Plucking Feathers: A Foul Job

Early mechanized devices tackled mess of plucking feathers

| September 2012

  • 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.
  • Machine For Picking Feathers From Fowls
    This gadget, patented in 1911, was titled by the inventor a "Machine for Picking Feathers from Fowls." As the hand-held machine was passed over the fowl's body, the toothed comb (7) raised the feathers that were then caught between two rollers (11 and 12) and pulled from the skin.
  • Two Chickens On Fence
    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.
  • Chicken Plucking Machine Patent
    This 1906 machine featured two metal fingers (Q and K) that worked on eccentrics and moved in such a way as to grasp the feathers in front of the funnel (R) into which they were sucked by a fan inside the housing. The arms of the toothed wheel (I) at lower right were tipped with rubber flaps against which the plucked bird could be manipulated to remove the down.
  • 1928 Chicken Plucking Machine
    Invented in 1928, this machine consisted of two cylinders: a double-walled outside cylinder (A) and an inner one (G). Inside the cylinders is a large screw (L). A bird carcass was inserted at (D) and a vacuum was introduced into the outer cylinder. When the machine was started, the carcass moved along the turning screw and the feathers were lifted by the vacuum and protruded through holes in the inner cylinder. There they were caught between the saw-tooth edges (F) and (H) of the holes in the spinning inner cylinder and the inner wall of the stationary outer cylinder and yanked from the bird.

  • The Cook Painting
  • Machine For Picking Feathers From Fowls
  • Two Chickens On Fence
  • Chicken Plucking Machine Patent
  • 1928 Chicken Plucking Machine

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.



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