Today we are featuring an illustrated guest post on the history of our favorite furry and feathered friends by The City Is More Than Human: An Animal History of Seattle author Frederick L. Brown. Brown was recently awarded the 2017 Virginia Marie Folkins Award from AKCHO (Association of King County Historical Organizations) for his book, published last fall, and also delivered the 2017 Denny Lecture at MOHAI.
Read on to learn more about the role pets have played in Seattle’s urban history!
Dogs are rarely seen reading urban history – the bright-eyed fellow pictured above notwithstanding – but dogs have played a vital role in urban history. Over the last century, their numbers have increased dramatically. One rough estimate is that their population has increased from five thousand in 1905 to 150,000 today. The working dog is not absent from the city today: from guide dogs, to guard dogs, to dogs in police K9 units. Yet, the role of pure companion, with no expectation of work, predominates. Many of us couldn’t imagine urban life without our furry friends.
A century ago, dogs were friends to be sure, but also as guard-dogs, hunting dogs, ratters, and workers at other tasks. Often, the role of work and play blended. For instance, the dogs in the front row of this 1898 image of McVay Mill, in Ballard, may have blended roles as mascots, pets, and watchdogs. One newspaper ad from 1921 captured the mixing of roles: “Police Dog puppies. The most intelligent and faithful companion, excellent as watchdog and ideal as pet for children.”
Other dogs had a role as pure companions a century ago. Here for example, Priscilla Grace Treat cuddles her dog, around 1920. Seattleites had deep connections of love and friendship with their dogs. For instance, one family wrote of their German shepherd in 1935, “He is treated as a member of the family and with a laugh takes the rocking chair, when he feels like sitting in it.”
Cats generally have better things to do than read urban history, making this curious girl from the Central District hard to explain. But they too have been woven into the city’s history, since its founding. Cats’ urban role has perhaps undergone an even greater transformation than that of dogs. Before the widespread use of cat litter in the 1940s, it was considered unsanitary for them to spend much time indoors.
A century ago, most cats had a working role killing mice and rats, in private homes and in businesses. They had an important role in any business storing, selling, or transporting food that might attract mice and rats. They hunted rodents on docks and ships and, many believed, afforded sailors good luck, making them honored members of ships’ crews, as their presence in numerous crew portraits attests. Here, the crew of the British vessel Penthesilea sits on the deck in a Puget Sound port in 1904. A crew member in the back row holds a cat.
Although cats typically had working roles in the early twentieth century, people also enjoyed them for other reasons. At the Warner residence in Seattle around 1900, a man and woman smile and watch a kitten.
Backyard chickens have become popular in recent years. Some refer to the pleasures of seeing chicken curiosity and their lively exploration of backyards (and even the occasional historical monograph) as “Chicken Television.” In the late 1990s, the Tilth Alliance found soaring interest in its backyard chicken classes. For some city-dwellers, these increasingly popular creatures are “pets with benefits” – the benefits being eggs.
A century ago, backyard chickens were not primarily pets. They were a vital source of eggs, and also meat, to urban dwellers. Yet the daily act of feeding chickens allowed human connection, and children especially, often saw them as pets. Here Miriam Kiehl holds a chicken for a portrait at Fort Lawton in 1899.
Yet, as The City Is More Than Human explores, chickens illustrate the paradoxes of urban pet-keeping. Backyard chickens have remained in the city, and yet increasing numbers of chickens live in large-scale operations far from the city. This battery for laying hens in Woodinville in 1935 was one step along that journey to greater and greater industrialization.
For every one backyard urban chicken today, there are thousands of chickens in faraway industrial-scale farms that provide meat and eggs to Seattleites. Some of the chickens, indeed, provide the meat that feeds urban cats and dogs. That moment of great connection and caring, when we feed our cats and dogs, is also a moment where we generally are ignorant of the lives of those faraway creatures. So, as we think about the wonderful place of urban pets in our lives, let’s also remember those faraway animals that are integral to urban life and urban pet-keeping.
Frederick L. Brown holds a PhD in history from the University of Washington and works on a contract basis as a historian for the National Park Service.