Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For Every Meat There is a Turn

QUESTION: I love old mechanical things. Recently while rooting through a box of old junk at a monthly flea market, I came across an unusual item. It looks like a round can from which protrudes a cylinder. On the end of the cylinder is an odd-shaped ring and in the side of the can is a hole with a place to insert a key. Can you tell me what this is and something about it, if that’s possible?

ANSWER: It looks like you’ve found an antique spitjack. However, some of its parts are missing.

Today, you can go to any supermarket and purchase a fully roasted rotisserie chicken or turkey breast. But back in the 18th century, that wasn’t possible. All meats had to be slow roasted on a long pole called a spit over the fire in a huge, walk-in kitchen fireplace. And to do that evenly, it took man or woman power. Wives, children, servants, or slaves had to stand by the fire and slowly turn the meat until it was done. This had to be one of the most boring jobs in the 18th and early 19th centuries, so no one enjoyed doing it.

Roasting meat on a spit dates as far back as the first century B.C.E. During Tudor times, someone even came up with an ingenious way to have a dog provide the power to turn the spit—the dog ran in a treadmill linked to the spit by belts and pulleys. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that things got a little easier for cooks. It was then that the weight or clock jack came into being.

Descending stone, iron, or lead weights powered most of the spit-turning mechanisms, or more commonly spitjacks, used by Colonials and their British counterparts. In England, cooks referred to them as weight jacks, but in America, they came to be known as clock jacks because they used a clockwork mechanism to wind a spring used to turn the spit.

Earlier jacks of this type had a train of two arbors or spindles. Later ones had a more efficient train with three arbors. Those made and used in England had a governor or flywheel set above the engine as opposed to being located within the frame and to one side—to the right for a two train works and to the left for one with three trains. These weight jacks also contained a flywheel within the frame, usually at the
in a bell-like arch at the highest part of the frame.

In 1792, John Bailey II, an American clockmaker, patented the first steam-driven jack. However, the Turks used a mechanism similar to Bailey’s jack back in the mid-16th century.

Another type of roasting jack, the smoke jack, appeared in the early 17th century. This jack moved by the flow of the smoke from the fire over the sails of a horizontal wheel which lay sideways. By placing the wheel in the narrowest part of the chimney where the motion of the smoke was the fastest and where the greatest amount would strike the sails, the mechanism would slowly turn the spit, thus roasting the meat. But this type of jack had its downside since the speed of the jack depended on the draught of the chimney and the quantity and strength of the fire in the fireplace.

The type of jack you purchased is called a bottle jack because of its bottle-shaped hydraulic lifting device. A brass shell contains the clockwork motor. Introduced in the late 18th century, it replaced the earlier and simpler dangle spit. When the cook set the weights, the spit turned, eliminating the need for manual labor for approximately 30 minutes, after which the cook would have had to readjust the weights. Bottle jacks continued to be made and used until the early 20th century.

If your jack had all of its parts and was in better condition, it would sell for around $400.

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