How the Victorians turned mere beasts into man’s best friends

Plucky, steadfast, loyal – the rise of pampered pets began in the 19th century when artists and writers saw their many benefitsThey can be expensive, noisy and annoying, yet today’s pampered pets have never been more cossetted and adored. Now new research reveals that it is the Victorians who were responsible for changing attitudes towards domestic animals. Historians are combing the historical archives for evidence of when familial, emotional attachments to pets became commonplace and socially acceptable in Britain. The work is part of a five-year project that will culminate in a book and an exhibition at the Geffrye Museum in east London.
“We thought we would find that there has been an increase in people’s emotional investment in pets in recent times, but what we’ve actually found is that people in the early 19th century were also very emotionally invested in their animals. They just expressed that in a different way,” said Jane Hamlett, professor of modern British history at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has been leading the study for the past three years along with Professor Julie-Marie Strange at the University of Durham. “They had a different cultural sense of what a pet should be.”

Parrots, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), are the nation’s fourth most popular pet; according to a 2012 survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 3.1 percent of U.S. households owned birds. Some parrots can scream as loud as an ambulance siren. These birds are beautiful, but they’re difficult to care for and require lots of space, so the HSUS doesn’t recommend keeping them as pets at all.

Until the 19th century, keeping pets was frowned upon and would crop up in satirical prints criticising the elite and aristocracy. “Quite often, you get pictures of 18th-century ladies dressed in ostentatious, over-the-top costumes with a lapdog,” Hamlett said.

Pet owners, particularly when they were female, were seen as frivolous consumers who spent their money in absurd ways: animals were generally expected to earn their keep or be eaten by their owners.

“What seems to happen in the late 18th century and early 19th century is that pet-keeping becomes culturally more acceptable,” Hamlett said. Writers and artists in the 19th century assigned a new “moral value” to pets, and consequently saw keeping them as beneficial for children.

Pet ownership began to be seen as character building, particularly for boys, because it taught children to be caring and responsible. Pets were also thought to enhance the domesticity of a home for a potentially valuable social purpose.

“The Victorians were very interested in the home and domestic life, and bringing up children was seen as very important for creating the right kind of morality in society,” Hamlett said. “And one of the things that children could do to develop morality was to keep a pet – so you get quite a lot of advice manuals from the mid-19th century onwards suggesting that children should keep pets to improve themselves and their moral qualities.”

Give him the exercise he needs. All pets need regular exercise to stay fit and to release their energy. Without it, your pet will begin to act out. Young pets that do not get enough exercise are more likely to develop negative behavioral issues that lead many to give up their pet.

Queen Victoria with her pet dog, named Sharp, at Balmoral in 1867.

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Queen Victoria with her pet dog, named Sharp, at Balmoral in 1867. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

Even poor working-class families would capture wild birds like blackbirds, linnets and thrushes to keep as pets, often hanging the cages outside their windows and feeding them scraps, while aspirational middle-class families would buy more expensive pets, such as pedigree dogs, to signal their higher wealth and status.

“Pedigree dog breeding really takes off in the Victorian period. Dogs were very popular for Victorians, partly because they embody cultural values Victorians were really keen on: they’re seen as steadfast, loyal, plucky and courageous,” Hamlett added.

Wild parrots and monkeys imported from the colonies were popular choices for the wealthiest families, as the Victorians did not perceive anything cruel or immoral about keeping such pets.

Rabbits were popular too – boys could be expected to build hutches from scratch and look after the animals single-handed – but cats were viewed less positively. “Many people kept cats during the Victorian period and felt affectionate towards them, but they were still very much seen as utility animals, which kept mice and vermin down,” Hamlett said.

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As a result, cats weren’t as well-fed as other pets and developed a reputation for being sly and calculating. This wasn’t helped by their traditional association with witches. “It’s only in the 20th century that cats start to be seen wholeheartedly as pets.”

As pets became integrated into family life, contemporary publications and handwritten diaries show just how emotional the Victorians could be about their pets, triggering a new form of consumerism well-known to animal owners today. Self-help books on how to care for specific pets, particularly difficult exotic ones, such as monkeys, began to be published from the 1850s onwards. Health remedies such as “cough pills” for dogs and cats were sold widely and pet food began to be manufactured. Pet cemeteries were even created in London.

Surprisingly, the love Victorians felt for their pets and the role of pets in family life has been largely ignored by historians in the past. “No historian has written about that topic and no research had been done specifically on the history of pets in people’s homes,” said Hamlett. Some of the historical documents her team has looked at have never even been studied before. “But actually, people wrote about their pets quite a lot.”