Today, most people see their dog as a companion and friend. Yet in the 1600s, the turnspit dog was solely bred to be a kitchen device. The poor creatures, described by historians as “long-bodied” with “short crooked legs,” had to run constantly in a giant hamster wheel to spin meat over an open fire.
Roasting large hunks of meat took anywhere between 40 and 80 minutes per kilo (2.2 lb). Thus, to cook the meat evenly, it had to be spiked on a long roasting spit and then rotated via hand crank for several hours.
The lowliest kitchen staff, usually children, performed this task. It was tough work. The boys would stand next to the fire place, protected from the heat only by a bale of wet hay—naturally, burns and blisters became commonplace. Hence when the turnspit came into use, households quickly adopted the new cooking tool.
The animals were treated appallingly. Forced to run in the enclosed wheels for hours, the dogs found no respite and could not escape.
The cooks even put hot coals in the wheels to make the dogs move their paws faster, and left the dogs without water, regardless of the heat from the fire pits. It was such an arduous task that the dogs had to work in shifts to cook the meat thoroughly, trading places every few hours.
The cruel treatment of dogs motivated Henry Bergh to start the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which fights animal abuse to this day. However, it was technological advancements that finally ended the work dogs’ terrible plight. The turnspits were replaced by steam-powered machines in the late 1700s. H.D. Richard wrote in 1847 that “Fortunately for humanity, mechanical contrivances have, in these countries at least, superseded the necessity of thus torturing a poor dog; and accordingly the Turnspit, his occupation being gone, is himself rapidly passing into oblivion.”
Human Progress is a project of the Cato Institute that seeks to educate the public on global improvements in wellbeing by providing free empirical data on long-term developments.
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