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Defining Pets in the 18th and 21st Centuries: Development and Understandings of Pet Keeping

Array ( [0] => ENGL 6330 Spring 2018 [1] => no-show [2] => student exhibit )

They [dogs] motivate us to play, be affectionate, seek adventure and be loyal.

—Tom Hayden, American social activist

Robinson Crusoe's Cat with Kittens
Robinson Crusoe's cat with kittens1

Understanding the Human-Animal Relationship

Prior to the eighteenth century, the human-animal relationship was founded on the principle that God had created animals for humans to use and have dominion over as kind stewards who did not misuse their God-given position (94) [1]. Because of this understanding regarding the purpose of animals, the natural relationship between animal and human was based around the animal’s usefulness. As a result, before and into the eighteenth century, animals were foremost classified by and kept for their utility. Dogs, especially, were defined by their use and purpose such as “a gentle kind serving the game, a homely kind apt for sundry necessary uses, or a currish kind, meete for many toies” [2]. Cats, like those kept by Daniel Defoe’s protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, functioned as vermin control, but could just as easily become vermin themselves as Crusoe remarks “I was forc’d to kill them like vermin”[3]. Horses were animals of sport and transport. Because of their utility, these animals lived in spaces separate from humans. Thus, animals that lived in the house and did not serve a distinct purpose other than, as naturalist Oliver Goldsmith denounced, “being a useless animal,”[4] were labeled as pets. This practice of pet keeping was in direct contention with the construction of animals as given by God for a purpose. Thus, as the character Mrs. Benson in Fabulous Histories remarks affection for pets “is more than ridiculous… it is really sinful”[5].

A woman with a dog on her knee having her hair dressed by a female assistant
A woman with a dog on her knee
having her hair dressed by a female assistant lithograph5

Defining Characteristics

Difficulties in terminology arose out of the difficulties in defining what characterized an animal as a pet. British historian Keith Thomas proposes three traits of a pet during the years 1500-1800, 1) it was kept in the house, 2) it was given a name, and 3) it was never eaten.[9] Similarly, Tague argues that there are  “two defining characteristics of the pet: it lives in the domestic space, and its primary purpose for humans is entertainment and companionship” (4) [1].

Interestingly, it is the notion of space that is an important qualifier. In the eighteenth century most individuals had moved beyond the living conditions that necessitated the housing of animals within the domestic interior. Instead, animals were “confin[ed]… to barns or kennels” (19) [1].  Additionally, developments in interior space which resulted from the widespread consumerism characteristic of the period, further defined the space wherein animals were allowed. Architectural advances allowed for the broad restructuring of buildings wherein separate rooms were created to serve specific purposes. New ways of socialization, such as tea drinking further segregated interior space. In being allowed into these spaces it was expected that pets be agreeable and engage in cleanliness. Thus, the allowance of animals into these specialized spaces signified the unique nature of pets as liminal beings that are "neither fully human nor fully part of the natural world—part of the household yet distinct from its human inhabitants” (2) [1].

[1] Tague, Ingrid H. Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

[2] Quoted in Topsell, Edward. The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. William Iaggard, 1607, 164.

[3]Defoe, Daniel. The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Second ed., 1719. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 120.

[4]Goldsmith, Oliver. An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Vol. 3, J. Nourse, 1774. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 272-273.

[5]Trimmer, Sarah. Fabulous Histories. Designed for the [in]Struction of Children, Respecting Their Treatment of Animals. Second ed., T. Longman, 1786. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 62.

[6] "pet, n.2 and adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2018. Web. 17 April 2018.

[7] Bickerstaff, Isaac. The Tatler. (ed. Richard Steele) 1709-11 (271 issues collected into 2 vols.). London printed for the author, 1709-[1711].

[8] Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. Second ed., vol. 2, 1755. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 334.

[9]Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800, Pantheon, 1983, 112-115.

 Image Credits

1Brévière, Louis-Henri. “Illustration of Robinson Crusoe's Cat with Kittens.” Wikimedia Commons, 26 Apr. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Avventure_di_Robinson_Crusoe_0153_0.jpg.

2“Samuel Johnson.” Flickr, British Library, 22 Nov. 2013, www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/10997743356/in/photolist-hKQiWL-hWoTYP-hL5ESL-hXEvKG-hY2MTS-hRXzku-i2behH-hX7MQy-i2bE97-hXx7i7-hXnoHv-i29gRL-hWPK3F-i2boib-i2bkap-i9yFGa-i29Ej1-hL6EDs-i2d7ia-i3V6Df-hSGY6T-i2czmE-hYiky4-i6rVvW-i9APMp-hW7Rcu-icreur-i2axVN-hXJXMz-i2dxM4-hX11T1-icrjmF-i2bYeB-hXr1zx-hX7fR6-hT449m-icrco2-i2ccLq-hXK3oj-i2dn81-i2aq9h-hWQYch-hKQnQ7-hXEzZH-iczbBj-hSSHpG-icrkiF-i2e5X1-i59Yec-idkdgx.

3Johnson, Samuel. “Page from A Dictionary of the English Language with Entry for ‘Pet.’” Eighteenth Century Collections Online, British Library, find.galegroup.com.dist.lib.usu.edu/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=utahstate&tabID=T001&docId=CW3311953221&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE>.

4Boucher, François. “A Young Lady Holding a Pug Dog.” Wikimedia Commons, 17 Oct. 2012, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_-_A_young_lady_holding_a_pug_dog_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

5“A Woman with a Dog on Her Knee Having Her Hair Dressed by a Female Assistant; in the Right Hand Background a Boy Holds Hair-Dressing Implements.” Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Library, 1 Nov. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_woman_with_a_dog_on_her_knee_having_her_hair_dressed_by_a_Wellcome_V0019748.jpg.