Pets in America: A History

Pets in America: A History

Pets in America: A History

Pets in America: A History


Entertaining and informative, Pets in America is a portrait of Americans' relationships with the cats, dogs, birds, fishes, rodents, and other animals we call our own. More than 60 percent of U.S. households have pets, and America grows more pet-friendly every day. But as Katherine C. Grier demonstrates, the ways we talk about and treat our pets--as companions, as children, and as objects of beauty, status, or pleasure--have their origins long ago.

Grier begins with a natural history of animals as pets, then discusses the changing role of pets in family life, new standards of animal welfare, the problems presented by borderline cases such as livestock pets, and the marketing of both animals and pet products. She focuses particularly on the period between 1840 and 1940, when the emotional, behavioral, and commercial characteristics of contemporary pet keeping were established. The story is filled with the warmth and humor of anecdotes from period diaries, letters, catalogs, and newspapers.

Filled with illustrations reflecting the whimsy, the devotion, and the commerce that have shaped centuries of American pet keeping, Pets in America ultimately shows how the history of pets has evolved alongside changing ideas about human nature, child development, and community life.

This book accompanies a museum exhibit, "Pets in America," which opens at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, in December 2005 and will travel to five other cities from May 2006 through May 2008.


My mother, who has the most reliable memory of anyone in the family, informs me that my first word was “kitty.” This fact alone is probably sufficient as an explanation for the existence of this book.

Relationships with animals have been a big part of my life since that first recognizable word. I grew up in the suburbs and spent my years from age six to thirteen in a new housing development outside an industrial city in upstate New York. Across the street from my house was a vacant lot with a shallow creek, and on the other end of the large cul-de-sac, which was ringed with split-level and ranch houses, was what we children called “The Woods,” which featured a marshy area dubbed “The Swamp.” the fields that covered most of our township were still part of working farms, home to herds of dairy cows. Our housing development was populated by a large number of school-age children and by family cats and dogs who were allowed to roam freely and were identified by both first and last names (Moose Pryor, Tipper Mitchell). Our basset hound Gussie liked to sleep on the warm blacktop road in front of our house, and our neighbors knew to drive slowly and honk their horns to urge her up and out of the way. She also knew how to beg treats from the neighbors and made regular rounds in search of leftovers and dog biscuits.

In this setting, I grew up observing, collecting, playing with, and caring for a variety of small animals. in fact, I grew up in a family of pet keepers. Animals, both wild and tame, were cherished by my parents, by their parents before them, and by several generations before them. Their stories were part of family lore, and several are part of this book. But let me share one I particularly like that didn’t fit anywhere else. My great-grandfather had a wooden leg—not a peg leg like a pirate, which I would have regarded as glamorous, but a slightly scary carved calf and foot that strapped on and was covered with a sock and shoe. When I was very small, he and Great Grandma had a big white cat named Snowball. When Snowball was a kitten, Great Grandpa got a laugh out of encouraging him to jump out from under the furniture and attack the wooden leg, which of course did not feel anything. However, Snowball soon . . .

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