History Lesson: Jaywalking Chicken on University Avenue

On University Avenue in 1931, a chicken crossed the road. Why?
Chicken in jail
Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Image ID: 19501

On University Avenue in 1931, a chicken crossed the road. Why? Where was this Barred Plymouth Rock hen headed when law enforcement picked her up for jaywalking and deposited her at the city jail, captured both there behind bars and here by Angus McVicar in this archival photograph? Where did she come from and where was she going?

Before this clucker landed in the clink, she might have strutted past McVicar’s own photo studio on the 700 block of University Avenue. (Was this a citizen’s arrest by McVicar himself? We’ll never know.) What would the pecky perp’s travels have looked like in 1931? University Avenue would have been paved for the one in five people who owned automobiles, despite hard times. The Great Depression was entering its third year, and catastrophic droughts were about to produce the dust bowls that would decimate the Great Plains and cause an unnatural darkness to settle over Madison during daylight hours. Was she trying to join one of the various Depression-era labor protests taking place throughout the city in those years? Or was she a lucky lady of leisure on her way downtown to catch a show at one of the three recently opened venues, Orpheum Theatre (1927), Capitol Theatre (1928) or Eastwood Theater (1929)? Maybe she was headed to Capitol Square, where Manchester’s and Montgomery Ward had recently opened elegant new department stores. I’d personally like to think she was headed down to University Bookstore, which was already an “old” business of 37 years.

Had she traveled from afar, or was she local? Was chicken-keeping illegal within city limits? We do know that it wasn’t explicitly legal in Madison until 2004, when a band of activists fought for the right to keep urban coops and many began to see chickens as pets. Since time immemorial, chickens have been leaving us with more questions than answers (and no shortage of idioms, riddles and puns). Alas, this particular lady jaywalker’s story will remain a mystery, forever lost to time.

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