Summary

Mechanical hen from Cole's Book Arcade, Melbourne. Metal, painted black with red face, comb and wattles. Slot for coin, and chute for eggs to roll down. The hen originally cackled when it 'laid' an egg. One of five hens operating in Cole's Book Arcade in Bourke Street.

According to Cole Turnley, in his book 'Cole of the Book Arcade: a Pictorial Biography of E.W.Cole', Cole introduced a mechanical hen, made by a German firm, into the new Music Department in the Little Collins Street section of the Coles Book Arcade, about 1889. It had been supplied by the Symphonion Company - an advertisement for the hen was apparently enclosed with the invoice for the synphonion that was purchased for the Arcade in 1889.

The hen was given to Herbert William Southgate Reeves when Cole's Book Arcade closed. Reeves, born in 1890, had worked in the second hand book department in Cole's Book Arcade from the time he left school in 1903 until 1929, when it closed. He recalled that the hen was located on the first floor landing between the entrance to the monkey room and the second hand department, on a bench. Herbert had the job of making sure his hen was maintained and 'well-fed'. He remembered four other hens at the Arcade: one just inside the main entrance at the start of the main new book section; one in the fernery, on the grood floor near Little Collins Street (it might have moved later to a location adjacent to the music and confectionary departments); and two in a building behind the 'main arcade' - one in Toyland, and one just inside the Collins Street entrance.

Herbert recalled that the hen's eggs often contained 'quarter-inch cubes of a sweet like a larger variety of "hundreds and thousands"'. The eggs' contents varied - sometimes a handkerchief would be found by a disappointed child.

Herbert passed the hen on to his father, John Herbert Reeves, who wrote down his father's memories (noted in the Museum Archives) and donated the hen to Museum Victoria.

Physical Description

Metal, painted black with red face, comb and wattles. Slot for coin, and chute for eggs to roll down. The hen sits on a nest - a woven basket with soft material in the top. A stand below the basket with concentric rings provides a stable base.

Significance

Cole's Book Arcade opened in the Bourke Street Mall in 1883, after earlier operating from other sites. It was a shop like no other, crammed with new and second-hand books and other wares, but with the atmosphere of a circus. Cole enticed customers of all ages with a menagerie and fernery, a band, a clockwork symphonion and other mechanical delights. Readers could sit in comfortable chairs, encouraged by a sign: 'Read for as Long as You Like - Nobody Asked to Buy'. The Arcade's proprietor, Edward William Cole, was optimist and idealist, believing passionately in the power of education and envisaged a world without borders, expounding his views in pamphlets and books. Cole died in 1918, still dreaming of a better future. Cole's Book Arcade, one of the wonders of 'marvellous Melbourne', closed in 1929.

According to Cole Turnley, in his book 'Cole of the Book Arcade: a pictorial biography of E.W.Cole', Cole introduced a mechanical hen, made by a German firm, into the new Music Department in the Little Collins Street section of the Coles Book Arcade, c.1889. (see pp.100 - 101). The 'Hen that Cackles and Lays Eggs' proved to be the Arcade's best novelty attraction since the Little Men at the entrance. Often whole families would make special visits to Coles Book Arcade to show her to their excited children and let them put in their pennies. Then the hen, 'a completely life-like' one, would cackle raucously and lay a tin egg that would contain a sweet or some tiny toy. Soon after its installation, a new Confectionary Department was opened, and the hen was moved there. The hen 'became the Confectionery Department's piece de resistance, located just within the Little Collins Street entrance. She finally did the trick of accustoming Melburnians to use Little Collins Street to enter and leave the Arcade, and to regard the Arcade as a thoroughfare of the city.

During the 1890s depression, Cole created the 'Shilling Room' where nothing cost more than 1/-; it included a 'Wonderland' and a hall of mirrors, and a second mechanical hen. It is not clear whether the hen in the Museum's collection is the 1889 hen or the later installation.

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