How the Enlightenment Transformed Cats into Pets

We look at our cats today as the furriest, purriest companions known to humankind. But most cats in colonial America worked for their status as the designated house cat.  It wasn’t all lazy days trying to squeeze into the smallest box possible or snoozing in that tiny sliver of sunlight on the living room floor. I’m a proud companion of a seven year-old fat cat named Jeffrey, who spends much of his time doing these very things.

Jeffery 1

Jeffrey in his favorite spot- the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Jeffery probably would not have enjoyed being a working cat in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, according to archaeologists; many civilizations have treated cats as companions for at least 8,000 years! But cats were often expected to serve a practical purpose, too. Along with companionship, cats were expected to work at jobs like pest control and to even serve as weapons.  This extreme version of work was proposed in an early German explosives and artillery manual that depicts a weaponized cat and bird set loose into an enemy town.

Weaponized Animals

From a “Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses” by Franz Helm (1584). Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 109.

I expect neither pest control nor explosive assaults from Jeffrey, however. The only thing he “attacks” is the lawn and, more often than not, cardboard boxes.

Jeffery 3   Jeffery 2

Cats as Work Animals
For thousands of years, cats accompanied sailors to sea, including European sailors travelling to the colonies. Rats carrying fleas and disease are common stowaways on ships. As a result, cats were — and still are — used as pest control during sea travel.  Even today, sailors have “ship’s cats” to control vermin onboard their vessels. Not only do they prevent disease and destruction of foodstuffs but they keep vermin from damaging ropes and electrical wiring, which could prove CATastrophic (heh heh heh) if not for ship’s cats.

Winston and Blackie

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stops ‘Blackie’, ship’s cat of the HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing over to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Similarly, when Europeans first established their colonies, survival rates were much lower in the beginning due to famine and disease, so pest control was important on land as well as at sea.   Settlers often kept pragmatic, but friendly relationships with cats in order to keep vermin at bay.

Two Cats by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

“Two Cats” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (18th century) depicts cats doing what they were expected to do, which was to kill disease carriers and some birds, like rats, carried disease vectors or could endanger crops. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.

The Enlightenment
We humans of course established bonds with our friendly working critters and some cats were adopted as what we now call “pets”. The 18th century was a transformative time in pet ownership as we have shown with dogs in another blog post. It had not always been acceptable to keep a pet in European countries. The luxuries that our pets enjoy today would be inconceivable to a person before the Age of Enlightenment. Outfits, daycare, even hotels are now available to our furry friends.  In earlier times, pets were deemed wasteful because keeping them devoted resources to an animal that was neither food nor used for its labor. It was even considered sinful to squander resources on non-working animals. Pets were a luxury saved for the bourgeoisie.

During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of their own sensibilities and opened up to a range of new philosophical ideas. There was a shift from the church being the main authority to the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge was reason.  People who were newly questioning authority also undoubtedly questioned why they could not devote resources and attention to an animal for no other reason than enjoyment and companionship.  With this attitude change, animals became viewed more as a non-human member of the household and were eventually valued in their own right. Cats became pets.

“Favourites”
We can see the growing prominence of cats as pets in 18th century poetry, paintings, and songs.

One such poem by Thomas Gray published in 1748 was called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The next-to-last stanza describes the tragic moment.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!

When Gray called the ill-fated cat “a Favourite,” he used an earlier term for “pet”.

European and American portraiture repeatedly depicted people with their pets and cats were common subjects both alone and with their human counterparts. Below, you can see two 18th century portraits of people interacting with their favorite cats.

“Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight” by Joseph Wright (c.1768) Credit: ©English Heritage, Kenwood.

As seen above, Joseph Wright took time to depict two small girls dressing up a kitten.  In children especially, the joy a companion animal brings was irresistible. This critter was undoubtedly a favorite and probably wasn’t expected to do much in the way of work.

Tea-totalism by Edward Bird

“Tea-totalism” by Edward Bird (1795). Credit: ©WAVE, www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk.

Above Edward Bird shows a woman enjoying her tea with her companion cat by her side. She even seems to allow the cat onto the table, which many people won’t allow their pets to do even today.

Finally, an 18th century Polish folk song called  “Wlazł kotek na płotek” or “The Kitten Climbed the Fence” was a very popular lullaby, describing a child and grandmother treating the kitten as a favorite by giving it milk when it climbs the fence into their yard.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, according to the Humane Society of the United States, over 97% of cat owners today consider their cats to be a family member or companion. In a way, nearly all domestic cats in America today are “favorites” rather than sources of labor.  The nature in which Americans treat their pets, whether cats, dogs, chickens, or goldfish, reflects the progression of change from the time of the Enlightenment and into present day. While academic research on such an abstract subject is difficult, it is easy to understand how cats progressed from worker and protector to best friend.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

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How the Enlightenment Transformed Dogs into Pets

I like many people in America have a dog. His name is Edward. Edward is a large black lab who sheds everywhere, snores like a grown man, and has a borderline obsession with socks. He is my best friend and has been my constant companion for nine years. I consider him a member of my family. It’s true that he doesn’t physically contribute to the running of the household. He never picks up his toys and more than once he has thrown himself a ticker-tape parade in the living room with newspaper to celebrate his fabulousness. Still, he is the center, the heart, of my home. Edward’s value comes from him being himself and providing unconditional love, loyalty, and lots of laughs.

Edward 1

Edward as a puppy.

Edward 2

Edward was adopted at eight-weeks-old after an injury to his back leg, which could not be saved. He is now a healthy nine-year-old tri-paw, who loves to talk to people about adopting special needs dogs.

The sentimental view of dogs as faithful and adoring companions is a pretty recent phenomenon. For much of our history, human and canine relationships have been one of cooperation, not out affection, but rather survival. This noticeably changed around the end of the 18th century and two of the main reasons are philosophy and middle-class urbanity.

Enlightenment and the Rise of Sentimentality
The Enlightenment’s ideas dominated the 18th century world and gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. These concepts were based on the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge is reason. The Enlightenment ushered in an age of fundamental social, scientific, and philosophical change.

One of these deep philosophical shifts led people to start thinking of animals as valued in their own right rather than based on their usefulness to humankind. The idea of sensibility or the perception of others’ emotions, particularly among the vulnerable, became quite fashionable. Having a pet, like a dog, became an acceptable way to demonstrate this sensitivity. By the end of the 18th century, the representation of the dog as faithful, loyal, and adoring was a fixture in popular culture. Broadsheets and magazines regularly published stories extolling the noble virtues of the canine and even noted their ability to think, problem solve, and communicate with people.

This admiration for the dog was endorsed by many notable writers and philosophers of the time. Poet Alexander Pope said that “histories are more full [sic] of examples of fidelity of dogs than of friends”. Clergyman Humphrey Primatt became an advocate for animal’s right in 1776 when he published what essentially amounted to a declaration of rights for animals. Even the esteemed Benjamin Franklin wrote “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.”

Urbanity and the Middle-Class
Shifts in philosophical thinking were not the only reason that dogs began to make their way from the fields into people’s living rooms. Colonial America, by the late 18th century, saw the rise of more affluent urban communities, a development that made keeping pets more feasible and desirable. In prosperous cities, the middle-class found pets as a way to express their status. Instead of having hunting dogs like the gentry to show wealth, they had lap dogs like pugs, pomeranians, papillions, shih tzus, malteses, or King Charles Spaniels. These dogs were usually adornments for the lady of the house. They were given bejeweled collars and carried around to mimic the style of English aristocracy. This view of dogs as adornment was not a particularly sophisticated or humane trend but, once the dog was in the house, affection grew as their qualities became more apparent and they began to be treated more as family. Dogs were no longer an accessory but a companion and sometimes even a confidant.

Best Buds
This evolution of dogs from ornament to friend can be seen in two notable examples: newspaper advertisements and portraiture.

The first newspaper printed in Virginia was the Virginia Gazette in 1736. It became quite common to see “lost or stolen” ads placed by people looking for their dogs. Colonists placed ads with substantial rewards for the return of their cherished pets. William Finne, advertised in 1777 that his, “very remarkable black shaggy dog of Pomerania breed, called Spado,” had been “Lost or Stolen,” and he was offering the sum of twenty dollars for its return. Likewise, when a bulldog named Glasgow, who could usually be found snoozing behind the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, went missing his owner placed an ad in the paper asking for his return with a twenty shilling reward. These two ads perfectly illustrate the era’s changing attitudes toward the family dog and their position in the house. Like today, when the family dog went missing, it created a void and, like us, early Americans were willing to publicly pronounce their concern and love for the missing pet and offer a significant reward for their return.

Spado

Announcement in the Friday, March 7, 1777 edition of the Virginia Gazette offering a reward for a lost or stolen dog named Spado.

Portraiture is another example that illustrates the people’s increasing affection for the family dog in the 18th century. Today, we all love taking pictures of our dogs doing pretty much anything. Facebook feeds and social media accounts are filled with the cute antics of owners and their puppies. In the 17th and 18th century, there was a similar trend of having pictures to show off the family pet. More families in the second half of the eighteenth century had their portraits painted and many of these included a cherished pet. This showed families made a concerted effort to include the dog in their documentation of their domestic life.

The Peale Family by Charles Willson Peale

The Peale Family by Charles Willson Peale (1809). Argus, the family dog, can be seen in the lower foreground. Public domain. Credit: Wikipedia

While these theories and examples are not definitive proof of the changing relationship between humans and pets from one of survival to affection, they do illustrate a great attention starting to be paid to the dog. Dogs’ position during the eighteenth century did move from outside the residence to inside the house as a family member. There is still a great amount of research that needs to be done on the subject but the abstract nature of verifying emotional attachments and affection is difficult. There is one thing for certain. Once you let a dog into your life it will change forever and you can’t help but fall in love with them whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager