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Better Than a Setting Hen

Incubator manufacturers were numerous in the early 1900’s. The Spring issues of the 1911 Farmer and Breeder, Cyphers Incubator Co. was urging farmers to get into the billion-dollar poultry business. Of course, it did not tell you how long it would take to make a billion dollars. “Old Trusty” could be purchased for less than $10 and it came with a 10-year guarantee. A Belle City Incubator could be purchased for less than $8.00.

Eggs were candled: That means eggs were passed in front of a small hole in a box with a light bulb or candle behind it. The fertile eggs would be kept; the non-fertile ones sold, or eaten. See the blog “Look Inside the Egg without Breaking the Shell?”for more information on candling eggs.

Incubators date back to the time when “egg money’ was used for barter or to purchase staples at the country store. Salt, sugar, coffee, and flour were the most common essentials. First, came the eggs, then the chickens, then the eggs again. To avoid a debate about which came first, let’s take a look at this incubator. After all, where are you going to find a setting hen big enough to handle 100 eggs?

One of the most unique items in the Sutton Homestead in Granville is a Super- Hatcher Hot Water Incubator disturbed by Sears Roebuck between 1882-1931. Based on the information obtained from the donor, we believe this incubator to have been purchased in 1912 for about $10.00. This incubator is located in the kitchen at the Homestead because we had no other space where it could be displayed. It would not have been found in the kitchen of a home in 1912 but would have been in a room in the house.

Although our incubator has evidence of use, you can still see that it was handsomely finished and could be used inside nicely. A small boiler containing a few quarts of water was heated with kerosene from a lantern. The heated water was piped around inside the box through pipe or tubing to provide the moisture necessary for hatching eggs. With practice, shaking the moveable grids allowed easy turning of the eggs. (The old setting hen flops to turn her eggs.) Our Sears Roebuck hot water incubator contains two grids, with each holding 50 eggs. You’ll be surprised to know that these, primitive, outdated, low-tech units were capable of maintaining correct incubation temperatures (102-103 degrees) for up to three weeks, and all that was accomplished without any chips, transistors, or solid-state relay systems.

Warming inside the box would cause the top to lift on the lantern, making a sound to alert the owner to check the thermometer in the incubator. On this incubator, adjusting the heat of the lantern was done manually. Perhaps, this is why the incubator looked like a piece of furniture, it needed to be located where the sounds from the cap on the lantern could be heard.

Preparing the Incubator

The incubator’s operation was simple but required monitoring. A day or so before setting eggs, the unit would be fired up and adjusted. After it was filled with eggs, you waited. During the next three weeks, the eggs were turned, and the temperature and humidity monitored. It is reported that farmers hoped for a hatch rate of 80 to 85 percent and some were able to achieve an even higher hatch rate. That was actually as good as the old hens could do. The advertisements claim that a batch could be hatched on a gallon of kerosene.

Later, electricity came to the farm, replacing kerosene as a heating fuel. Electric incubators were easier to control, and more reliable. Not too long afterwards, chicks could be ordered via mail, with live delivery guaranteed from commercial hatcheries.

Stories of Baby Chicks and Rotten Eggs

I recall the excitement of meeting the rural mail carrier to get a box of “peeping” baby chicks. Imagine the noise if several families on his route received baby chicks on the same day! If it were cold, we took the baby chicks to the house and placed them in a box behind the wood-burning stove with water and chicken feed. When weather permitted, they were placed in a brooder and cared for until time to release them in the chicken yard.

Let me tell you what I remember about the hatch rate. We never had a fancy super-hatcher incubator just the hens in the hen house. That old setting hen did not achieve a 100% hatch rate. Children were asked to dispose of the rotten eggs. I can still smell that unique rotten egg fragrance, making a skunk sweet-smelling in comparison. I can honestly say that I never engaged in a rotten egg fight, although I am aware that they occurred. One warm spring day, my grandmother gave my cousin and I about six unhatched eggs and explained in detail where we were to dispose of them. Her instructions would have us walking a long way from the house and we had other things we wanted to do. We decided to go to the rock pile at the corner of the yard, after throwing the eggs in the rock pile, we went back to playing in the barn. We were confident that no one would ever know that we did not follow Grandma’s instructions!

Later that evening, our grandmother called our names using a rather stern voice, as we entered the kitchen, there was a breeze coming through the kitchen window carrying that unique rotten egg smell. She walked over, closed the window, and asked, “I guess you know why I asked you to take the eggs down passed the outhouse, right?” It seemed that the late afternoon breeze always came from the direction of the rock pile. Today as I shop for fabric softener, I smile and somehow am unable to purchase the one labeled, “summer breeze”.

Historic Granville open Wednesday-Friday 11AM-3PM and Saturday 11AM-5PM

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