I’ve done a lot of different jobs on my journey through life. Most of them have been pretty decent, but I have had my share of horrible gigs.
I did roofing demolition for a spring break. That sucked.
I’ve had to clean the ditch underneath an automatic car wash that collects all the gunk and debris. Not fun.
I delivered phone books one winter, in freezing temperatures and long after anyone even pretended to use a phone book anymore. My moustache kept freezing into a snot-cicle.
The worst of all, though, was that time I tried to take a desk job at a bank.
But I don’t know that any of those compare to the life-long gig of the turnspit dog:
Here’s a description of the practice from JG Wood’s 1853 survey of the animal kingdom:
At one extremity of the spit was fastened a large circular box, or hollow wheel, something like the wire wheels which are so often appended to squirrel-cages; and in this wheel the Dog was accustomed to perform its daily task, by keeping it continually working.
It was common to have at least two dogs, so they could split the labor. According to Wood, if one dog got tired:
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.
Why is JG Wood explaining the work of the turnspit dog in an 1853 book about animal life?
By the time he’s written his book, the practice of using a turnspit dog has all but disappeared – along with the breed itself.
As other mechanized options for turning a spit grew more readily available, owning a turnspit dog, which were considered ugly and morose, became a marker of poverty that could put you at risk of the 19th century version of “What are thooooose?!”
Like tight-rolling your jeans after 1991.
Sure, some people still did it, but the rest of humanity was just trying to pretend it had never happened.
In fact, the plight of the turnspit dog contributed to the founding of the SPCA.
Dogs did continue to run butter churns in Europe and the US well into the 20th century, but you can see how the larger wheel allowed for just about any breed of dog:
There’s a whole other amazing story about those, and a bunch of great pictures, but I’ll have to save it for another article…
In the meantime, check out this 1918 photo of a real-deal doggie turnspit from Ireland:
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