This is an excerpt from Betty MacDonald
's best selling book, The Egg and I
about the trials of chicken
farming in the 1920's (and written in the forties) in a remote part of Washington State
. The book sold over a million copies, a huge number for the time. It is still in print and available on the Web at various bookstores, including You Know Who
Betty had been brought up to Make Her Husband Happy, and when he decided that Happy was to be a chicken farmer, she went along with it. The marriage lasted four years, most of that filled with obstinate chickens.
The book is a child of its time, and, set in the backwoods as it is, is not precisely PC in a lot of ways. This should merely increase your sense of superiority to it all.
This is the start of chapter 9:
I Learn to Hate Even Baby Chickens:
"Prior to life with Bob, my sole contact with baby chickens had been at the age of eleven. Lying on my stomach in our hammock which was swung between two Gravenstein apple trees in the orchard by the house in Laurelhurst, I pulled out grass stems, ate the tender white part and watched Layette, Gammy's favorite Barred Rock hen, herd her fourteen home-hatched fluffy yellow chicks through the drifting apple blossoms and under the low flowering quince trees. This sentimental fragment of my childhood was a far cry from the hundreds and hundreds of yellowish white, yeeping, smelly little nuisances which made my life a nightmare in the spring.
I confess I could hardly wait for our chicks to come and spent many happy anticipatory hours checking the thermometer and reveling in the warmth and cleanliness of the new brooder house. But I learned to my sorrow that baby chickens are stupid; they smell; they have to be fed, watered and looked at, at least every three hours. Their sole idea in life is to jam themselves under tile brooder and get killed; stuff their little boneheads so far into their drinking fountains they drown; drink cold water and die; get B.W.D; coccidiosis or some other disease which means sudden death. The horrid little things pick out each other's eyes and peck each other's feet until they are bloody stumps.
My chick manual, speaking from the fence said, "Some chicks have a strong tendency to pick and some don't." (I was reminded of the mushroom book's, "Some are poisonous and some are not.") The chick manual went on to say, "The causes of picking are overcrowding, lack of ventilation or cannibalism." Our chicks, according to the standards set by the manual, had plenty of air and space so I added plain meanness to their list of loathsome traits. From the time of their contemplation, our baby chickens were given the utmost in care and consideration and their idea of appreciation was to see how many of them could turn out to be cockerels and how high they could get the percentage of deaths. I knew that Layette's babies never acted like that, which was a flaw-proof argument for environment over heredity and against any form of regimentation.
I really did my badly organized best to follow my chicken manual to the letter, even though it required that I spend one out of every three hours in the brooder house-measuring feed, washing water fountains, removing the bloody and the dying to the first-aid corner, and all of my leisure time nailing a dead chicken to a shingle, splitting the carcass from stem to stern and by peering alternately inside the chicken and at a very complicated chart, trying to figure out what in the world it died of . I always drew a blank. In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths, "Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide." When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmilingly erased it and neatly wrote, "Not determined." Men are quite humorless about their own businesses.
My chick manual was detailed to the extent that it gave the number of minutes it should take so many chicks to clean up so much food;what to feed every single day until the chickens were six weeks old; even what to do about the floors, hovers, founts, hoppers, etc., four weeks before brooding. From my experience I would supplement this prior-to-brooding advice to read, "Four weeks before brooding, leave on an extended trip to the Baranof Islands."
I well remember how the Lucrezia Borgia in me boiled to the surface as I read in my chick manual, "A single drink of cold water may be fatal to a baby chick." "You don't say," I thought, licking my fevered lips and glancing longingly at the little lake filled with icy water. But my poultricidal tendencies were replaced with pure hysteria as I read on, "Water may be warm when you put it in the founts, but will it stay warm?
"My God, isn't it enough that my hands will soon be dragging on the ground from carrying buckets and buckets and buckets of water, and that Stove has acquired a permanent list on his reservoir side, without being further tortured with trick questions? Why don't you get underneath the brooder and see if the water stays warm, you big bore? Me, I'll fill the fountains with warm water and curses every three hours and take a chance." That was my reaction to my chick manual.
The next cozy paragraph was headed "Dopey Chicks." "If many chicks are 'dopey' and you are sure they are not overheated or gassed, those chicks and the chicks that continually chirp should be sent to the nearest pathological laboratory (to see who's dopey?). If the report says B.W.D., it is better to disinfect the premises and start new chicks." I could find no explanation of B.W.D., but to me it was code for the best news in the world. It might have been better to start new chicks, but it might have been best to take the next train for Mexico.