According to The Illustrated Book of Poultry Queen Victoria was captivated by watching her seven chickens in their custom enclosure. While royalty are not known for admiring poultry as do farmers, in 1842 Queen Victoria started what would become an international craze for fancy chickens, just because they were beautiful to look at.
These were Cochin chickens or “Cochin China Fowl.” They’re attractive birds, weighing up to a hefty 11 pounds with soft and voluminous plumage with long and loose feathers. The feathers on its legs are one of the most distinctive features Males are multi-colored, with patches of saturated copper and black feathers that extend down to their feet. Long, iridescent tail feathers set off the rest of the attractive bird, especially for Europeans in the 1800s who had never seen such a creature before, and of course never thought to own one.
Queen Victoria was inspired to increase her collection and show it off. Since she lacked a convenient way to blog about her pets, she mailed eggs to the members of the royal family. Word spread to Europe’s upper classes that chickens were the thing to have and soon everyone was clamoring for exotic fowl to show off to their peers.
Ornamental chicken breeding then spread to the United States. By 1845, Boston hosted the first poultry show, with over 200 exhibitors. More exhibitions followed and well-to-do folks competed for the prize of best-looking chickens. Although farmers had previously ignored chickens as items of envy, doctors and lawyers drove prices of select breeds to the modern equivalent of $30 an egg and $3,600 for a pair of birds.
The demand for fancy birds meant there were more and more birds being bred, their prices fell, and eggs started becoming a more regular addition to American diets. By 1855, the fad was fading and the chickens were more likely to be listed as a menu item than an entrant in an exhibition. The Chinese origins were still of interest, so dishes like “fricasseed Shanghaes” or “curried Shanghai fowls” became common. Source: The Forgotten History of ‘Hen Fever’ by Emelyn Rude.
The domesticated chicken is descended from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus). Genomic studies estimate that the chicken was domesticated 8,000 years ago in Southeast Asia and spread to China and India 2000–3000 years later and dispersed around the world. Through natural and selective breeding, a wide variety of breeds now exist, perhaps 500 worldwide and over 50 in the U.S.
If you are interested in raising some cool chickens, you can go to poultry shows and find your favorite. Not just any old chickens. The American Standard of Perfection is used by American Poultry Association judges at sanctioned shows to judge poultry, and by those who participate in the competitive showing of selectively bred birds that conform to the standard.
You might even want to invest in one or more of the most exotic, attractive, or just plain strange chickens if you have the money as some are quite expensive like the Ayam Cemani that goes for $5000!