What Is The Origin Of (284)?…

A chicken in every pot

During an election campaign, it is not unknown for a politician, vying for votes, to shake the magic money tree and promise their voters the earth, or, allegedly, in the 1928 US Presidential election, a chicken in every pot. This rather homely phrase was intended to convey the notion of prosperity for everyone as there would be enough food for the whole population to share in.

Its origin seems to go back to 17th century France and Henri de Bourbon who, somewhat confusingly, was Henri III of Navarre between 1572 and 1610 and Henri IV of France between 1589 and 1610. Let’s just call him Henri. In a biography of him, Histoire du roy Henry le Grand, published by Hardouin de Péréfixe in 1662, the king is reported as declaring, in French, naturally, “if God gives me more life I will make sure that no peasant in my realm will lack the means to have a chicken in his pot”.  We can’t be certain that he did say it, of course, but I admire the sentiments.

Henri’s pious hopes were picked up over time, often by more radical elements, as this report of the impact of free trade on the conditions of the labouring classes printed in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of April 1830 shows; if the supporter of the industrious poor “cannot absolutely realise the benevolent and amiable wish of Henry IV, that every peasant may have his chicken in his pot on Sunday, he will at least endeavour to render him independent of the charity of others, and relieve him from absolute want”.

In 1928 the Republican Herbert Hoover and the Democrat Al Smith were battling out to become the 31st US President. The Republicans sought to capitalise upon the era of prosperity that was associated with the outgoing Calvin Coolidge’s presidency by focusing on their achievements. One advert heavily featured in the newspapers in October of that year boasted that “Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot”. Hoover’s opponent, Smith, couldn’t miss the opportunity to point out that the average working man couldn’t afford a chicken for dinner on a Sunday – they were expensive, not mass-produced as they are today – let alone buy a car.

There is no evidence that Hoover, to whom the phrase and its extension, and a car in every garage, is attributed, ever used it directly in a speech. Perhaps the nearest that he came to using it was in a speech at Madison Square Gardens in New York on October 22, 1928 in which he boasted “the slogan of progress is changing from the full pail to the full garage”, the pail being a nod to William McKinley’s election promise of 1896 of providing a full dinner pail for all.

Keen students of history will recall that whilst Hoover was elected, condemning Al Smith to becoming a footnote in history, 1929 saw the Wall Street crash, plunging America, and other world economies, into a period of economic depression, and leaving many Americans desperate for anything to eat on a Sunday or any day of the week, never mind chicken. But, hey, that//s politicians for you.

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