[Here's the next installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series. Hope you enjoy it!]
Like much of the popular music of the 1950s and 1960s the song “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” has its roots in the Victorian era of music hall songs. “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” the original inspiration for That Doggie, was performed for the first time on stage by Vesta Victoria in 1892—around the same time that Beatrix Potter was writing the Peter Rabbit stories. Over the course of the nineteenth century a dramatic transformation had been taking place in the relationship between humans and animals. Parents were encouraging children to keep a variety of small creatures. Families wanted their dogs and cats to be included in portraits. The first cat show was held in the 1870s. Pet stores appeared on the scene. Animals had taken on an almost completely new role by the late nineteenth century in England and America: the role of household pets.
Cats and dogs had been connected to household life for a long time—as rat-killers, mouse-catchers, watch-dogs, hunting dogs, and herd dogs—but for most of their history they were seen primarily as working animals. Their official status as members of the family came about fairly recently; animal rights movements marched alongside this development, with the first society for animal protection starting in Britain in 1824. Dogs were quicker than cats to make the move across the parlor boundary, but by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, both had taken up residence in the heart of the home.
Victorian girls and women mourned the loss of their pets as they did the loss of family members and friends, carrying locks of their favorite animals’ hair in rings and lockets. Before the advent of pet cemeteries at the turn of the century, pet-owners had been known to sneak into graveyards and secretly bury the bodies of beloved animals in plots reserved for themselves. The writer and activist Marguerite Durand created the first cemetery for pets in 1899. In addition to starting a feminist daily newspaper run entirely by women, she was known in Paris for walking the boulevards with her pet lion. This lion, along with some other famous animals including RinTinTin, is buried at the exclusive but charming garden-style resting place for pets that Marguerite founded on the Île des Ravageurs near Paris.
"His attachment was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice, his fidelity without deceit." That was the epitaph of Dash, a spaniel, the first girlhood dog of Queen Victoria. Nineteenth century women writers would echo her words, contrasting the ways of dogs with the ways of men. “Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms,” George Eliot wrote in 1857.
Long before dogs and cats had colonized the boudoir, another animal had successfully made the voyage from the farmyard to the house proper. Newborn lambs that could not be fed by their mothers were reared indoors at the kitchen hearth and often became favorites of the girls and women who tended them. Mary Cronk, writing to her husband who was serving in the New York State volunteer infantry in 1863 gave him an update on her pet: “I must tell you of something I washed to day it was our pet lamb it was just all I could lift in the wash tub and she fills it full when she is in it. She is the handsomest lamb or sheep you ever seen I wish you could see her she is as white as snow when she is clean.”
Domestic animals could mean money to girls and women who otherwise had very few ways of getting it. Until the late nineteenth century in Britain as well as in much of the United States, married women could not legally own property and often had no disposable income of their own at all. “Butter and egg” money was one solution that women found to this problem, earning money of their own by tending domestic animals. Some women basically started small businesses to produce and distribute their wares. Girls, too, would sometimes be allowed to keep money they made from the animals they specially tended. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” was written by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale in 1830 when many girls would have had lambs under their charge.
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And every where that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go;
He followed her to school one day—
That was against the rule,
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb at school.
And so the Teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear;
And then he ran to her, and laid
His head upon her arm,
As if he said—'I'm not afraid—
You'll keep me from all harm.'
'What makes the lamb love Mary so?'
The eager children cry—
'O, Mary loves the lamb, you know,'
The Teacher did reply; —
'And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind.'
A new development in nineteenth century family life was the belief that if children learned to be kind to pets they would grow up to be moral individuals. Whether this was true or not, one child who definitely benefited from the trend was Beatrix Potter. She kept a varied household menagerie of mice, rats, dormice, hedgehogs and rabbits—occasionally varied by a lizard or squirrel. Benjamin Bunny, the inspiration for Peter Rabbit, traveled in a basket along with the family on railroad trips.
Animals figured largely in Every Girl's Book of Sport, Occupation and Pastime written by Mrs. Mary Whiteley in 1897. She has this advice about the feeding of cats: “For the cat’s breakfast, nothing can be better than oatmeal porridge and milk.” Commercialized pet food had not yet become a standard part of pet care—neither had cat litter, first marketed in 1945. Mrs. Whitely wrote at length about how girls could raise chickens and silkworms in their spare time. Both these activities were popular with girls in England and America as hobbies for enjoyment as well as with hopes for some serious pocket money. A scene worth pondering is that of the American pioneer woman raising silkworms near her loom and spinning wheel, as Mrs. Silas Palmer did after her 1836 arrival in Ohio. An ounce of silkworm eggs produced 40,000 caterpillars, which would produce eight pounds of raw silk.
Family members, dear companions, household helps, and home industries—pets acted as love tokens too. Eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists describe small animals being presented to women as gifts from prospective suitors— a lap-dog was a common choice. The way that a woman received such a gift could indicate her feelings toward the suitor—and the gift could reveal aspects of the suitor’s character as well. Some women writers of the time, however, turned the point of view around, drawing a connection between these sorts of pets and themselves. Margaret Blennerhassett, for instance, wrote her “Warning to a Lap-Dog” in 1824. She speculates on the probability that her lap-dog Rosa has fallen for the wrong sort, for the rambling kind, and hints that she has had the same difficulty herself.
Birds of course were present in the parlor long before the four-footed tribe took up residence there—canaries, parrots, and other exotics were the signature of centuries of far-flung shipping trade and provided music in the most intimate recesses of the home. Susanna Blamire lived during the second half of the eighteenth century and, like Margaret, saw a connection between the condition of pets and of women, which she described in her poem “Dear Nancy”:
Dear Nancy, since men have all made their own laws,
Which oppress the poor women, whatever's the cause;
Since by hardness of reason or hardness of fist
All wrong must be right if they choose to persist;
I'd have you with caution in wedlock engage,
For if once you are caught you're a bird in a cage,
That may for dear liberty flutter the wing
As you hop round the perch, but 'tis chance if you sing.
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009
Pix from top:
Young Lady in a Boat: James Tissot, 1870
Marguerite Durand: 1910 photo
1902 Illustration for Mary's Lamb
Beatrix Potter, age 15, with her dog Spot
From an 1888 publication of the Toronto Humane Society
Madame Rejane: Giovanni Boldini, 1885
The Caged Bird: John Liston Byam Shaw