By Brian Heldberg
Pyncheon bantams have a long history, but disappeared from exhibition for most of the 20th century. Dedicated breeders have brought them back and are rediscovering this colorful breed and its history.
Pyncheons are a medium size bantam, with cocks weighing 24 ounces, cockerels and hens weighing 22 ounces and pullets weighing 20 ounces. They are recognized by the American Bantam Association, but not the American Poultry Association, and are shown in the Single Comb Clean Leg Class. The breed has a tuft of feathers rising from the head, behind the comb. The plumage is similar to the Mille Fleur Color pattern. Shanks and toes need to be willow yellow, soles of feet yellow and earlobes bright red. Other colors will disqualify birds being shown.
Pyncheons’ Mysterious History
Finding historical information on Pyncheons is a quest. Bantam Breeding and Genetics by Fred P. Jeffrey includes an article on Pyncheon bantams, pages 83-84 in the 1977 edition.
The Rev. B. Samuel Miller referred to in the article purchased and bred his Pyncheons in Kentucky. Rev. Miller claims that the cock in Carl Heinrich Bloch’s (1834-1890) painting, Peter’s Denial, (www.hopegallery.com/php/artwork.php?artwork=693), is proof of the antiquity of the breed. I’m not convinced, because I just don’t see the Mille Fleur color pattern. The Pyncheons article in Bantam Breeding and Genetics mentions a protuberance on top the head, but the Bantam Standard does not ask for this, and not all breeders agree that there ought to be a protuberance on top the head.
Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Pyncheon bantams in his novel, House of Seven Gables. According to the Rev. Miller, Hawthorne "does not call them bantams, but in his description of them compares them in size to quail, partridges and pigeons." I found no information on where Hawthorne had obtained his birds, and who received them after his death.
The article in the ABA Book of Bantams implies that the breed was developed from birds brought to northeastern U.S. ports by foreign ships. If that is so, then this breed existed elsewhere, it has died out since that time.
It’s very possible these first birds originated in Belgium, where the Mille Fleur color pattern originated, and where, in Flemish Belgium, families with the name Pyncheon may be found. It has been suggested to me that the breed may have been created by a Belgian poultry breeder of the name Pyncheon. The name would have passed on to the birds the way that Sir John Sebright gave his name to the bantam breed he created.
I have found there are families of the name Pynchon in a number of places in Europe and England. The name also appears among immigrants in the early days of the northeastern U.S. I’d like to suggest the possibility that Nathaniel Hawthorne obtained his birds from a breeder named Pynchon, who lived in his area, and that Hawthorne modified the name when he gave it to the family in his novel.
Pyncheons Now: Still a Bit Mysterious and Certainly Rare
A look through information posted by breeders in forums online tells me the breed is inbred, with poor fertility, but they are good layers for bantams, and good broodies. They lay cream or tinted eggs, are winter hardy, and like to fly. According to Nathaniel Hawthorne, they say, the breed has existed in the U.S. since the mid-1700s. The breed is being promoted and interest is growing. Charlie and Jody Hinkle, (www.hinkjcpoultry.com), in Slatington, Pennsylvania, raise both the Mille Fleur and Porcelain color varieties and are actively promoting the breed.
Breeders have crossed them with Old English Game bantams (I suggest trying Spangled) and Mille Fleur Leghorns, and this improves fertility. Tassled games would make a good outcross. Ed Hart of Illinois, and others, breed Tassled OE Games. He agrees that they would make a good outcross for Pyncheons, the downside being that they might introduce feather pattern problems in maintaining the Mille Fleur color. Getting the leg color, willow yellow, right is a struggle. Any other color is a disqualification. Breeder Rusty Hart in Michigan (no relation to Ed) has bred roosters with other leg and earlobe colors into his flock to improve fertility, but found it difficult to breed back to the willow yellow leg color, which is recessive.
"The Mille Fleur color is one of the hardest color varieties to breed to perfection, and in the Pyncheon breed has some unique characteristics," says Rusty Hart. "There has to be a balance of type and color for the particular breed."
The characteristics unique to the Mille Fleur pattern in Pyncheon females include little to no black stippling in the neck hackles. Most Mille fleur varieties show a strip of black in the lower female neck hackle, a black strip that goes from the white spangle and extends up the shaft of the feather where it meets the body of the feather. Their hackle pattern is the exact same pattern as the breast, cushion, and back, uniform with the rest of the plumage. Color should predominate over white in the head, primary and secondary feathers. The undercolor should be slate shading to slatey buff at the base in males, medium slate shading to pale salmon at the base in females.
"The undercolor of the Mille Fleur Pyncheon is just as important as the outer color," says Hart. "Without the proper balance of color, the bird looks foreign and not good Pyncheon color."
Nathaniel Hawthorne bred Pyncheons in 1850, and I presume this was at the small red farmhouse near Lenox, Massachusetts, where the author and his family moved in March 1850, living there until early 1852. This was at the time the author wrote House of Seven Gables, which appeared in 1851, in which he mentions Pyncheons.
Hawthorne used his Pyncheons to draw parallels between the breed and the Pyncheon family. The hens, an "immemorial heirloom in the Pyncheon family," are of "aristocratic lineage."
". . . the grotesque and stilted hens in the Pyncheon garden become symbols of the Pyncheon family itself, and of its rigidly fossilized traditions . . ."
The hen coop is "of very revered antiquity."
The Pyncheon hens are "declining," like the Pyncheon family. They belonged to Hepzibah Pyncheon, an isolated 60-year old spinster, unable to leave the original house, as the Pyncheon hens will not be found anywhere but there.
So, the birds in The House of Seven Gables are a little different from those that Hawthorne owned: Pyncheons have always been small, and it’s hard to imagine anyone calling them "grotesque and stilted."
I also found quotes in these books:
Hawthorne in His Own Time by Ronald A. Bosco and Jillmarie Murphy (2007, University of Iowa Press), pg 190: " . . . strong and natural, are never left by hint until the supernatural has expressed. His grotesqueness is inimitable . . . His Pyncheon hens, with their aristocratic attenuation, are the very expression of gallinaceous absurdity . . ."
The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy, published 1876: "Some of the tones of autumn, formed a proper background to a person constituted as Faith, like Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon’s chicken, possessed in miniature all the antiquity of her progenitors."
A black and white illustration exists of Pyncheons in the ABA Bantam Standard, but not every edition has it.
There is a Porcelain Pyncheon being bred. In the forums a Gold-Neck variety was planned, with plumage, I assume, like the Gold-Neck D’Uccle. I myself imagine a "dark" Mille Fleur variety, with plumage very much like the Speckled Sussex …
One breeder, discouraged at not finding any stock, intends to re-create the breed.
The origins of the Pyncheon bantam are mysterious, and we can only speculate beyond the few facts that we have. We may never know just how they came to be, and who had them in their earliest history.
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