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)

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