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Delaware Exhibit Shows History of Pets in the US

How fascinating! Bark in if you've seen this exhibit! Thanks to SFGate.com for this article. Exhibit Shows Love Affair With Pets By RANDALL CHASE, Associated...

Joy  |  Nov 15th 2007


How fascinating! Bark in if you’ve seen this exhibit!

Thanks to SFGate.com for this article.

Exhibit Shows Love Affair With Pets
By RANDALL CHASE, Associated Press Writer

Saturday, November 10, 2007
Wilmington, Del. (AP)

Visitors to Winterthur sometimes experience a “Wow!” moment when touring the museum’s permanent and traveling collections, but the newest exhibit offers a bit of a twist.

“Bow-wow!” might be the more appropriate response to “Pets in America,” which traces Americans’ love affair with their animals from the 18th century to the present.

In what may be a first for Winterthur, visitors can bring their own pet photos or portraits, which will be displayed and archived as part of the museum’s record of the exhibit.

The family friendly exhibit, on view through Jan. 20, is the brainchild of Katherine Grier, a professor in Winterthur’s American material culture program. The show grew from her research into human-animal relationships in the United States while she was at the University of South Carolina, where the exhibit debuted two years ago.

Winterthur is the fifth stop for the show, which is next scheduled to travel to Florida. At Winterthur, it is being supplemented with about 40 items from the museum’s collection.

The exhibit, based on Grier’s acclaimed 2006 book of the same name, begins by linking pet keeping in America to its earlier roots, amusingly illustrated with ornate cages used in the Far East to house pet crickets prized both for their chirping songs and competitive fighting.

Closer to home, cats and dogs often served dual purposes in early America, as both workers and companions. Songbirds, primarily canaries, were hugely popular pets in the early 20th century, as evidenced by the variety of bird cages in the exhibit.

“From an economic standpoint, they were more manageable; a caged bird was easy to keep,” noted James Serpell, professor of humane ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society.

“Back then, nobody had Gramophones or iPods or radios that provided them with background music, so they had birds instead.”

The exhibit shows how dog accommodations have run the gamut from the simple to the ornate, juxtaposing a Turkish-style “pet pavilion” from the parlor of a Boston home with a simple yellow pine and tin box from early 19th-century Pennsylvania.

Not surprisingly, the growing popularity of pets resulted in an explosion of products and services. The exhibit features an original bag of “Kitty Litter” the brand name coined by Michigan businessman Edward Lowe after he found a new use in 1947 for the clay granules he had been selling to absorb spills of industrial solvents.

The American pet product industry turned out a variety of other must-have items, such as an alarm clock-activated automatic feeder for home-alone pets, a smorgasbord of dried and canned food products, grooming kits, toys, treats and the Jetco radio-activated shock collar for dog training.

Hollywood was more than willing to get in on the act, with animal heroes such as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Morris the Cat, all represented in the exhibit. Then there were presidential pets, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish terrier Fala, who once received his own New Year’s greeting, addressed to “Little Doggie Falla Roosevelt,” from a third-grade class at Inman Park School in Atlanta.

The section of the exhibit on veterinary medicine shows the parallel between early pet care and the patent medicine industry that preyed on people’s medical fears and ignorance.

Michael Smith, a veterinarian and collector who contributed items to the exhibit, said the first medicines for dogs often were diluted strychnine and arsenic products.

“A lot of the stuff in the exhibition is considered quackery,” he said.

Smith noted that in the 19th century, horses were among people’s most prized possessions. With few trained veterinarians available, people likely were to rely on colic medicine or lameness ointment from the general store if a horse was ailing.

A medicine cabinet that Smith picked up at a flea market offers a glimpse of the late 19th-century offerings of Boston salesman Dr. A.C. Daniels, including “Wonder Worker” lotion.

The exhibit shows that if things didn’t work out as the patent medicine hawkers promised, people could always remember their pets with posthumous portraits, burials in pet cemeteries or cremation urns.

With more than 60 percent of American households having pets and spending an estimated $41 billion on their animals this year, the love affair between human and animal shows no signs of abating.

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