Egg from one of the mechanical hens in Cole's Book Arcade, Melbourne.
The mechanical hens had a slot for a coin and chute for the eggs to roll down. The hen originally cackled when it 'laid' an egg.

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.

Herbert William Southgate Reeves, an employee in the second hand book department of Cole's Book Arcade who worked there from the time he left school in 1903 until 1929, when it closed, recalled that there were five hens in the Arcade. One hen (now part of the Museum's collection) 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'. Another was just inside the main entrance at the start of the main new book section; a third hen was located 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 more hens were located 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 egg's 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 (see Museum Archives) and donated the hen to Museum Victoria.

Physical Description

Metal hen's egg, life-size. Splits into two halves. Original inscription has been lost from surface.


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.

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