Children and Pets

One key audience for the growing pet industry in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries was children and parents. The literature  scholar Marc Shell notes that among the benefits attributed to pet ownership today are that they ‘help children to learn gentleness and responsibility’. The content of emerging children’s columns in newspapers in the late-nineteenth century suggests that pets played a similar role in the Victorian family. A story printed in the Leeds Mercury in 1882, for instance, used one little boy’s dog, cat, canary and rabbit to talk about ‘happy families’, declaring that if the boy ‘ever meets with a grown-up person who is discontented and ill-natured, and who seldom uses gentle words, he may be very sure that he or she was not trained from infancy to be helpful and loving and forbearing’ as the boy was with his pets (11/02/1882).

Letters columns hint at the kinds of relationships children experienced with their animal friends. Little Folks magazine’s ‘Post Office’, for example, featured children’s various anecdotes about their pets and animals they had encountered. Ivy Wethered (141/2) wrote about the pet alligator her family had, noting the care they took feeding it and putting it safely in its cage at night. The letter ended: ‘but one evening we could find it nowhere, and had to leave it out all night; the next morning it was found at the bottom of the garden. But the poor thing had caught a cold, and died soon after. We kept it three years, during which it grew seven inches, making in all sixteen inches’ (12/1888).

A letter to the ‘Children’s Hour’ supplement to the Hampshire Telegraph similarly recounted how, on finding one of the chickens stiff and ‘almost dead’, ‘Papa took it up, carried it indoors, had a piece of flannel warmed, wrapped it in it, put it in a basket, and laid the basket on the plate-rack on top of the stove, and soon it began to revive a little, so papa gave it a few drops of whiskey. In about half an hour he looked at it, and the little thing seemed to be getting better, so he gave it a little more whiskey, with a little milk added to it. In a little time we heard it crying for its mother, and now it seems as lively as its brothers and sisters’ (21/05/1887). It is hard to tell whether these children were emotionally attached to their animals, or whether the chicken qualifies as a ‘pet’, but the stories suggest that they were encouraged to show care and consideration for animals, and to think of them in the terms of human families.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the habits and adventures of pets were clearly a strong point of interest in the lives of middle-class children. Animals were a medium for socialising children. Little Folks featured a letter, purportedly from a ten-year-old child, celebrating a cat who, after being given away to friends who lived 70 miles away, was found to have returned voluntarily to its original home: ‘After that you may be sure he was made a great pet of, and never parted with again. This is quite true’ (12/1888). Here the cat had to earn the status of a ‘pet’ through her ‘cleverness’ and loyalty. But the letter also neatly promoted cleverness, loyalty and tenacity as qualities to be admired.

Children’s curiosity in the behaviour and capabilities of their pets also provided a vehicle for education. Responding to an article about a scientist working on monkey communications, ‘Hugh B’ wrote to the Children’s Column of the Leeds Mercury with a question prompted by some careful observations of the relationships between his pets:

some of us, I am sure, would like to know also whether all beasts have a language of their own. I am fond of animals, and that is why I am writing to you in this way. In our house we have a dog, a cat, a canary, and a parrot. The dog and the cat are quite friendly, and the parrot imitates both of them, barking sometimes like the dog and mewing at other times like the cat. It tries also to imitate the whistling of the canary, and that is very funny. But the parrot does not like the tortoise one bit, and screeches whenever it gets a sight of it.

The editor responded with a discussion of the latest science on animal communication (20/06/1894). The column seems to have functioned as a way to introduce children to scientific observation and reasoning, and perhaps to train them in navigating human relationships, through their natural fondness for animals. Writers had long been alive to the didactic value of animals in teaching children core morals and values. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the capacity for adults to use animals in children’s emotional development had become sufficiently normalised to provide copy in an expanding popular press that included a children’s market. It also, ostensibly at least, invited children to become active agents in the emotional and moral development of each other through the medium of animal stories.

This blog was written by Dr. Luke Kelly.

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