Thursday, July 31, 2014

Man's Best Friend in the 18th Century

By Louise Higgins
Gunston Hall Docent

Girl and Dog by Charles Bridges, c.1715
“Strayed or stolen from the subscriber, at Leed’s town, on the 18th of September, a spaniel bitch, with white and brown spots, answers to the name of Madame, had a silk collar round her neck with a buckle. Whoever returns her to me , in Williamsburg, shall have a half a pistole reward.” This advertisement was posted in the Virginia Gazette in October 1751. I realize that when doing research, we should not make assumptions about what we find in history. On the other hand, to just make a meaningful study of history takes a certain amount of imagination. When I read the previous ad, what I picture is a father whose daughter’s (or wife’s) dog has gone missing. I realize that silk was used by both men and women in the 18th century, but in my mind’s eye, all I can picture is a pink silk collar with a silver buckle put on a much loved family pet by a young girl. That may not be at all the reality, but that view certainly grabbed my emotions and interest enough for me to continue the research with enthusiasm.

Dogs were a complex and ubiquitous part of colonial America as they are in our society today. Because dogs were so integrated into society, we, looking back, may have a hard time seeing them: people don’t write about what’s commonplace, and dogs were everywhere. What is certain is people across all social strata interacted with dogs in both positive and negative ways.

Dogs played many roles in 18th century Virginia; one of the most obvious and useful was for protection and security. Virginia at the time was a largely agrarian society, made up mostly of small independent farms. Having a dog on the property added another layer of security to an isolated farm. Another job held by dogs in the 18th century was herding sheep. These sheep dogs were not the modern Old English Sheepdog that we know today. They were not a specialized breed, though typically the dogs used for sheep herding were rough coated and short tailed. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among those employed sheep dogs for their flocks. Thomas Jefferson was recorded as presenting George Washington with some puppies from a litter of his “shepherd’s dogs.” (Jefferson letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, As with all working dogs, modern and colonial, they had to be intelligent and strong.

Major Thomas Dade by Thomas Gainsborough, 1755.
Courtesy of the Tate.
For the average Virginia farmer, hunting wild game and fowl helped to supplement the family diet. The landed plantation owner who also hunted this way. Though well to do, they would have had to feed quite a large number of people, and additions to the plantation diet through hunting would have been very welcome. Dogs were kept and bred for hunting and tracking purposes. Deer, of course, was a natural favorite to hunt, but “Practically everything … that moved was fair game, from bears and wolves to possums.” (Jane Carson)

Hunting was both a necessity and a pastime. And dogs, like horses in the 18th Century, were kept for pleasure as well as work. Many plantation owners during this period that enjoyed fox hunting, which was a purely aristocratic amusement. Unlike subsistence hunting, fox hunting was an elaborate endeavor, which could last for days. There were proscribed rules regarding the fox hunt. Those rules encompassed the everything from how and when the hounds were released after the fox, to the activities both preceding and following the hunt itself. If the fox was caught, it might very well be brought back alive and turned out again the next day for further sport. George Washington kept and bred fox hounds at Mount Vernon, and went fox hunting often. John Mason tells us in his Recollections that his father, George, enjoyed riding to the hunt even up to his middle and older years. In the 18th century, dogs developed through the efforts of George Washington and others, came to be known as the Virginia Hound (or Foxhound,) as it is known to this day. For an amusing contemporary illustration of how devoted Virginia Plantation owners were to the sport of fox hunting, please visit the article Personable Pooches.

Virginia Foxhound

Aside from the working aspect, dogs then, as today, provided companionship. This is such an interesting topic. Dogs have been welcomed and loved as pets by the aristocracy since antiquity. One interesting stained glass image from Cologne, France, circa 1520 shows an almost modern picture of a pet dog sleeping at the foot of the owner’s bed. This piece of stained glass is currently in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and is available online here.

Christian Stelle Bannister and Son by Gilbert Stuart,1773.  Courtesy of the Redwood Library 
and Athenaeum.
Among the colonial gentry, dogs were very popular and beloved pets. The Virginia Gazette has many lost dog advertisements. In every case the, dog owner is willing to pay for the return of the dog. One example tells of General Lee whose Pomeranian dog, Spado, was lost or stolen. The general is so intent on retrieving him that, not only will he offer a reward, but if the dog is returned, “no questions will be asked.” The Governor was also subject to dog theft, and just as intent on the return of his animals: one of which was a bull dog named Glasgow. From this collection of dogs, we can see the loving consideration that the gentry had for their dogs. Other evidence of the owner’s fondness for their dogs is how they were immortalized in art by their owners. Throughout the period, family portraits included dogs. One somewhat extreme example of how the family dogs were remembered comes from a member of the wealthy was from a Lightfoot family. He had buttons made for his coat that represented his favorite dogs.

George Booth by William Dering, 1748-1750.
Courtesty Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Discussing lost and stolen dogs brings us to another aspect of the dogs’ place in colonial society. There was a fear of stray dogs and the diseases they might carry. Rabies was a very real threat, then as today. And like today, there were laws regarding loose dogs within the town boundaries. All dogs needed to have a collar with the name of their owner, barring that, it was lawful to kill a dog with no collar. (October 1772, Williamsburg City Council, Mayor, and Alderman) Now it becomes more clear the urgency with which those ads where placed. If the dog was lost or stolen, and by some means had lost its collar, it could very well be legally killed.
This brings us back to the relationship between the working dog and his family. Unlike with the gentry, pets kept solely as companion animals are rare among the lower classes. This could be due to several reasons. Primarily, the lower classes may not have had the means to keep an animal that was not an active contributor to the family. Also, we just don’t know much about the lower classes as we do the gentry. If they were keeping pets, there is little record of it. Having said all of that, the people that were accused of stealing the dogs that were in the advertisements mentioned above were often indentured servants. In one particular case, the reason given for the theft by the indentured servant was because the dog was “a great favorite” of his.

Whether one is a subsistence farmer, indentured servant or slave, doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t emotionally attached to the dogs that they were around. Just because a dog has to be a working contributor to the family does not mean that it is not a loving relationship on both sides.

Brieg, James. “The Eighteenth Century Goes to the Dogs” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 2004. Web. 23 July 2014. 
Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginians at Play. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1965. Print. "Dogs." Thomas Jeffersons Monticello Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Herding Dogs in Colonial America." Stockdog Savvy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
Hood, Graham. “Personable Pooches” Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 206. Web. 23 July 2014. <> 
"Virginia Foxhound Club." Virginia Foxhound Club. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Virginia Gazette, Hunter, October 17, 1751, Page 3." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. "Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, April 28, 1774, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014. 
"Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, September 24, 1772, Page 2." Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.

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