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Industrial revolution also yielded the chicken-plucker

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One of Annie Laurie Lawson’s chickens.

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By Jessica Cosmas
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, April 21, 2019

There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but how many ways are there to defeather a fowl?

Until the 1890s, the most popular method was to remove feathers from a bird was by hand. As you may imagine, hand-plucking feathers from a bird is a laborious and time-consuming task. By the turn of the 20th century, however, machines designed to pluck poultry were beginning to appear. The time was the Second Industrial Revolution, roughly 1870 to 1914, and advancements in production technology were fostered by the extension of electricity, the emergence of assembly lines, and the introduction of rubber to industry.

The device that is currently on display at the Museum of the Albemarle, however, is more advanced than its 19th century predecessor. A chicken plucking machine, most likely from the 1940s, sits in the museum’s lobby. This machine belonged to Rufus D. Pritchard, 1911-1984, who operated Pritchard’s Meat Market in downtown Elizabeth City for over 40 years. Originally equipped with an electric motor and a protective hood, this apparatus was designed to remove poultry feathers with industrious efficiency. A simple flip of a switch would begin the process.

Next, a recently scalded carcass would have been directed towards a rotating drum that is populated by special rubber “fingers.” These fingers are tapered and ribbed to provide sufficient grip against wet feathers. The rubber material allows the fingers to flex enough to not cause any damage to the delicate, edible bird skin. The liberated feathers would fall towards the cavity just below the drum as the plump body would be moved for further processing.

Accompanying this “Clucker Plucker” is a representation of the machine’s natural adversary: chickens. The stuffed chickens seen in the exhibition were crafted by prolific folk artist Annie Laurie Lawson, 1915-2003. Born to sharecroppers in Lenoir County, Ms. Lawson learned to hand-sew at a young age. Her mother first showed her how to piece quilt squares together at age ten. As a teenager, she honed her skills through quilting bees. When Ms. Lawson married, she relocated to Edenton. There she began creating stuffed animals for her own children. Her animals are a testament to her imagination and unbound resourcefulness. Repurposing old newspapers, she would draw her own patterns free-hand. Each creature was fashioned from fabric scraps and other household remains like cardboard and loose buttons. Ms. Lawson made hundreds of critters, from the domestic pig and sheep, to the exotic shark, camel, and jungle cat. Chickens, however, were her favorite companion to craft. Her love of making continued beyond her own family’s demand. Her sewn sculptures drew attention from private collectors world-wide. On request, she could produce a quilt and a couple of animals each week.

The “Clucker Plucker” exhibition will be on view until November 2019. We hope you take the opportunity to visit the museum and see how this small lobby display provides a tongue and cheek look at one of the world's most popular animals -- the chicken!

Jessica Cosmas is an Artifact Collections Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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