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  • Pets in America: A History
  • Steven Mintz
Pets in America: A History. By Katherine C. Grier ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. vii plus 377 pp. $34.95).

Americans are voracious pet-keepers. Three-fifths of American households have a pet, and nearly half own two or more. Americans keep nearly 17 million birds, 91 million cats, 74 million dogs, 139 million freshwater fish, 10 million saltwater fish, 11 million reptiles, and 18 million other small animals, spending more than $34 billion annually on pet products and veterinary services, twice the amount in 1994.

Katherine C. Grier's remarkably well-written, richly research study draws on a wealth of diaries, letters, business records, iconographic evidence, and other sources to provide the first comprehensive history of pet keeping in the United States. Readers will learn that pet keeping is not a new phenomenon: Cats and dogs accompanied Europeans to the American colonies not only as work animals but as companions. By the mid-eighteenth century, colonists had begun to keep birds and rabbits in their homes. Readers will also learn about the shifting popularity of various kinds of pets, as well as the evolution of the pet supply and wholesale animal business.

Grier has done an extraordinary job of reconstructing the chronology of pet keeping. We discover that cats were called Puss and parrots Polly as early as the sixteenth century; the international bird trade began in the 1840s; the first packaged pet foods and commercial medicines also appeared in that decade; an aquarium craze took place in the 1850s; and the first dog show took place in the 1860s. Pet toys became popular during the 1920s, and surgical spaying of pets only became common during the 1930s. Especially interesting is Grier's discussion of the proliferation of breeds of dogs and cats. It is noteworthy that [End Page 750] until the early 1900s, family dogs consisted of a narrow range of types: spaniels, hounds, setters, pointers, terriers, mastiffs, and bulldogs.

The heart of Grier's book is a fascinating discussion of psychological and emotional functions of pet keeping. The appeal of fish, which became popular in the 1840s, was primarily aesthetic. In contrast, the attraction of caged birds was as much ideological as aesthetic. Due to "their apparent monogamy and devoted parenting," birds were considered "natural models for middle-class family life" and "living examples" for children (46), while their chatter and music helped to overcome the silence of homes in the days before phonographs and radio. Like Kathleen Kete's study of pet keeping in nineteenth century Paris, Beasts in the Boudoir, Grier's book argues that pet keeping assumed heightened significance as social life grew increasingly impersonal and adversarial. But Grier also suggests other reasons for the heightened interest in pet keeping, above all, the view that pets contributed to children's development by teaching them about love, loyalty, duty, and aesthetic appreciation.

Grier is especially interested in the shifting relationship between humans and their animal companions. Before the twentieth century, owners often personally drowned newborn kittens or puppies that they could not care for, a task many found deeply repellent. The volume contains fascinating information about the shifting ways that owners responded to a pet animal's death. There are particularly interesting discussions of pet funerals, posthumous portraits, and animal cemeteries and grave markers. We also discover that sharing a bed with a pet was rarer in the past than it is today;

Pets in America views the history of pet keeping from a balanced but essentially positive perspective. It traces the growth of an ethic of kindness toward animals, including the enactment of the first statutes against cruelty to animals (as early as 1828), the establishment of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals in the 1860s, and the proliferation of books featuring anthropomorphized animals, especially virtuous, faithful, and loving dogs. The book provides shocking descriptions of how strays were treated in nineteenth century cities; many were strangled with wire lassos or clubbed or shot on the spot. Other signs of an intensified engagement between owners and their pets can be seen in the rise of veterinary practices specializing in small...


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pp. 750-752
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