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.

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.