By now, we all know that the 19th-century poaching of murre eggs on the Farallon Islands was spurred by the lack of poultry - and thus a dearth of eggs - in San Francisco. But few people have been able to explain why there was no poultry industry in San Francisco.
Last weekend, I found a surprising clue in Sebastian Fichera's book, Italy on the Pacific: San Francisco's Italian Americans. Fichera quotes from the correspondence of the failed Milanese businessman, Pier Giuseppe Bertarelli. I won't exhaust you with the tortured details of Bertarelli's seemingly endless business failures in San Francisco, but there is this:
"....neither Larco's largesse nor Grancini's arrival with the rest of their merchandise did anything to improve those deteriorating fortunes, and Bertarelli was now just barely keeping body and soul together from day to day. A three-month spell of waiting on tables was followed by a truck gardening venture, but when mice consumed his crop this too came to nothing. In April 1852, after escaping yet another fire, he made an auspicious start on a new scheme, raising and selling chickens at three dollars apiece. Though admitting, in his correspondence, that he was now spending most of his time looking through garbage dumps in search of feed for his chickens, he still scoffed at the idea that he would care about the effect of this news on his reputation back home. His new-world adventure, he wrote had already branded him a pariah to the sorts of people who would pass judgment on him...
"...the summer of 1852 seems to have been the high point of Bertarelli's California adventure. But it proved to be just another illusion: his unlucky star, this time in the form of a plague killing off all his chickens, caught up with him again and his resolve to stick it out began to falter. In his last letter, dated November 12, 1852, he accurately put his finger on the forces ultimately defeating both him and many others in the same position. "The only ones who do well here are the big corporations who wash the gold off the quartz," he complained. Pier Giuseppe Bertarelli set sail for Italy in the spring of 1854 never to be seen again in California."
So it’s not that there was a total absence of chickens. It was, rather, a serious shortage of chickens due to 1) a lack of feed and 2) the birds’ vulnerability to disease in a town where there wasn’t proper medical care and sanitation for people, let alone livestock.