Tag Archives: The City Is More Than Human

Our city, our pets: Guest post from ‘The City Is More Than Human’ author Frederick L. Brown

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!

Credit: Christy Avery

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.

Credit: MOHAI, SHS12890

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.”

Credit: MOHAI, 1974.5923.46; photo by McBride Anderson

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.”

Credit: Frederick L. Brown

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.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Hester 10587; photograph by Wilhelm Hester

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.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Warner 3107 (detail)

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.

Credit: Frederick L. Brown

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.

Credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, KHL195; photo by Ambrose Kiehl

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.

Credit: MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Photograph Collection, 1986.5.4202.3

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.

October 2016 News, Reviews, and Events


The Washington Center for the Book at The Seattle Public Library announces the finalists in eight categories for the 2016 Washington State Book Awards for outstanding books published by Washington authors in 2015. Congratulations to our finalists Ana Maria Spagna (Reclaimers; Biography/Memoir) and Ruth Kirk (Ozette; History/General Nonfiction). The winners in each category will be announced at the awards ceremony on October 8, 2016. Emcee for the evening is Frances McCue, twice a UW Press finalist for a WSBA (in 2011 for The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs and in 2015 for Mary Randlett Portraits). The awards celebration is free and open to the public.

University of Washington Press shares in the remembrance of Sarah Reichard, who died suddenly in her sleep on August 29, 2016. Dr. Reichard directed the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, was coeditor of Invasive Species of the Pacific Northwest, and advised UW Press on other projects. Read obituaries and details on the October 13th memorial celebration in the Seattle Times and Offshoots (blog of the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences).

Reviews and Interviews

Michael Upchurch reviews Looking for Betty MacDonald by Paula Becker in the Seattle Times: “The Egg and I, The Plague and I and Anybody Can Do Anything practically cavort off the page. How did [Betty MacDonald] do it? Seattle author Paula Becker has some answers in her compact, finely crafted biography.”

Lory Widmer Hess reviews the biography on her Emerald City Book Review blog: “I was delighted to explore MacDonald’s life and work through Paula Becker’s thoughtful, painstakingly researched biography, and even more thrilled to see that University of Washington Press is going to be reprinting three hard-to-find later works by the bestselling author of The Egg and I: Anybody Can Do Anything, The Plague and I, and Onions in the Stew. . . . If you’re not a MacDonald enthusiast, you will be soon. . . . We can be grateful that Becker has preserved it for us in words, and has given us valuable insights into her world, her books, her family, and the writer herself.”

Barbara McMichael reviews in the Kitsap Sun: “The pages zing with unexpected detail and nuggets of lacerating wit. . . If you’re Looking for Betty MacDonald, you need look no further.” Paula’s other book (The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) and the MacDonald reissues (The Plague and I, Anybody Can Do Anything, and Onions in the Stew) also get mentions.

Steve Donoghue reviews the books at Open Letters Monthly: “A smart and immensely readable portrait, taking readers through MacDonald’s life. . . . Becker has combed every interview and profile, and her book veritably glows with MacDonald’s recaptured wit. . . . Thanks to Paula Becker’s exhaustive research and the compassionate, standard-setting book she’s shaped out of it, 21st century readers can meet a much fuller and more fascinating version of that complex, challenging, laughing woman. Readers of her books will still want to thank her, but thanks to Looking for Betty MacDonald, they’ll know her much better.” The Plague and I (“improbably funny. . . equally remarkable”) and Anybody Can Do Anything (“again improbably funny”) also get mentions.

Bainbridge Community Broadcasting’s “What’s Up Bainbridge” host Wendy Wallace speaks with Paula Becker about the biography and reissues.
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