01 October 2009

Biker Chick?

How does one begin to write an article about tattooing chickens? After all, it is a rather unusual topic and as such there is not a lot of information about the subject. When the New Jersey State Police was established in 1921, the tattooing of chickens, and other poultry, was not part of their mandate. Back then, during the Prohibition Era, they were more concerned with enforcing traffic laws and chasing down rum runners. By the time Prohibition had ended in the early 1930s, the State Police was facing another problem: the Great Depression.

The Depression “…found many city families quitting the metropolitan areas for poultry raising.”[1] Desperate to find ways to feed their families, poultry farming was one of the easiest and least expensive options. But the rise in the number of poultry farmers led to a rise in the number of poultry thieves.

In 1930, the State Police made 65 arrests for stolen fowl. By 1932 that number had more than tripled with 204 arrests.[2] That year saw more arrests for stolen poultry than there were for stolen cars. “Gangs of chicken thieves organized like bootleggers and gangsters, stealing truckloads of fowl at a time. Sulfur candles were quietly set in chicken coops. Then the thieves would wait until the fumes slowly knocked out the chickens…the raiders just loaded the doped fowls on trucks.”[3]

Beginning around the turn of the century, before there even was a State Police force in New Jersey, rural communities had begun to organize Vigilante Societies. “Their main purpose was to organize local citizens and empower them to pursue those suspected of stealing horses, mules, livestock, wagons and other personal property. $100 rewards were posted for the capture of chicken thieves.”[4]

It was time for the State Police to step in try to come up with a solution to the poultry problem. It was the Grange, after all, that had pushed for the creation of the State Police in 1921 because the local city police and county sheriffs could not adequately protect the rural areas of the State. In 1933 State Police Superintendent Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, called together Lieutenant Walter Coughlin and two Federal/State farm experts, Wallace Moreland and J.C. Taylor, and they developed the idea of tattooing chickens. Actually, it was not just chickens that were tattooed. Pigeons, geese, turkeys, ducks, and guinea hens – any poultry kept by farmers were eligible for the tattoo.

Tattooing for identification was not a new idea. “Tattoos have been used as form of identification for centuries. One of the earliest examples of this is with the Maori of New Zealand. Lacking a written language, the Maori would use their facial tattoos, Moko, as identification…Tattooing or other body marking has been used to identify criminals for thousands of years. Branding of undesirables can be dated back to the ancient Egyptian and was common practice among the Greeks and Romans.”[5]

On farms, branding had been the common form of identification, however it is difficult to brand a bird. “In the place of the old-fashioned branding iron, a trick punch that looks something like a street-car conductor’s marks the chickens on their wings.”[6] This made it easy to identify stolen property.

It should be noted that it was not the State Police that did the actual tattooing. That was the responsibility of the farmer. The State Police only maintained the registry of tattoos. “The New Jersey State Police established the first public registry for tattooed poultry”[7] and this registry had to be maintained somehow. Two years earlier, Chapter 183, Laws of 1931 established the License Bureau within the Department of State Police. This bureau was responsible for the licensing of private detectives as well as handling applications for railroad police, firearms and beginning in 1933, poultry tattoos.[8]

According to the Twelfth Annual Report (1933), applications for the registration of tattoo marks for the identification of poultry were to be sent directly to State Police Headquarters in Trenton by the farmers. The information on the application included the name of the farmer and the name of his farm, the farm’s address, the breed of chickens raised by him and the average number of chickens normally maintained.

Upon receipt of the application, the official registry number, preceded by the letter designation for the county in which the poultry farm is located is sent to the poultry man making application and thereafter he may officially use that number in tattooing all of his poultry. Where turkeys, ducks or geese are also maintained on the same poultry farm, it will not be necessary to obtain a second registry number for such fowl, but it will be necessary in applying for the registry number to include in the application the approximate number of each of these fowl normally maintained.[9]

In the first year the registry was maintained, 85 registrations were issued and 84,759 birds were tattooed. The largest number of registrations and tattooing occurred in1941 when 815 registration numbers were issued and 792,898 birds received tattoos.

The poultry registry idea spread beyond the boarders of New Jersey into neighboring states. The Connecticut Poultry Association implemented their own system of tattoo marks that were registered with the Connecticut State Police.[10] According to the December 1939 issue of Popular Science, “tattooing numbers on the wings of poultry has proved a valuable aid to farmers in eastern states, as a means of foiling chicken thieves…In the event of theft, the number is reported and a watch is kept at produce markets for the stolen birds. Signs equipped with reflectors so they can be seen at night, are posted in front of each farm using the protective method, warning that the chickens are tattooed.” [11]

An example of the tattoo registry at work is the story of Farmer Cox. “A resident laborer on the farm of Charles Cox, at Cranberry, New Jersey, sold a turkey to his employer for $1.25. He said he got it from two hunters. But Mr. Cox took a look at the bird’s wing and discovered the telltale markings. He immediately summoned the State Police who, from the record rooms at the State Capitol, learned the turkey was the property of Spencer Perrine, a farmer about two miles distant…The thief was sentenced to the Middlesex County Workhouse.”[12]

The next logical question is, just how does one tattoo a chicken, or any other kind of poultry for that matter? Thanks to Gus Holt of Chicago, Illinois, it is easy! On August 16, 1938 Gus A. Holt, assignor to Prairie Farm Service Company of Illinois, received U.S. Patent Number 2, 126,777 for his Tattoo Marker. His invention was a new and improved tattoo marker used for tattooing identifying marks on an animal’s ear or poultry wing with indelible ink “…to cause the same to pass into the perforations formed during the manipulation of the marker proper so as to imprint a permanent mark for identification purposes.”[13]

The punch consisted of sharp needles arranged to form the numbers and letters of the registration. This was punched on the webbing of the wing, back of the bone, making a permanent park.[14] With Holt’s improved tattoo marker, “an irremovable mark without injury to the bird…is impressed without blemish to the flesh.”[15]

By 1947, when the registration of poultry ended, a total of 4,610 registrations were issued and 4,515,780 birds were tattooed. As ridiculous as chicken tattooing sounds, it is important to remember the era in which this occurred. Almost over night millions of people lost their jobs and their homes without warning when the stock market crashed in October 1929. “The Great Depression lasted 12 long years. That’s one eighth of the entire twentieth century. It was an unprecedented time in history. With one in four workers unemployed, families were forced to turn to bread and sup lines to keep from starving. The Great Depression [was] the longest and most devastating economic depression in modern history.”[16]

Chickens could provide both meat and eggs. They and other poultry were easy to raise, inexpensive to feed and could provide food for the farmer’s family or money if sold. Desperate times led to desperate crimes. The poultry registry devised by Colonel Schwarzkopf and the New Jersey State Police helped reduce “as many as twenty wholesale chicken thefts a night” down to an occasional one or two.[17]


[1]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[2] Tenth Annual Report. 1931.

[3]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[4]“History of the South Brunswick Police Department: The Formation of South Brunswick.” http://www.twp.south-brunswick.nj.us/. As of September 22, 2009.

[6]Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[7]David Morton. Invention & Technology Magazine. Winter 2002. Volume 17, Issue 3. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/2002/3/2002_3_36.shtml

[8]Twelfth Annual Report, page 6-10. 1933. Later, in 1942, the Traffic and Safety Bureau assumed the responsibility of issuing poultry registrations.

[9]Twelfth Annual Report, page 6-10. 1933.

[10]Popular Science Monthly. Page 40. February 1936.

[11]Popular Science Monthly. December 1939.

[12] Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.

[13]Gus A. Holt. Patent 2,126,777. United States Patent Office. August 16, 1938.

[14]Popular Science Monthly. December 1939.

[15] Gus A. Holt. Patent 2,126,777. United States Patent Office. August 16, 1938.

[16]H. Paul Jeffers. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Great Depression”. Alpha, 2002. Page xxv.

[17] Huston McCollough. “Tattooed Chickens Thwart Thieves.” Vineland Journal. April 5, 1934.