Pets in America

A History

By Katherine C. Grier

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Pets in America

392 pp., 6 x 9, 100 illus., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1472-4
    Published: January 2015
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7714-2
    Published: January 2015
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7818-2
    Published: January 2015

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

A Conversation with Katherine C. GrierAuthor of Pets in America: A History

Q: How did you become interested in this topic? Have animals always been a part of your life?
A: I'm a historian who studieseveryday life, especially the routines and rhythms of life at home. And,like all my work, my decision to research the history of pet keeping inAmerica grew out of my own life. Family stories revealed that members ofmy family have been involved in pets for at least a hundred years. As apet lover myself, I wondered what motivated people like me in the past.

Animals have always been part of my life. Apparently my first word was "kitty," which tells you something about my family, too!

Q: Why do pet owners want animals in their homes? What's gained by their presence?
A: My research suggests thatAmericans have chosen to keep pets for a variety of reasons. Thosereasons suggest what they gained from the presence of animals at home.

Most Americans who kept pets did so for the amusement their behaviorprovided and for the pleasure of their company. Some pets, such as cats,continued to be household workers as well as companions. Sometimes rarepets—purebred dogs or exotic birds and animals—were symbols of theirowners' wealth and status. Some pet animals were sources of fascinationor education; the range of small animals kept in early aquaria is a goodexample of this. Some small animals—rabbits, white mice, guinea pigs andthe like—were considered good playmates for children, who were alsoexpected to learn responsibility from caring for them.

I would venture to guess that American pet owners operate with the samerange of motives today. Pet keeping seems simple on the surface, butit's actually quite a complicated activity.

Q: Did our preferences for pets change over time?
A: They have changed, and in someinteresting ways. One of the most significant changes has been in therelative decline in the popularity of caged birds. For hundreds ofyears, Americans were enthusiastic keepers of all kinds of birds,including many species of North American songbirds. The reason for thisis—birds were the radios of their day! They were company for housewives,shut–ins, and others who had to stay home. Eventually, the increasingpopularity of the radio, and in time television, led to less interest inkeeping songbirds.

Here's another, relatively recent change: the increasing popularity ofreptiles in the last several decades. Nineteenth–century Americansrarely, if ever, thought of keeping snakes or large lizards in theirhouses!

Q: When did modern pet shops appear? How do they differ from modern purveyors of pet supplies?
A: In the 1700s and early 1800s,the trade in pet animals was informal. Americans usually could buy cagedbirds and small animals in city markets, but many probably received themfrom neighbors. By the 1840s, "bird stores" that sold both Americansongbirds and canaries imported from Europe began to appear in largecities. By the 1890s, pet stores that offered a wide range of suppliesas well as many kinds of small animals were common.

Modern pet stores differ from these early shops in degree, but the basicarray of products sold for pets today is remarkably similar to theinventory found in pet shops in the early 1900s. Some of the animalscommonly offered for sale are relatively new: tropical fish were firstoffered for sale in neighborhood pet stores in the 1920s. Hamstersappeared for sale in the 1950s.

Q: When did Americans start to use special products for their pets? Which animals were the first to benefit from commercial pet foods?
A: Some of the equipmentassociated with pet keeping–cages and collars, for example—has been inexistence for thousands of years. In the 1700s and early 1800s,Americans made their own cages and collars or purchased them from localcraftspeople. Some fancy items were imported from Europe. By the late1800s, companies that made other kinds of products also made petequipment and wholesaled it to pet stores. For example, the companiesthat made wire carpet beaters and whisks for cooking also made wire birdcages. A handful of companies also began to specialize in making petequipment and supplies.

Pet food is another interesting story. By the 1840s, bird stores soldseed, dried insects, and other special foods that were prepared andbottled by the proprietors. Commercial dog food—biscuits that were muchlike the "hard tack" soldiers ate—was sold in this country by the 1870s.It was expensive and was used mostly by dog breeders. Until the 1930s,most American dogs and cats ate what their owners ate, as well as whatthey could hunt up for themselves.

Q: Caring for pets has long been a part of childhood. What motivates parents to provide pets for their children?
A: Small animals were often anoutlet for play for American children at a time when most had fewstore–bought playthings. By the early 1800s, however, some progressiveparents began to accept the proposition that pets were a way to teachchildren to be kind to all living beings. This idea was widely acceptedby the late nineteenth century, and it was one factor that led to theexpansion of pet keeping.

Parents today often had pets of their own, and they may have them now.They want to reproduce the pleasant experiences of their own childhoodswith their kids today. Also, children are naturally fascinated byanimals. Developmental psychologists have shown that contact withanimals and watching animals helps children to understand fundamentalconcepts like "agency," the ability to act in the world.

Q: Many of the items featured in your book and in the exhibition "Pets in America" come from your own collection. When did you start acquiring these artifacts? Are there particular objects that you have heard about but not yet found examples of?
A: I've been purchasing publishedmaterials and artifacts associated with pet keeping almost as long as Ihave been doing research on the subject. I didn't mean to become acollector of the history of pet keeping!

When I began to work on this project, I figured out that there were lotsof published materials on pets—inexpensive booklets on pet care,magazines, and so on—that were not collected in any library. I neededthese materials to write the story, and I started to look for them.

When I study the history of everyday life, I work with the artifactsthat ordinary people made and used. Artifacts are the traces of pastideas and behavior that sometimes can't be recovered any other way;people don't often talk about the ordinary things they do. So, from thebeginning of the research, I was also on the lookout for artifactsassociated with pet keeping.

I found some things in museum collections—beautiful bird cages have beencollected as antiques for a long time—but I knew from my own experienceas a pet owner that there were lots of other objects to be discovered,collected, and added to the story that I wanted to tell. I went lookingfor them, and the hunt has been a lot of fun.

I've found one of just about everything I looked for. The problem hasbeen that I don't have the cash to purchase everything I find! However,I discovered that there were wonderful collectors out there—of birdcages, aquarium ornaments and equipment, and veterinary medicines—andthey have been very generous in sharing their treasures for my researchand the exhibition.

Q: In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, many evacuees refused to abandon their pets, and others devoted days and weeks to searching for their lost animals. What lessons do you think America needs to learn from this tragic situation?
A: Well, the most obvious lessonfrom the situation is that some Americans value their animal companionsto the extent that they are willing to risk their own lives. This sayssomething important about the bond between people and their pets: peoplethink of animals as part of their families and members of theircommunities.

Second, disaster planning needs to include better planning for petanimals. This is not only because people traumatized by disaster suffereven more when they lose their animal companions, but because theanimals themselves require and deserve care and attention. Evacuationplans should also include setting up temporary animal shelters wherepeople can check in their pets, and where they can visit their animals.

Q: Have pets always been named—and what's in a name?
A: My research suggests that mostpets have been given names. Many times pet names have been simple andfunctional—Puss for a cat, or Whitie for a white rabbit, for example. Sometimes names said something about the nature of the pet, as when adog was named Bounce or Rover. But I also discovered a real sense ofplay and fun in pet naming, and it is surprising how far back it goes.I've found dogs named Juliet and Chloe in the 1700s!

Q: Aquariums seem so common today, but they were once a novelty. When did the home aquarium become popular?
A: I'm still not sure whengoldfish arrived in America, but I found one example of a floristselling them in the 1830s, which told me something about their status asa parlor ornament. Well–to–do Americans often kept a single goldfish ina globe. In the 1850s, the concept of the "balanced aquarium" wasintroduced. The idea was that a natural history buff would create acommunity of plants and animals that was self–sustaining. Aquaria becamequite a fad by the late 1860s.

The next time that aquaria really captured peoples' imaginations waswhen tropical fish were introduced. Wealthy men had been importing andraising tropical fish since the early 1900s, but they arrived in petstores in the late 1920s and really became the rage. By that time, smallelectric heaters and air pumps began to appear in pet stores, which madecaring for them easier.

Q: The book Pets in America accompanies an exhibition of the same name that recently opened at the McKissick Museum in South Carolina. What has been the response to the exhibition so far? What do you think will surprise visitors the most?
A: The response to this projecthas been wonderful right from the beginning. As I did the research, Iheard hundreds of stories about people and their pets. We have receivedsome very good press coverage—the Associated Press did a story on theshow.

The exhibition contains quite a few surprises, but the most commonresponse is, "I didn't know that people did this such a long time ago."If you ask people when Americans became involved with pets, they oftensay, "after the Second World War." Some of the cases get great responsesfrom visitors. The case on the invention of cat litter leads to somevery funny conversations among cat owners.

Q: Generally speaking, do you think that the quality of our pets' lives is improving?
A: While there is always more workto be done, I think that the evidence on the whole is that the lives ofour pets are good. Three–quarters of the owners of dogs and cats spayand neuter their animals, which represents a real commitment to dealingwith pet over–population, for example.

If you stop and think about it, the variation in the quality of ourpets' lives reflects the variations in the quality of their owners'lives. Animals from well–to–do families have more "advantages"—betterveterinary care, for example—than those living in poor families. Thisdoes not mean that families living in poverty don't love their pets; thechaos and struggle in their own lives also affects the lives of theiranimals. One of the challenges for local animal–welfare groups is todeal with the consequences of this. For example, one group in ruralNorth Carolina provides warm, dry houses for the animals belonging topoor families. This is a simple act of kindness that can do a lot ofgood.

Q: How do you think American pet keeping will change in the future?
A: I think that the current trend,toward thinking of pets as family members, will continue. Pet keepingwill also continue to be affected by fads, some of which are not goodfor the animals involved. For example, the current fad for tiny dogs asfashion accessories has encouraged irresponsible breeding practices.Many of these dogs are very fragile. And some of the people who arebuying them probably don't have lives that accommodate dogs well.

Q: What do you hope readers will learn from reading Pets in America
A: As I worked on the book, Irealized that writing sympathetically about Americans' relationships topet animals could potentially encourage a broader discussion about ourrelationships with, and obligations to, other categories of animals. Werely on uncounted millions of animals that we never see to improve thequality of our lives. What do we owe them? I don't think there are easyanswers to this, and I am working through my own ideas on this question.