A dog's life

« previous post | next post »

Charles McFarlane, "A Dog’s Life: A Brief History of the Turnspit Dog", Modern Farmer 6/13/2014:

Today we think of working dogs as intelligent and loving creatures that are capable of amazing things — like detecting the presence of cancer through smell — but this is only a recent development in the human relationship with dogs. Little more than 150 years ago, dogs were hardly considered anything more than a power source.  

At the center of this was the turnspit dog. […]

Turnspit dogs were specially bred to have long bodies and powerful short legs, to provide a source of power, usually for a kitchen’s rotisserie. […]

The job of the turnspit dog was as simple as it was painful. Used mostly in bars and large kitchens, the dogs were forced to walk for hours in specifically designed wheels which powered a variety of kitchen appliances from fruit presses to butter churns.  

It was their most grueling task that gave them their name: turning meat on a spit, over an open fire. These wheels would usually be mounted high off the floor, with closed sides to prevent the dog from escaping. In the wheel, the dogs would have to walk for for hours on end.

McFarlane summarizes (and links to) a linguistically-relevant story in Rowland Mainwaring, Annals of Bath, from the year 1800 to the passing of the new municipal act, 1838. Here's the full passage:

Having alluded to that particular breed of dogs, the turnspit (a species, we believe, now almost extinct), a little anecdote relative to them may not be inaptly introduced : — Rather more than half a century ago they were considered the only efficient cooks of the day ; by their exertions, pent up in their little wheel boxes, and trotting round like a squirrel in the cage, the inhabitants of all classes were alone enabled to partake of their roasted joints. It was supposed that, at one time, there were not less than three thousand of those duck-legged inhabitants in Bath. Early dinners were the fashion in those days ; and the first attempt to change the old custom of " the turnspit," was made by the Hon. Mr. Spencer, brother to the then Duke of Marlborough. He was of a waggish disposition; and in one of his facetious humours employed a certain number of chairmen to collect all the turnspit dogs in the city together, about twelve o'clock, on a certain day, when they were shut up till four in the afternoon, to the no small confusion of the cooks, and manifest distress of epicures, tradesmen, artisans, and others. The wise men of the day then began to think of smoke-jacks, which they found, to their astonishment, answered two purposes, viz., — to turn the spit and assist in conveying the smoke upwards! and, as the song goes, " to grind all their smoke into powder besides." The sagacity of those animals was certainly very extraordinary. There was an anecdote related of a witty and learned divine of former times,* who was said to declare that, being at the Abbey one Sunday, when a great number of turnspits had followed their mistresses (the cooks) to church, a certain chapter in Ezekiel was read, in which the word "wheel" is often mentioned. On the first utterance of the word, the dogs discovered a manifest alarm; on a repetition, a simultaneous movement took place; and the ominous word "wheel" being named a third time, they all curled up their tails, and scampered out of the church.

For those whose memory of bible stories is rusty, this seems to be a reference to the proto-psychedelia in Ezekiel 1:15-21, where wheels are mentioned many more than three times:

[15] Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
[16] The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
[17] When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
[18] As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
[19] And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
[20] Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
[21] When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

McFarlane writes that  "With electricity in the kitchen, turnspits were out of a job."  But on Mainwaring's account, turnspits were "almost extinct" by 1838, having been done in by the smoke jack.

Modern Farmer magazine is interesting reading even for those of us who haven't lived on or near a farm in a long time. It's on my reading list because they asked me to write a Language-Log-like piece for their Pig Week issue (here), and then for their Dog Week issue (here).

In the Dog-Week article, I quoted Gamble Rogers on dawgs vs. dogs. As lagniappe, here's the audio:

This is the lead-in to a story about negotiating with his friend Still Bill about trading a rifle for a dog of questionable abilities. Here's how the story ends:

(Those interested in phonetic lenition phenomena will appreciate the bilabial nasal approximant realizing the /mb/ sequence in that rendition of "Gamble".)

I've used Still Bill's quote more than once, for instance to describe the sad state of science reporting in the popular press ("They just don't care", 7/19/2007).

You can buy Gamble Rogers' CDs here — unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any more convenient way, but in my opinion it's worth the time and trouble.


  1. Terry Hunt said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    McFarlane's thesis may be undermined somewhat by the recent finding (see for example http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1786/20140210) that various wild creatures seem actually to enjoy running in wheels when they are provided. (I have my doubts about the slug mentioned in the observations.) Given the willing nature of the domesticated wolf (aka 'dog'), it seems not improbable that turnspit dogs were of a similar mind.

  2. hector said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    "Today we think of working dogs as intelligent and loving creatures that are capable of amazing things — like detecting the presence of cancer through smell — but this is only a recent development in the human relationship with dogs. Little more than 150 years ago, dogs were hardly considered anything more than a power source."

    This paragraph strikes me as logically suspicious. It's arguing from the particular to the general. One cannot infer from the fact that one breed of dogs were used as, pardon the expression, workhorses, that humans did not feel admiration and affection for dogs in other areas of life.

  3. MaryKaye said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

    As a child I had a pet mouse which would sometimes escape its cage, and was very hard to catch once it had been feral for a day or two. We eventually worked out that we could catch it by putting its cage, door open, on the floor. It would go into the cage in order to run on the exercise wheel; when we heard the wheel squeaking we'd rush in and close the door. Worked every time.

  4. maidhc said,

    June 17, 2014 @ 12:28 am

    I think that far more dogs were used for herding, hunting and guard duties than for turnspits.

    Spit-cooking was for rich people anyway. Usually ordinary people would have oven-cooking done by the local baker.

    The discussion of Bath is a bit misleading. Bath was a resort for the rich. Cooking methods there were hardly typical of the general population. However, I have visited several kitchens in great houses of that period, and they mostly had weight-driven clockwork jacks. Those could be retrofits, I suppose.

    In the Tudor period spits were turned by children, but that's when the turnspit dog began. I wonder if that indicates an increase in the cost of labour? There was an interesting quotation here.

    "As the labour would be too great for a single Dog, it was usual to keep at least two animals for the purpose, and to make them relieve each other at regular intervals. The dogs were quite able to appreciate the lapse of time, and, if not relieved from their toils at the proper hour, would leap out of the wheel without orders, and force their companions to take their place, and complete their portion of the daily toil."

  5. valency said,

    June 17, 2014 @ 4:44 am

    There is of course Kant's famous turnspit analogy in "Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

    We look here only to the necessity of the connection of events in a time-series as it is developed according to the physical law, whether the subject in which this development takes place is called automaton materiale when the mechanical being is moved by matter, or with Leibnitz spirituale when it is impelled by ideas; and if the freedom of our will were no other than the latter (say the psychological and comparative, not also transcendental, that is, absolute), then it would at bottom be nothing better than the freedom of a turnspit, which, when once it is wound up, accomplishes its motions of itself.

    Kant's Turnspit was most definitely mechanical, not biological, in nature. One doubts he would use the turnspit analogy if dog-powered turnspits were at all a significant thing at the time of writing.

  6. John Walden said,

    June 17, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    Wasn't the act of 1838 the one that also prohibited dog-carts in the UK? It was certainly around that time and 4 years before the report on children in mines:


  7. Rodger C said,

    June 17, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Afaik "dog-carts" weren't carts pulled by dogs but carts to carry dogs to hunting sites. Or is what I've read as a correction of a "common misconception" really a misconception itself?

    [(myl) The OED gives both definitions:

    1. A small cart drawn by a dog or dogs. Now hist. [with citations back to 1668, and the note "The use of dogs to draw carts was prohibited in England by statute (17 &18 Vict. c. 60 § 2) in 1854."] The most recent citation says:

    2002   J. Cunliffe Encycl. Dog Breeds 77/2   In Britain the dog cart was officially made illegal in the nineteenth century, brought about largely by the coaching companies who were in competition with the dog-drawn carts, in particular for the delivery of parcels.

    2. A cart with a box under the seat for a hunter's dogs. In later use: an open carriage with two transverse seats back to back, the rear seat originally converting into a box for dogs. [Earliest citation 1799]

  8. John Walden said,

    June 18, 2014 @ 2:17 am

    Dog-carts were banned in London in 1839


    My ferreting has unearthed that Rottweilers were originally draught-dogs, it seems. Newfoundland dogs were used to pull fishermen's nets and as swimming rescue dogs, and then there were mountain rescue dogs like St. Bernards and Bernese Mountain dogs.

    Sadly, St Bernards never did carry little barrels of brandy around their necks.

  9. David J. Littleboy said,

    June 19, 2014 @ 10:14 am

    Speaking of working animals, when I was growing up in the 1960s in Boston, violin-maker's cats were quite common.


    FWIW, though, I think the turnspit dog article is as shaggy a shaggy dog story as my comment is catty.

  10. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 19, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    My grandparents belonged to a sect that discourages the use of electrical utility power, so they had numerous "antique" devices in their household.

    In my grandmother's kitchen there was a rotisserie powered by a clockwork mechanism. She wound a hand crank for about five minutes when putting on a roast, or a ham, and then it would turn the spit, slowly, for up to an hour. But if its load was even moderately offbalance, it wouldn't work for very long. Anyway, I remember that the cast-iron which covered the spring and mechanism had a bas-relief of a dachshund in a wheel, a memory of the turnspit dog.

  11. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    From Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope:

    "You'll take the dog-cart in?" Captain Bellfield had asked overnight. "I don't know what I shall do as yet," replied he who was master of the house, of the dog-cart, and, as he fondly thought, of the situation. But Bellfield knew that Cheesacre must take the dog-cart, and was contented. His friend would leave him behind, if it were possible, but Bellfield would take care that it should not be possible.

    The Victorians had 100 words for horse-drawn carriage.

RSS feed for comments on this post