday life. This exhibition offers opportunities to consider how Richmond thinks about its food and home.
Chickens in the City
Chicken-keeping dates back nearly 3,000 years. Small size, grazing nature and centuries of domestication made chickens easy and common additions to the kitchen garden and reliable contributors to the table.
As Americans migrated from countryside to city, backyard chickens rarely came along. Already by the early-20th century, urban families easily purchased locally-laid eggs via city markets, neighborhood grocers and itinerant merchants. As trains, trucks and planes started to transport foodstuffs, the distance between egg and consumer increased. We no longer wanted or needed to go into our literal and figurative backyards to gather food. Instead, we began visiting bigger and bigger grocery stores to buy eggs delivered from massive farms hundreds of miles away. Concurrently, city livestock came into conflict with pressing goals for community health, public sanitation and neighborhood aesthetics.
When in 1997 chickens were effectively banned from Richmond by zoning regulation, urban poultry had already all but vanished. Renewed interest in food sources, combined with changing notions of how to landscape and utilize one’s home, helped to re-legalize chickens in Richmond in 2013.
The recent resurgence of chicken-keeping is one of many activities associated with 21st-century local food movements. Richmond farmers markets thrive, home gardens fill with vegetables, canning abounds, restaurant menus boast of regional suppliers and grocers promote local produce. Gourmet, natural and organic labels often aren’t enough. We feel compelled to touch the hand – or hen – that grows our food.
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.
Roosters, hens and chicks have long been favorite and familiar symbols, representing a range of human behaviors and concepts in print and in language. Today, we take these images and phrases for granted, unconscious of their origins in a once shared, everyday backyard life.
Cute, playful and tiny, baby chicks draw on our heart strings. We say “chick” and “spring chicken” to denote youth and vitality.
Eggs, with and without chicks, are a common Easter motif in baskets, games and greeting cards. Connoting rebirth and evoking spring, the egg plays a role in Passover ceremony as well.
Roosters are a powerful, masculine symbol. They fight each other viciously to maintain supremacy. A single rooster can dominate an entire flock of hens. Using such a potent symbol of virility and strength in advertising, companies intend to appeal to men’s ideals and aspirations.
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.
Coming Home to Roost
A chicken coop and its clucking tenants share space with a lot of other backyard stuff, ranging from functional to decorative. Richmond artist Chris Chase fabricated this bass wood model of a typical Church Hill yard. What elements do you recognize from your own surroundings?
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.
Eggs & Eating
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.
Annie Gold of N. Addison Street exchanged this egg crate with her mother in New York. The improvements to storage and transportation offered by the Metal Egg Crate Company of Fredericksburg meant that eggs could come from virtually anywhere in the country.
Stuffed Eggs. Dressed Eggs. Deviled Eggs.
The designation deviled, meaning highly seasoned, entered English and American culinary language by the 1700s, although serving stuffed eggs began at least three centuries earlier.
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.
The ideal American backyard has changed dramatically during the past century. Typical for the early-20th century, the Irwins’ yard was a practical work space that contributed to the household.
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.”
How does a 21st-century Richmonder fit all of the tasks associated with chicken-keeping into a busy schedule? This Highland Park owner devised a clever self-feeder using found materials like paint bins and chains.
Daily administration of this Southside estate, known as Buck Hill and home to the Vaden and Owen families, included a substantial chicken operation with protected outdoor spaces and multiple coops along with expansive farm fields during the 1910s.
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.