• The Hub

    News, Notes, Talk

    L. Frank Baum’s first book was a manual for breeding fancy chickens.

    Emily Temple

    May 17, 2019, 7:17am

    We all know L. Frank Baum as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its many sequels. But you may not know that he lived quite a few lives before becoming a beloved children’s book author. He sold fireworks; he sold oil; he pursued acting; he wrote plays; he ran a store called “Baum’s Bazaar,” and later he edited a newspaper. Eventually, of course, he wrote all the books you know and love. But his very first published book came from an unexpected source: his undying love of fancy chickens.

    When Baum was 20, he started breeding “fancy poultry,” which as biographer Katharine M. Rogers writes in L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz: A Biography, “was then a national craze.” (I want to call this crazy, but then again, we had Beanie Babies.) Baum and his father and brother raised prize-winning Hamburg chickens (black “with subtly varied secondary coloring”—see above), and in 1878, Baum helped found the Empire State Poultry Association. In 1880 he was elected to the executive committee of the American Poultry Association. I’m saying he was a big deal, in poultry circles.

    That same year, he founded a trade monthly called The Poultry Record. Rogers writes that “he took most of his copy and pictures from rival journals, but he did write editorials in which he expressed bold opinions on the fancy chicken trade, occasionally enlivened by clever derision of rival breeders.” In 1881, he sold the journal, but he kept writing chicken journalism, and later that year, he was commissioned by H. H. Stoddard to write a serialized article on the breeding of Hamburg chickens for The Poultry World, which was apparently the premiere poultry rag of the day. In 1886, Stoddard republished it as The Book of the Hamburgs, A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs. 

    You can read it in full here, but in case you don’t have time today to read a book about raising chickens, Rogers describes it this way:

    Generally speaking, this is a dry, technical manual for fancy chicken breeders, including detailed descriptions of the show points of each variety of Hamburg, advice on breeding to achieve the ideal physical type, and practical instruction on the care of chicks. Baum could never remain impersonal, however, and occasionally his enthusiasm broke through. “Every season and nearly every day unfolds new beauties” in these birds, he declared, “and renders them more fascinating and delightful to his eye. The exquisite symmetry, the novel and shapely rose combs, the snowy and delicate ear-lobes, the tapering blue legs and graceful carriage give them an aristocratic and ‘dressed up’ appearance.”

    She also notes similarities between the Hamburg mother hen and Billina, the sassy talking chicken in Ozma of Oz. And in fact, Baum never lost his love of chickens, and kept a flock of Rhode Island Reds at his famous California home, Ozcot, tending them until the day he died.

  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.