Wizard Of Oz Author L Frank Baum Had A Penchant For Fowl Play
Image Credit: L Frank Baum (centre) with the characters he created. Via Wikimedia Commons

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LONG before he wrote a book about Dorothy — a girl from Kansas who, along with her dog Toto, was transplanted into a magical land known as Oz during a tornado — Lyman Frank Baum (who preferred to go by Frank) had a flourishing career as a columnist, editor and publisher of another literary endeavour: a trade journal about chickens. 

This isn’t meant to be flippant, for Frank was most fervent about fowl. And while poultry may have been a recent passion for him, publishing was an older one, dating to about 1870, when Frank was merely 14. The technology of the printing press had piqued his interest, so his father bought a small, easy-to-operate machine for Frank. He promptly began publishing a “newspaper” about their home from it. By 1873, Frank had done what all gadget enthusiasts love to, and upgraded to a better model. 

Now the part about the poultry comes in a few years later, in 1876-77, when Frank became swept up in what was then a nationwide fad. Fancy fowl had captured the imagination of English breeders across all classes in the mid-19th century (there was even a term for it: “hen fever”), and the same frenzy had crossed the Atlantic and manifested in America as well. Frank took particular interest in a type of chicken that owed its name to the port in Germany where it was said to originate from: Hamburg. 

Of course, some experts say the Hamburg chicken actually came from Holland (and still others trace it to Turkey) and not Germany, but that has little bearing on Frank’s story. Suffice it to say that by the late 1700s, the Hamburg was well-established in England, where breeders added four more varieties (Black, Silver Spangled, Golden Spangled, White) to the pre-existing two (the Silver Penciled and Golden Penciled), and that by the mid-1850s, the Hamburg was a frontrunner in fowl fandoms across the US. 

The Hamburg was an ornamental breed, remarkably fleet-footed and smaller in size as compared to others of its ilk. These hens were proficient layers of eggs, with just one giving a yield of 200-250 eggs a year. While these eggs were also small-ish in size, Hamburg breeders — like Frank — prized the birds for their looks and prestige.

Frank didn’t just raise Hamburg chickens, he also founded industry associations and actively served in both state- and national-level bodies for the poultry trade. By March of 1880 — despite his young age —  he was considered enough of an expert that his launching of “The Poultry Record” was a modest success. 

As journals go, descriptions of The Poultry Record don’t exactly sound groundbreaking, but Frank did manage to ruffle a few feathers, most notably those of rival breeders (and publications), with his well-aimed literary potshots. He also dispensed advice on the breeding of fancy fowl. Several issues later, he accepted a takeover bid for the journal, and the deal included Frank staying on as a columnist for The Poultry Record. 

Elsewhere too, his expertise on fowl matters was actively courted: he wrote a long feature (serialised) on Hamburgs for another magazine, The Poultry World, and a compilation of these pieces was published in book form — without Frank’s knowledge — in 1886. 

But even if “The Book of the Hamburgs, A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs” was not the triumphant authorial debut Frank may have envisaged, it still offers glimpses of his sparkling prose. For instance, Frank’s description of his favourite fowl reads: “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.”

Once The Wizard of Oz was published — on 17 May 1900 — L Frank Baum’s place in the global literary pantheon was undisputed. But poultry continued to star, off and on, in his work. In Ozma Of Oz (1907), the third book in his Oz series, Frank introduced a very memorable character called Billina — a sassy talking chicken.