The Incredible, Edible Egg Money
While some brides get jewelry or a honeymoon as a wedding present, my great-grandma Gyda got a flock of white leghorn chickens. She lived on a farm in North Dakota where, like many farm wives, she worked hard but had little control over the household income besides an “allowance” from her husband. Instead of a set sum, her husband provided her with feed and a coop and generously said she could raise as many (or as few) as she’d like and keep any money she got from them. This practice was once so common that women’s income was often referred to simply as “egg money”.
Chickens, in those days, were seen as women’s work. The chicken coop was close to the house and there was a feeling that whatever income came from eggs wasn’t much. While a farmer might get a lump sum of income once or twice a year around the harvest, egg money trickled in slowly from spring through the early days of winter when the hens stopped laying. In my family, egg money paid for my grandma and great-uncle’s piano and lessons among other things. Gyda, like other farm women in the early 1900s, sold chickens and eggs to “city folk” for cash or in exchange for credit at the local grocery store. Men were often unaware of how much money the hens brought in. As Deborah Fink wrote in Open County, Iowa, “Being associated with women, poultry carried a certain stigma for men. The current slang association of the word chicken with cowardice conveys some of the disdain men felt toward poultry.”
But egg money didn’t just pay for special treats like class rings or music lessons, it also kept the family fed, clothed, and educated. Income from the farm might pay to keep the farm running for another year but it was egg money that kept the family from starving. When Laura Ingalls Wilder, later famous for the Little House on the Prairie series, was a farm journalist she reported that farm women in the small town of Mansfield, Missouri sold $117,000 of poultry, eggs, and cream in 1915 alone. In the U.S., the average household income that year was $687. “I wonder if Missouri form women realize the value in dollars and cents of the work they do from day to day in raising farm products for the market?” Wilder wrote.
That all changed in the mid-1900s when extension agents got wise to the money in chicken farming and started trying to convince men to take part in this exciting and profitable venture. Poultry geneticists created new breeds of chickens and advertised them like a shiny new technology come to replace the humdrum barnyard mixes of the average farm wife. Coops, incubators, feeders, and waterers were all modernized with the goal of bringing men on board. “Rather than encouraging and sheltering women’s poultry production, the postwar extension service ceased to include women . . . unless their husbands were also participants,” Fink wrote.
The average flock size rose from 100 chickens to thousands, then tens of thousands, and the farm wife and her egg money was shuffled off to the side in most cases while men, previously so disdainful of chickens, stepped in to raise them. The backyard chicken flock became a rare sight until homesteaders and backyard poultry keepers started bringing the tradition back. And many, though not all, of the modern chicken keepers are once again women.
My grandma remembers helping her mother with the chicken chores when she was growing up but if it weren’t for her stories, I might not know anything about this little bit of history or about the farm women who used to supply the entire United States with eggs and poultry—one small flock of chickens at a time.
If you have a story about egg money in your family, I’d love to hear about it and maybe share a few in the next edition of Under the Henfluence! Email UnderTheHenfluence@gmail.com with your story.
News from the Coop!
Mr. Marple went to his new home on a nearby farm a few weeks ago and the remaining chicks moved into the big coop with the grownups the following day. After a few squabbles, everybody seems to be getting along well--more or less. The littles still keep their distance and like to be on the opposite end of the coop from the bigs but it's nothing out of the ordinary.
The coop is getting some summer upgrades with new planter boxes out front and some other decorations. It's impossible to say how the chickens feel about all this but they probably appreciate the extra shade on hot days.
In big news, we're about to adopt two hens who were rescued from a battery egg farm. It's something I've wanted to do for a while and while I didn't think it would happen quite so soon I got a call from a rescue who had them available and, well, who can say no to chickens?!
The first extensive study of the chicken's genome was just published and traced the birds back to Southern China/Southeast Asia sometime around 7500 BC. [Science]
Not only did New Zealand manage to avoid coronavirus by going into a strict lockdown early, as a prize they’re being inundated by gangs of feral chickens wandering the streets. Some people have all the luck. [The Guardian]
Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been losing chickens to a mystery predator on his Nashville farm and trying to find out what's getting them, To Catch a Predator style. [Chicago Sun Times]
Twenty years after the original, there's going to be a sequel to Chicken Run! [Deadline]
If you see chickens in the news or know a good chicken tip, please email it to me: email@example.com
Thank you so much for reading and subscribing to Under the Henfluence. If you liked this newsletter, please share with any chicken ladies or gents in your life. As always, I'd love to hear from you.
Email me with comments: UnderTheHenfluence@Gmail.com
Until next month!