“Hen Party”: Susan Orlean,
the “Dame Curtsey” of Chickens

October 1, 2009 – I’m nothing if not old-timey, so I was delighted to read Susan Orlean’s recent New Yorker chronicle of modern Americans’ popular fascination with keeping chickens, in the country, suburbs, and cities.  It’s a fad-turned-movement, and I’m silly for it.

Orlean herself has jumped into this hobby with John Laroche-like obsession, and provides readers tips on care and feeding (chickens love corn on the cob, but who doesn’t?), where to find the lastest pod-like plastic European chicken coops, and even how to come by live mail-order chickens (McMurray Hatchery in Iowa).

Orlean has invited readers to submit questions and comments about chickens, and I have the perfect tidbit for her.  (We connected once during the Adaptation craze when I formed a Donald Kaufman fan club, and she mentioned it on her blog.  I’m hoping we’ll connect again.)

Enter Dame Curtsey, the nom de plume of turn-of-the-century Martha Stewart precursor Ellye Glover Howell.  Glover Howell wrote several books for women on entertaining, parties, recipes, and etiquette.  I was recently introduced to her volume, “Dame Curtsey’s” book of party pastimes for the up-to-date hostess (1912), an out-of-print book chock full of wonderfully quaint party and luncheon ideas.

Arranged by months of the year, her party ideas run the gamut from costume barn parties and hay rides, January calendar luncheons (“Ask just twelve guests and write the invitations on little calendars”), and Thanksgiving charades requiring guests to act out the courses (Meat: “Tur Key;” Vegetables: “Pot-eight-O”).  Many of her entries are followed with words like, “All declared that it was the very best party ever.”

I hope Orlean will be most pleased to read Dame Curtsey’s idea of a good time in July, “The Hen Party”:

Don’t for one minute think that this party was merely  a convocation of the gentler sex. The men were the instigators, and this is the way it all came about:

A couple belonging to their card club had taken the suburban fever in its most violent form. The result was not only a charming bungalow some twenty miles out, but the chicken fever had struck them, too. So all “Ed” talked about was hens and their fresh eggs.

The funny man in the club suggested a surprise party, first telling the couple that a few of them were coming out on Saturday afternoon. The women prepared a dainty luncheon, and each man secured a real live hen, some took a dozen eggs for hatching. Imagine the scene when twenty guests arrived, and ten hens. The host and hostess rose to the occasion, coffee was made and the repast served on the porch while the men regaled the company with the stories of how and where they procured the hens. It was made up among them that [t]he fowls must be delivered by the giver, not sent by express or messenger. It was the funniest affair ever seen.

Strange, isn’t it, how this party idea would be perfectly adaptable in its present form today.  I can see a bunch of young Upper West Siders come together to place an order at McMurray Hatchery and show up at their friends’ house bearing live birds.  I now know exactly how to make a hit with anyone in New York who happens to take up keeping chickens.

– p.k.

Update: On November 16, Susan Orlean graciously wrote to me, “I absolutely LOVED the hen party story. Hilarious! I might have to have a hen party one of these days – sounds like too much fun to pass up.”