Consider the Humble Turnspit

At any of the dog shows held around the world today you will not see a turnspit. Whether it was a distinct breed of dog or a group of similar dogs whose size and shape qualified it to perform a particular task, it is now extinct. Edward Jesse in Anecdotes of Dogs, published in 1846, describes them as “long bodied, crooked legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.”

We are told in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson (Basic Books, 2012) that the words “roast” and “rotate” share the same root. The task of the turnspit was to rotate the roast. The dog would be placed in a dog-wheel (existing examples have a diameter of between 30 to 56 inches and a width of between 8 and 11 inches) mounted to the wall or ceiling. The rotation from the wheel, driven by the dog, was transferred by rope or cable to the spit. It was no easy task, as a large joint of beef would need turning for up to four hours or more. It is no wonder that turnspits were known to be a bit surly and prone to hiding. If you were someone who used them in your kitchen it was not unusual to have more than one to alternate their service.

The use of turnspits probably originated in Wales at the time of the Tudors. As the Tudors ascended to power in the late 1400s, they and the turnspits spread from Wales into England.


A turnspit at work (upper middle of picture). From the Book of Days, edited by Robert Chambers, 1863.


Turnspits were also used in Ireland and Scotland and there are instances of them being employed in Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland, with the most concentrated use in South Wales and western England. In America, as stated in Jan Bondeson’s Amazing Dogs (Cornell University Press, 2011), “Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette had advertisements for turnspit dogs and wheels for sale. A turnspit was active at the State House Inn, Philadelphia, and it is known that the keeper of the City Tavern in Philadelphia imported several turnspit dogs from England and kept them hard at work in the tavern’s large basement kitchen.”

Domestic dogs today are classified as Canis familiaris. However, the first book dealing exclusively with the subject of dogs, De Canibus Britannicis, 1570, written in Latin and published in London, contained a curious array of distinctions. In 1576 it was translated into English as Of Englishe Dogges. The work classified and named dogs by what they did and by their temperament, and it includes the turnspit as a breed: “Of the Dogge called Turnespete in Latine Veruuersator. There is comprehended, under the curs of the coursest kinde, a certaine dogge in kytchen service excellent. For when any meate is to bee roasted they go into a wheele which they turning rounde about with the waight of their bodies, so diligently looke to their businesse, that no drudge nor skullion can doe the feate more cunningly.” Also described was Canis Lunarius, or Mooner, who would waste “the wearisome night season without slombering or sleeping, bawing & wawing at the Moone,” and Canis Aquarius, used for drawing water from wells.

A much more scientific method of nomenclature gained credence with the work of Carl Linnaeus. His Cynographia, published in 1753, classifies domesticated dogs and is considered to be the first description of mammals with this system. It was later incorporated into a much larger work which was translated into English in 1792 as The Animal Kingdom. The little turnspit is still listed, this time as the Canis vertigus, the dizzy dog. Even with all the scientific advances, curiosities still abound and we find a dog called the Alco, Canis americanus (probably related to the Chihuahua) and the Fat Alco, Canis americanus obesus (your guess is as good as mine).

At the beginning of the 1800s, the turnspit was slowly being replaced by mechanical devices. By the middle of the century its use had dwindled considerably and where it was employed it was usually something of a curiosity. Some lingered on and as Bondeson states, “possibly the last observation of a turnspit dog comes from the old hospital at Beaune in Burgundy, where one of these animals was still at work in the early twentieth century.”

The Abergavenny Museum in Wales exhibits a stuffed turnspit named Whiskey, who probably lived until about 1880. She can be viewed online at item1/7809. I think she looks rather sweet.

This article, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Middleburg Life, in column “Then & There.” © Richard Hooper