Urban chicken-keeping has been a trending topic for several years now, but the hipsters tending their leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are merely part of a cycle. Chicken houses were once a ubiquitous sight not just on farmsteads, abut also in towns. If you keep your eyes peeled, you may even spot some historic (over 50 years old) chicken houses in the backyards of many an older home.
The tending of the chickens was usually the domain of the women of the house, and thus, it was usually placed quite near the house, so that the chickens could be tended and eggs gathered while many other domestic tasks were also performed.
Often the chicken house was also located near the orchard or vegetable garden, which again stressed the importance of productivity and efficiency – women could tend chickens and work in the garden, while the chickens helped keep the insect population in check. Eggs were an important commodity for farm families to sell or trade.
Chicken houses can be divided by function, whether as a hen (laying) house or a brooder house. The hen house, true to its name, housed laying hens. Brooder houses were specifically for the raising of baby chickens, often with design specifications for their care.
The form remains similar – most are simple structures with a shed roof, constructed of vertical boards with window and door openings, and often now clad in modern synthetic siding, such as rolled asphalt siding or vinyl siding.
Chicken and brooder houses were often designed to be portable, allowing the chickens access to fresh dirt and grass, and the framing needed to be light. Sometimes they were built on skids.
Box frame or lightly braced frame structures on piers rather than permanent foundations are typical. Soil-borne diseases were a big threat to baby chickens, so moving brooder houses frequently helped ensure a high survival rate.
Chicken houses typically had at least one human-sized door, several windows or openings covered with mesh or wire to let fresh air and light in, and a smaller opening, near the bottom of the façade, for chickens.
Built-in equipment, such as roosts, nesting boxes and water and feed troughs were common in chicken houses. Brooder houses needed to be tighter, in order to conserve heat, and often had more windows and did not have built-in equipment. They were also usually smaller than houses used for laying hens.
The appearance of chicken houses changed over the years, just like house styles. One of my favorites is the slant-sided chicken house.
This type of chicken house, with its overhanging slanted roosting area, began to be promoted in scientific agricultural journals by the middle of the nineteenth century, though widespread adoption in Kentucky did not occur until after the Civil War.
The ingenious form allowed the waste from roosting chickens to fall through to the outside of the chicken house. The manure could then be collected to use as fertilizer elsewhere on the farm.
Chicken houses are a fascinating part of the study of historic landscapes – I wonder if the newest incarnation of chicken houses will stick around quite as long?