Sunday, May 25, 2008

the turnspit

Wikipedia find of the day: the turnspit, a type of working dog that, the entry tells us, went "extinct" after industrialization. The turnspit - or "turnespete," to use the 16th-century spelling - is one of 17 varieties described by Johannus Caius' 1570 treatise Of Englishe Dogges (Google has helpfully digitized the 1880 reprint of the English translation). It's not a "breed" as we understand the term now, but a functional category that basically describes small dogs trained to run in a wheel and perform various menial tasks involving circular motion - butter-churning, flour-milling, and as its name suggests and this sad-funny illustration confirms, turning meat on a spit. Now I'm going to think of my dog Timmy every time I see a gyro machine...

The wiki entry links to this photo with the irresistible caption, "Whisky, the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed" on a Welsh cultural history site:

I'm not sure it makes much sense to talk about the turnspit as "extinct" - presumably dogs like Whisky continued to exist in Great Britain, people just stopped using them as rotisserie motors. What does seem to have died out, at least from the post-industrial United States, is the idea that dogs could be rigged to up to a machine like in this way. Kind of steam punk - or something...

(Revised June 27, 2008)

Friday, May 23, 2008

dogs & the economy

An interesting story from BBC about pet dogs and hard times in Yorkshire.

: A video report on a similar trend in Cumbria of people giving up their animals - in this case goats and other livestock - because of rising food cost and worsening economic conditions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

facts in dog history

In 1859, the South Carolina General Assembly, after years of vigorous lobbying by sheep farmers, instituted a fine on any dog owner whose canine charge kills or injures a sheep. While they were at it, the legislators also imposed an annual $1 tax on "every dog kept by a slave," and $2 for one belonging to a free person of color. Whites could own their dogs for free.

The "slave dog" tax was actually levied on the slaveowner. In this fascinating article, the historian John Campbell tells the story of a slave named Henry whose owner refused to pay the tax ($1 in 1859 is equivalent to roughly $25 today), but (magnanimously) did not object to his slaves keeping their dogs if they covered the fees themselves. According to the owner's ledgers, Henry turned over $1 from his personal earnings for his dog. But then, for reasons now lost to us, Henry changed his mind. He was "credited" $1 in his master's books. His dog was killed.

It's a strangely haunting story of the petty, everyday cruelties of slavery.