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  • Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies and Arabian Horses since 1800
  • Max Foran (bio)
Margaret E. Derry. Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies and Arabian Horses since 1800 Johns Hopkins University Press. xvi, 198. US $36.95

As the title suggests, this book deals with the development of breeding techniques in three animals all highly prized for their unique qualities and all perceived as exemplars of excellence. Margaret E. Derry contends that a desire in eighteenth-century Britain to standardize animal types resulted in systematic inbreeding and an emphasis on selection through male lines. This led to a public record-keeping system which in turn affected markets and breeding practices. In this well-documented study, Derry takes the reader through the steps that characterized the development of the Shorthorn, the Collie and the Arabian to the present day. Certainly, breeders and lovers of each animal will find much to enjoy and learn in Derry's detailed analysis and comprehensive bibliography.

The strength of the discussion lies in the several common themes that Derry elaborates in her treatment of all three animals. First Derry sees purebred breeding as both a science and an art form and one best exemplified by a select group of breeders who underpinned both approaches with a genuine love and respect for the animals they bred. Her discussion of the influence of these major breeders, both positive and negative, is a real strength of the book. Second, the intricacy of the purebred breeding process itself is elaborated in discussions on all three animals with respect to purity versus quality, the meaning of 'improvement,' and the role of pedigree as a determining factor. Derry also focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of the registry system. While it enabled identification of animals and bloodlines, it also raised serious issues concerning the degree of purity in foundation animals. She also showed how these public records ultimately governed marketing and breeding practices.

Derry demonstrates convincingly that purebred breeding was very much a commercial endeavour. The 'right' animal, bred the 'right' way, brought handsome dividends to its owner. As examples, she quotes nineteenth-century prices of $40,600 for a Shorthorn and $8000 for a collie, and a $40 million annual turnover by an Arabian breeding corporation in the 1980s. Market demand was a major factor influencing breeding developments. A good example was the influence accorded to form (appearance) over function (utility) in breeding for improvement. Derry associates preference for the former with elitism and fads and demonstrates very clearly how a coterie of influential people could arbitrarily define excellence. Whether it was colour in Shorthorns, a narrow head in Collies, or the desire for certain strains in Arabians, certain perceived attributes drove prices up and created buying frenzies. Derry also shows how a few [End Page 470] wealthy buyers, by dominating the market, affected overall quality in the market place, often detrimentally.

Derry inserts purebred breeding into Anglo-American trading patterns. She shows how American breeders and buyers were influenced by developments in Britain. For example, a strong US demand for collies influenced breeding practices in Great Britain. A rapidly growing beef market in the United States led American cattlemen to seek superior beef breeding stock in Great Britain. The English Arabian found its best market in the United States. The large-scale movement of ideas, animals, and money across the Atlantic was an enduring feature of the purebred industry, and, from a historical point of view, provides a useful dimension of Anglo-American trading practices.

I thought Derry might have inserted more Canadian perspectives. She did so with the Shorthorn and showed how the variants in the registry systems which developed in Canada and the United States may have reflected different socio-political cultures. Unfortunately she did not carry these comparisons through to the Collie and the Arabian. Also, when she does focus on Canada, it is almost solely on Ontario. Was nothing happening elsewhere in the country?

But these are minor points. This is an excellent book. In showing how animal improvement served both economic and social purposes, Derry tells much about the nature of human beings.

Max Foran

Max Foran, Faculty of Communication and Culture, University...


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pp. 470-471
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