In Britain today, pets represent a significant contribution to the economy. In 2015, the store Pets at Home reported half-year pre-tax profits of £45.2 million; in 2014, the top 100 UK veterinary businesses reported a record turnover of £1.36 billion. Pets are often at the heart of family life, but we know relatively little about the roles they played in families in the past.
Our project looks at the changing position of animals in the home, in relation to broader shifts in family life, including transformations in size, relationships, intimacy, housing and living conditions that took place in this era.
Pets played a powerful emotional role in the everyday lives of individuals and families and their presence constituted an important part of domestic life. Often considered peripheral, studying these creatures can tell us a great deal about the changing behaviours of families, their authority structures and hierarchies, relationships and emotional lives, as well as the use of the built environment and domestic routines.
So far, pets have attracted the attention of scholars who point to their increasing presence in Victorian society, and the broader social and ethical significance of the treatment of animals. But we know much less about their role in family life. The research for our project comprises a major new archival survey, focusing on the cultural representation of pets and families, consumption and the growing market for pet-related products, and their everyday presence in households across the social spectrum.
The project is run by Professor Jane Hamlett from Royal Holloway, University of London and Professor Julie-Marie Strange from the University of Manchester, who are working with a team of researchers including Dr. Lesley Hoskins and Dr. Rebecca Preston.
The research team are in the process of exploring how pets figured in the contemporary imagination, by analysing artwork and illustrations, novels, and popular print culture. We are also surveying how pets were bought and sold and the new things that were created for them, including specialist products such as food, collars and toys. Finally, we are also looking at how pets figured in the everyday lives of families by carrying out a large-scale survey of personal documents including diaries, letters, oral histories and photographs.
An important part of the project is thinking about past pets in the context of public history – and to connect our understandings of the past with the way in which pets figure in the emotional lives of families today.
Throughout the project the team will be working with Hampshire Record Office, Surrey History Centre, Wandsworth Heritage Service and the National Trust Hardman’s House, institutions that hold significant collections of pet photography, in order to create exhibitions and a programme of public events.