Domesticated Beasts: Animal Representation in Victorian Material Culture

Historical Article Series April 19, 2020 > Domesticated Beasts: Animal Representation in Victorian Material Culture

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 43, No. 5, October/November 2007

This essay was written by Catherine Etner Wright for this past summer’s exhibit of decorative items with animal themes.  The article references many items that were in the exhibit.  

One of the big social changes of the Victorian era was a shift in attitudes toward animals.  Before this, most ordinary Americans lived in close contact with animals that they valued primarily for usefulness.   Horses provided brawn and transport; cats protected family foodstuffs by killing rodents; dogs turned spits, helped hunters, and guarded property.  A man might have a favored horse or a woman her best mouser, but except among the very wealthy, the idea of a pet – an animal kept for pleasure, companionship and pampering – was a silly extravagance.  Keeping animals in the house, except perhaps a guard dog, evidenced poverty, not humaneness.  The arts reflected these notions: animals in portraits either referenced classical mythology (Europa and the bull) or did their jobs well (a racehorse).  By 1850, however, things had changed.  A craze swept the nation for animals indoors – as pets, in paintings, in parlor décor.  Now, indoor animals were romanticized. They weren’t just useful, they provided moral uplift.

The first factor behind this shift was industrialization.  Over the long run, industrialization helped raise the American standard of living by providing more jobs and flooding the market with cheap goods.  At the same time, it shifted the population away from the countryside.  In 1850, close to 90% of Americans lived on the land; by 1900, less than half did so.  Those who moved lost the close contact with animals that had characterized life for centuries, and those who remained behind often had mechanized options for labor.

But as middle wealth Americans left farms behind, they used their wealth to take reminders of animals with them.  They pored over Currier and Ives prints and ate off Staffordshire plates depicting an idealized farm life to which many had once aspired and none attained.  Here the cows either waited obediently while the farmer worked, or ambled through orderly countryside. Such pastoral scenes excised from consciousness the real hardship suffered by many contemporaneous farming families, whether blacks struggling as sharecroppers under Jim Crow, or immigrants trying to bust the sod on the plains.  

Cast iron rabbit cake mold
Cast iron rabbit cake mold

To satisfy nostalgia for an idealized past, middle-wealth families purchased servingware and gadgets in the shape of common animals.  A woman who neither ran a dairy nor tended sheep, could pour her store-bought cream from a Delft cow-shaped creamer, bake cakes in a lamb-shaped mold, and feel closer to the land.  Her husband, too busy with commerce to hunt with dogs, could still warm his feet at a fire set on cast-iron andirons forged as a pair of dachshunds.  Most Victorians detested rodents or reptiles in their homes, but a squirrel nutcracker added memories of watching outdoor life to the task of cracking a nut, and a turtle spittoon hid evidence of vulgarity under its shell. 

Such household objects not only reminded people of rural life in a playful way that did away with the actual dirt and difficulty of farming, but also symbolized human mastery of the world.  Science, trade, immigration, social life, civil war – all brought dislocation to the country during the second half of the nineteenth century.  No wonder native-born Americans wanted to domesticate life, “to bring it into the safety and comfort of home, to enclose and control it and make it less threatening.”  The large pig pitcher provides a vivid example of the trend.   This browbeaten pig was taken from his stye, cleaned up, sent to serve at the table, and forced to wear an emblem of his real use to humans: a ham.   He is completely dominated for the benefit of man.

Animal representations in home décor had other connotations, too.  The era was “the heyday of natural history.”  Darwin was the most famous naturalist of the day, but everybody dabbled.   Natural history quickly became the province of the burgeoning middle classes, who took pride in using their new wealth in serious pursuits, in contrast to frippery European aristocrats.  Every weekend, gentlemen in tweeds and ladies in crinolines (and later, bustles) flocked outdoors with nets, jars and spyglasses to learn first-hand about flora and fauna.  Women, supposedly in their nurturing and emotionalism, and children, supposedly innocent and curious, seemed especially suited to such pursuits. (Men, of course, would tame the wide world through commerce, invention and exploration.)  Birds were a popular interest, because unless a household had someone trained on an instrument, birds were the main providers of music to Victorians in this era before iPods.   Other animals were often pictured in stylized ways on decorative pieces, but depictions of birds from the start of the era showed remarkable attention to differentiating details between species, as seen on the porcelain wash pitcher.  

Also, animal décor sometimes proclaimed a sense of social arrival.  The folk-like painting of the wise old owl celebrated the Victorian and republican value of education by referencing a classical, patrician motif.  The late-century obsession with “airiness” as means to health caused a surge in demand for doorstops to keep one’s home properly ventilated; what better than a peacock, bird of kings, to prop the door?  The most popular of the mass-produced Staffordshire figurines made in the latter half of the nineteenth century, referenced nobility.  The paired spaniels, dogs associated with the Stuart monarchs, surveyed a parlor from the mantle, while the greyhound, bred for aristocratic racing, found its way onto someone’s desk as an inkwell.  Still, even these noble animals were domesticated for parlor life.  For example, the Staffordshire mantle lion was no Lion Rampant of Scottish kings; he is a placid, overgrown tabby-cat, a pet rather than a wild beast. 

Staffordshire pottery dogs
Pairs of Staffordshire pottery dogs graced many Victorian mantles.

And this era first saw widespread pet-keeping among the genteel.  Queen Victoria began the fad by keeping both cats and dogs as family companions.  Keeping a pet seemed especially suited for children:  as playmates, as examples of nature, and as lessons in humaneness.  As Godey’s Lady’s Book advised, “The man, to be trustworthy and ever kind towards animals, must have grown up to it from the boy.  Nothing is so likely to give him that excellent habit as seeing from his very birth animals taken care of and treated with great kindness by his parents, and, above all, having some pet to call his own.”

Dogs seemed especially suited to boys.  Dogs liked the outdoors, and naturally took to hunting and guarding their loved ones.  This made them model companions to boys training for a manhood of going out to work, of protecting and providing for their families. 

Girls, too, needed pets.  Cats seemed the perfect choice.   No longer construed as predators confined to the barn, in the late 1800s, cats came to epitomize all domestic virtues. To parents anxious to pass on the ideal of home as haven to their little girls, cats served as model citizens.  A mother cat, as one story pointed out, raised her kittens for useful, tidy and courteous adulthood.  It was she who “taught them how to lap milk, and to frolic; who boxed their ears when they were rough, who taught them how to wash themselves, to catch mice and know all the things that well-bred cats should, and in a year they were dignified too.”

Families surrounded themselves with artifacts that celebrated worthy feline character, and deplored naughtiness.  Cat doorstops, with dainty ribbons round their neck, extolled usefulness, poise and decorum at toddlers’ eye level.  The groaning kittens depicted in a Currier and Ives print provide a moral stricture against gluttony and drink. Of course, cats’ notorious promiscuity was not a refined feminine virtue.  Victorians covered and tamed feline sexuality to make it appropriate for children, by dressing their cats in respectable clothes in many decorative pieces.  

Cow Creamer Shafer and Vader
A costumed cow creamer by Shafer and Vader

Costuming animals derived from whimsy as well as decency.  Whimsy served as a way of poking gentle fun at people who at times seemed too serious about themselves and their place in the world.  The dressed animal creamers produced by Schafer and Vader at the turn of the century provide a case in point.  All looked faintly ridiculous and uncomfortable in their respectable, middle-class clothing. Thus animal decor not only provided ways for Victorian Americans to express nostalgia for a shrinking rural life, to assert mastery over nature and society, and to domesticate home into a haven, but also for a way to critique themselves.  Underneath, they seemed to admit, even the most respectable of them were tamed beasts, not so far from nature as they might think.

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