Raising Turkeys for Market in the 1800s

In the 1800s, turkeys were raised with the idea of the ultimate end: killing them and eating them. Turkeys were not exactly domesticated either. Apparently, when they were chicks they were nomads and when they gained locomotion they scurried away at the slightest provocation. They also had a habit of making beelines for distant haunts, which made them difficult to find when it came to selling them at market for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

raising turkeys

Bronze gobbler. Author’s collection.

Turkeys are interesting birds. They are neither amiable nor sociable birds. There is also no great love between them and man. Young turkeys are difficult to care for and very susceptible to disease. For that reason, farmer’s found it difficult to count on a monetary return with turkeys in comparison to chicks. In fact, in the 1800s, sometimes scores of young turkeys died after a heavy rain shower. William Cobbet, an English pamphleteer, farmer, journalist and member of parliament, who was born in Farnham, Surrey, wrote about the care of turkeys in England:

“To raise turkeys in this chilly climate is a matter of much greater difficulty than in the climates that give great warmth; and so is this, that in America, where there is always a ‘wet spell’ in April, the farmers’ wives take care never to have a brood come until that spell is passed. In England, where the wet sells come hap-hazard, the first thing is to take care that young turkeys never go out, on any account (except in dry weather), until the dew be quite off the ground; and this should be adhered to till they get to be the size of an old partridge, and have their backs well covered with feathers; and in wet weather they should be kept under cover all day long.”[1]

Bronze turkeys were said to be the most prized in America and was the smallest departure from wild birds when it came to color. There was also no other turkey that matched its plumage because when the bird was in its second or third year, they were said to be “uniformly beautiful in plumage.”[2] Bronze turkeys were also heavier than common stock. Males were often 25 pounds and females 16. However, in well-bred flocks, it was not uncommon for adults pairs to reach 45 to 50 pounds and, sometimes, although rare, as much as 60 to 65 pounds.

The oldest turkey in the United Kingdom is considered to be the Black (also called the Black Spanish or the Norfolk Black). It was developed in Europe from Aztec turkeys and brought from Mexico and supposedly introduced into England sometime around 1524 or 1530. As early as the 1560s, Norfolk became the popular spot for raising turkeys. These turkeys were taken in groups ranging from 300 to about 1000 birds and walked slowly from Norfolk to Leadenhall to avoid them losing weight. Even stranger is that supposedly, their feet were dipped in tar or they wore leather shoes to protect their tender feet. 

The black Spanish turkey. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eventually, black turkeys were sent in holds back to the New World and the turkeys consumed at America’s first Thanksgiving may have actually been these European birds. Later, blacks were crossed with wild turkeys to create the Bronze, Narragansett, and Slate turkeys of America. Of the black turkey, one person wrote in 1906:

“These birds are dull black in colours, with a few brown tips; medium in size; very fine in flavour of flesh.”[3]

The 1881 sketch below shows the various stages involved in the turkey raising and the marketing process in America. Grasshoppers, insects, and grubs formed the major diet for turkeys wherever they were raised. However, when chestnuts ripened, turkeys knew the location of all the chestnut trees on a farm and gorged themselves. Chestnuts were so appealing to them, if a boy climbed a tree and shook it, before he could touch the ground, he found a flock of turkeys gobbling up the nuts.

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Scenes depicting raising turkeys for market in America in 1881. Author’s collection.

When the turkey was plump, it was killing time. There was always a glut of turkeys for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year. In the nineteenth century, turkey season began near the end of October, reached its height in January, and closed about February 22nd. This was also the time when turkey farmers began to speculate about the turkey’s weight and prospective turkey prices.

American turkeys were fattened for weeks to prepare them for slaughter. To accomplish the fattening process a trough was constructed, into which a paste of Indian meal and water was poured. The Indian meal mixture remained the turkey’s major diet until killing time arrived. Cobbett noted that in England, it was best never to cram a turkey when wanting to fatten one. He stated:

“Cramming is a nasty thing, and quite unnecessary. Barley-meal mixed with skim-milk given to them fresh and fresh, will make them fat in a short time, either in a coop, in a house, or running about. Boiled carrots and Swedish turnips will help, and it is a change of sweet food.”[4]

When it was killing time in America, turkeys were driven to the barn, as shown in the “drive ’em up” scene. Strategy rather than brute force was employed to accomplish this task because wily birds often escaped, and children and farmers found themselves chasing down the errant gobblers. Before they were killed, turkeys were gathered and cribbed. Farmers used a small bladed pocket-knife to kill the birds using one of two methods: The first was to pass the knife directly through the bird’s neck, with the edge upward, so as to separate the neck and head; and the second used the point of the blade, which was inserted in the upper part of the mouth and thrust into the brain.

In America, turkeys were plucked in the barn. Plucking was done while the bird was still warm because it was easier to remove the feathers. Everyone on the farm performed this job and donned their oldest clothes to accomplish this task. Farmers, farmer’s wives, and children plucked with a great deal of care. The bird’s flesh was tender, and a single tear rendered the bird unsightly and depreciated its value at market. Once plucked, farmers weighed the bird, put it in a cool place, and shipped it to market as quickly as possible.

Turkey Dinner, Author's Collection

Turkey dinner. Author’s collection.

When it came to killing and dressing the Norfolk turkey, one twentieth-century person stated:

“Norfolk has for many years had a great reputation for the quality of the turkeys it produces, and to obtain the highest possible price in London market is essential that the birds be dressed in the Norfolk style. The Norfolk style is that the turkey should be killed by having its neck broken; it should be rough-plucked, but not drawn, the feathers left on the back of the wings and on the top of the rump; the wings are then crossed on the turkey’s back and the feathers left form two pads, on which the bird rests on the poulterer’s shop-board. The birds should never be killed until after a day’s fast, and a handful of barley-meal rubbed over the skin while it is warm adds to the white appearance which is so much desired.”‘[5]

In England, full-grown turkeys were still be walked from Norfolk in the early 1800s, and one writer reported in the mid-1800s that when the turkeys were sold “as a rule … they may be compared to diamonds … inasmuch as their value increases in a geometrical ratio with their weight. A bird of nine pounds being purchasable at about seven shillings.”[6]

References:

  • [1] Richard, H.D., Domestic Fowl, 1847. p. 77.
  • [2] American Agriculturist, Volume 36, 1877, p. 427.
  • [3] Brown, Edward, Poultry-keeping as an Industry for Farmers and Cottagers, 1906, p. 154.
  • [4] Richard, H.D., p. 78.
  • [5] Brown, Edward, p. 160.
  • [6] The Leisure Hour, Vol. 12, 1863, p. 807.

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