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History’s going to the dogs

Ella, by Michael Richmond

Ingrid Tague was busy writing a book about aristocratic women in 18th century Britain when another book idea hit her.

Why not write about 18th century European attitudes toward pets?

Tague, associate professor and chair of the history department, had been studying an elderly woman’s letters to her son and daughter-in-law that were all about her pets: five dogs, a parrot and a monkey. She loved them, Tague says, but others thought her love for them was simply ridiculous.

“Pet keeping was viewed with suspicion in the 18th century,” Tague says, and that’s what she finds so interesting.

In the 1700s, pet keeping wasn’t socially acceptable, says Tague, who has been gathering information from history books, correspondence, children’s books and portraits of people with their pets.

“At worst, it was morally questionable,” she says. “You wasted money to feed animals that weren’t doing anything.”

Working animals, such as hunting dogs, were more acceptable. But because women supposedly were more interested in pleasure, materialism and fashion, Tague says, they were associated with other sorts of pets. “Dogs were the most popular to own,” Tague says, noting that monkeys, birds and squirrels — “easy to train to do tricks” — were other popular choices.

Scientists of the time even classified animals not only by physical attributes, but also by moral standards. Dogs, horses and elephants were considered the best animals to keep, while cats were considered the worst, Tague says, because scientists classified them as “disloyal, manipulative and untrustworthy.”

“The 18th century was the great age of stuff,” says Tague, who has no pets herself. “They started having more disposable income, but pet keeping was not an acceptable way to use that money,” she says.

Tague notes that by the end of the 18th century, pet ownership was becoming more mainstream but still carried some stigma. Today, pets are a $38 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

“They live in the house with you, and their primary function is companionship and entertainment rather than work and food.”

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