Fattening Fowl in the Mid to Late 1800s

Ogden's offered advertising trade cards with a pack of cigarettes. This one comes from a set called poultry rearing and management and described methods to feed poultry using cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and other large root vegetables. Author's Collection.

Ogden’s offered advertising trade cards with a pack of cigarettes. This one comes from a set called poultry rearing and management and described methods to feed poultry using cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and other large root vegetables. Author’s Collection.

Fattened fowl were an extremely desirable commodity in England and France in the mid to late 1800s. Many attempts were made to fatten fowl not only because consumers wanted better meat but also because sellers found fattened fowl a highly profitable business. But it was not always easy to fatten fowl, even if they were the easiest birds to feed, even if they digested more than they could eat, and even if “every alimentary substance agree[d] with them [and they willingly spent] … the whole day long incessantly busied in scratching, searching, and picking up a living.”

French Fowl Fattening Room, Known as salle d'engraissement, Public Domain

French Fowl Fattening Room, Known as salle d’engraissement, Public Domain

To fatten fowl, people tended to use one of four methods — trough, hand feeding, funnel, or machine. Of these four methods the easiest and least profitable method was the trough because it allowed the fowl to fatten themselves. To accomplish this, fowl were kept in ordinary pens, fowl houses, or poultry runs with feeding troughs placed on either side. This was because one of the most important aspects of fattening a fowl, was “to give it food regularly,” and fowl got fat by overeating. However, because it was up to the bird to eat, this method usually resulted in nothing more than “half-fattened specimens.”

Another popular way of fattening fowl was achieved by hand, and it involved forced feedings (called cramming). Forced feedings were popular in both France and England and primarily achieved in one of two ways. The first way involved the operator taking “hold of the bird’s head [and] gripping it between his body and left arm.” The bird’s mouth was opened with the thumb of the operator’s left hand and the food inserted. It was then pressed down the bird’s throat with a finger and further carried down the bird’s throat by the operator “running his thumb and finger down the outside of the gullet.” The second way involved the operator holding the bird between his knees and his left hand held its wings. The food was placed in the bird’s bill after being dipped in milk. In this case there was no cramming because the bird swallowed as usual. Both methods however were slow and in order to make any profit, cheap labor had to be used. 

Funnel for Fattening Fowl, Public Domain

Funnel for Fattening Fowl, Public Domain

Another method involved feeding fowl with funnels. This method of cramming was used primarily in southern Normandy. It was faster to use a funnel than to feed a bird by hand and it had an advantage in that this method supposedly produced a “splendid quality of flesh.” In this case, food was made into a creamy liquid and a special funnel was used. It had a nozzle that could be carefully “inserted into the gullet until the orifice enter[ed] the crop.” The food was spooned into the funnel and slid down into the bird’s throat until its crop was full.

Although troughs, hand feeding, and funnels fattened fowl, none of these methods were as expeditious or profitable as using a machine. Machines were desirable for cramming because they greatly reduced the time required to feed fowl, which meant hundreds of birds could be crammed in a short time. This in turn reduced labor costs  and generated better profits for those who raised fowl.

1860s Machine Used for Fattening Fowl, Public Domain

1860s Machine Used for Fattening Fowl, Public Domain

One early machine used to fatten fowl was devised by a Frenchman in the 1860s. To accomplish the feedings an operator sat by the machine and placed food inside the machine. The operator would then hold the fowl in one hand and work the treadle with his foot so as to force “the corn through a tube into the bill of the bird.” When the bird’s bill was full, the bird would be handed to an assistant, who would put it into a box, and the operator would select the next bird, repeating the process once again.

Thirty years later, there were several other cramming machines used in France. Most of these machines used the same principle as described above. One interesting and elaborate machine used for fattening fowl was invented by a Monsieur Odile Martin. It was unique enough that it was exhibited at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris and at Mardis Gras shows. It was described thus:

At the establishment of Mons. Odile Martin there are three large octagon machines, each containing compartments for 200 fowls. The machine is divided into five floors; each bird has a compartment or pen to itself, and is tied by the feet with shackles of hide. For feeding, the attendant stands on the movable stage, which rises and descended by means of weights; he is thus able to bring himself level with each floor of the machine, and to get every bird in succession before him he simply turns the whole machine round, as it works easily on a pivot. The attendant holds the head of the bird with his left hand, at the same time opening the beak, and with the right hand he introduces into the throat a tin tube, something like the shape of a finger. This mouthpiece is connected by a flexible tube to a reservoir containing the soft food. By a single tread of the foot on the piston the food is injected into the stomach of the fowl. A dial indicates the exact quantity given to each. In this manner, and with this apparatus, 500 birds can be fed in one hour, which operation is repeated three times a day for three weeks, when the fowls are ready for market.”

Hearson's Crammer, Public Domain

Hearson’s Crammer, Public Domain

The English also had several cramming machines available in the 1890s. One was the Hearson Crammer. It had a food reservoir and attached to the bottom of the reservoir was “a small force pump actuated by a lever and a treadle worked by the foot of the operator.” Attached to this pump was a nozzle through which the food passed into the bird. There was also the Sussex cramming machine. However, it was said to be a “very cumbrous affair compared with the Hearson or [those] … used in France,” partly because it required two men to operate it.

Despite the popularity of fattened fowl among consumers and sellers, the idea of cramming birds to make them fat, produced some critics. For instance, one country gentleman wrote, “I once had an old cock which fattened to 40 lbs. live weight without cramming … Now if anyone has made finer turkeys by cooping and cramming, I should like to hear from him. The practice of cramming turkeys is, to say the least, barbarous.” One poultry journal noted that “the true idea of … cramming … [is] the fowl cramming itself.” There was also a critic who stated that “cramming is a nasty thing, and quite unnecessary.”

Unnecessary or not, one person visited several farmers and claimed that when it came to cramming although “the sensation seems at first displeasing [to the birds]…after a time we are told that the chickens get so used to it as actually to ‘look for’ the matutinal and vespertine gorging with something like eagerness.” Moreover, the same author pointed out that the result of cramming was worth it because it created the “most tempting [fowls] in … tenderness and succulence, and often of perfectly astounding size … hence the preferential price given in Leadenhall Market and at Smithfield is by no means paid without cause.”

References:

  • Boswell, Peter, The Poultry-yard, 1841
  • Brown, Edward, Poultry-keeping as an Industry for Farmers and Cottagers, 1892
  • Country Gentleman, Volumes 21-22, 1863
  • Genesse Farmer, Volume 23, 1862
  • Poultry Feeding and Fattening, 1908
  • The American Swine and Poultry Journal, Volume 3, 1875

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