Plucking Feathers: A Foul Job

Early mechanized devices tackled mess of plucking feathers

The Cook Painting

In this 1625 painting ("The Cook" by Italian artist Bernardo Strozzi), a young woman has her work cut out for her as she dry-plucks a number of dead birds.

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On our western Pennsylvania farm, we raised lots of chickens during my boyhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We sold eggs and chickens for meat to a local grocery store or two and had a lively business every Saturday of people driving out from a nearby town to buy eggs and live birds.

We rarely ate chicken ourselves, although I remember occasionally killing, scalding, plucking and cleaning a bird. By far, the worst part of the operation was plucking feathers. After many years, the odor of those wet feathers lingers in my memory.

No one else enjoyed plucking feathers either, but as long as only a few birds were being cleaned, it was manageable. At commercial poultry processing plants however, where thousands of birds had to be relieved of their feathers each day, it was a major problem and inventive minds searched for a better way.

Plucking feathers with treadle-powered pluckers

The earliest patent I’ve found for a feather-plucking machine was issued in 1891 to a Virginia man. This foot treadle-powered device had two rollers that turned in opposite directions. The upper of the two rollers was spring-loaded to press firmly against the lower while allowing it to rise when feathers passed between the rollers. The bird was manipulated on a slanted table and a guard prevented the rollers from catching the fowl’s skin. The operator got the rollers turning by working the treadle with his (or, more likely, her) feet and held the bird against those rollers, manipulating it to ensure that all the feathers were removed. It probably wasn’t much easier or faster than hand-plucking.

Speaking of hand-plucking, I read somewhere about Ernest Hausen, who was born July 4, 1877, in Fort Atkinson, Wis. Hausen worked at McMillen’s Meat Market in that city and became Fort Atkinson’s only world champion when, in 1922, he won the National Chicken Picking Championship, denuding a bird in just 6 seconds. He won the title every year until his death in 1955, even though he competed against both men and machines. His best time, only 4.4 seconds, was set on Jan. 19th, 1939, and is supposedly listed in both Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Wow! I sat and watched five seconds tick by on my watch and calculated that I’d have been able to grab and pull maybe two handfuls of feathers in that amount of time.

The rise of the feather-plucking machine

In 1903 a patent was awarded for a device that utilized a series of complicated cam and bell crank-driven jaws. These jaws, also powered by a foot treadle, descend to grab a bunch of feathers, give a quick upward movement to jerk them out and withdraw inside a shroud. There they opened, releasing the feathers, which were caught by the air blast of a fan and moved away from the machine. I don’t know if the thing ever went into production, but I doubt it.

The first feather-plucking machine to use a form of rotary rubber fingers was patented in 1906, although the fingers were only the final step in the operation. After manipulating the bird under another complicated set of moving jaws to remove the feathers, “the bird may be held in the path of the rubber flaps upon the ends of the arms of the rotary brush and the down may be easily and quickly wiped from the skin.”

Several other wholly impractical-looking plucking machines were invented during the first decade of the 1900s, including a hand-held gadget that looked a lot like a flexible shaft-powered horse clipper, except it had two corrugated rollers instead of knives. As the machine was passed over the bird’s body, the feathers were raised by a coarse comb and then grabbed by the rollers and yanked from the skin.

A similar hand-held machine used an attached vacuum hose to remove feathers after they had been pulled by rollers. The inventor stated these “well known facts: That fowls that are dry-picked bring better prices on the market than those that are picked wet. That the picking of fowls is very laborious (and) costly. That the down feathers of certain fowls are valuable. That in picking, great care must be taken to prevent tearing the skin.” Of course his invention met all these criteria swiftly and “at small cost.”

Automating de-feathering

In 1917, machines with two opposing rotary brushes were produced. Each brush had long, semi-stiff bristles. When a bird was lowered between the brushes, the feathers were rubbed off without damage to the skin. In 1924, a device was invented with a series of spinning, flexible rubber fingers against which the bird was held. It was among the first of its kind.

One of the first machines that didn’t require the bird to be held and manipulated by an operator during the de-feathering process was patented in 1928 by a Schenectady, N.Y., man. It featured a horizontal cylinder with an inner cylindrical liner that contained rows of longitudinal slots with saw-tooth edges. Closely fitted inside was another cylinder that rotated and also contained longitudinal slots with saw-tooth edges. Finally, inside that cylinder was an auger that also rotated. In operation, an airtight door allowed a bird carcass to be placed into one end of the auger. A vacuum was then introduced into the outer cylinder and the auger and inner cylinder set to rotating. As the bird was tumbled and moved the length of the cylinder by the auger, the feathers were pulled by vacuum through the slots, where they were caught between the saw-tooth edges of the slots in the fixed cylinder and the moving one and jerked from the skin.

By the 1940s birds were hung on conveyors and scalded and run through picking machines without being handled manually. Great improvements in efficiency, automation and sanitation have been made, and today fowl are run through the initial processing at the rate of almost 100 birds per minute, including stunning, killing, bleeding, scalding and de-feathering twice, evisceration, washing a couple of times and immersion of the carcass in a chilling bath.

Most of today’s plucking machines are too big and expensive for home use, although a handful of small-scale poultry growers have developed machines for picking a few birds. Two of these can be seen at The Deliberate Agrarian and Mother Earth News.

Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, few modern housewives have experienced the pleasure of killing, scalding, plucking and cleaning a chicken — all they have to do is open the cellophane package. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net. 

Read more about poultry equipment in Pecking at History: Collectible Poultry Equipment and A Poultry Industry History Museum Worth Crowing About.