Pampered pet phenomenon not a recent innovation

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Pampered pet phenomenon not a recent innovation

August 4, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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The skull of a pet excavated under its stone shrine in the backyard of an Old Town home can be identified as a medium size shepherd. Oral history provides his name, Zark, and black color.
Most of us have grown up with stories about animals, either real or fictitious, that give us good feelings. Walt Disney has been spinning stories about mice, ducks and dogs for decades that make us laugh and cry.

We imbue animals with human personality traits and raise our pets to fit into our culture. Today pets have honored places in the American home, while their recreational, health, security, and food costs far exceed their initial expense.

While it is easy to imagine humans bonding with dogs 10,000 years ago to form symbiotic partnerships for food and safety, what is the role of a pet in urban life?

The term "pet" has always interested me, since it is a short and fuzzy word without a Latin root. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the word to Scotland and northern England at least by the 16th century. A pet was any tame animal which was kept as a favorite and indulged, originally a lamb raised in the home.

English literature appears around 1830 discussing pets. By the last decades of the 19th century, there was a publishing boom related to pet stories, how-to manuals, and scientific books. Dog stories often stressed their heroism and faithfulness. The how-to books discussed housing, health, feeding. The scientific literature explored the personalities of different breeds, and the emotional and intellectual capacities of dogs.

In 1894, Harriet Mann Miller's book Our Home Pets: How to Keep Them Well and Happy was published. She stated that the dog "identifies himself more completely with his human friends" than other pets. She also gives a cautionary note in that the dog can become the "autocrat of the household" and can "become to everyone excepting the doting mistress an intolerable nuisance".

Mrs. Miller must have been discussing the elite when she inventoried the current needs of the "dog of fashion": velvet cushions, traveling-satchels, table service, toilet articles, playthings, costly harness. This elite dog was buried in an expensive casket with a marble monument.

The dog discovered in the archaeological excavation on South Fairfax Street was not such a pampered pet. Ted McCord and Claudine Weatherford were able to talk with the women who had grown up in the Knight house. Helen Knight and Marian Redmond remembered that their brother had many dogs over the years. They fondly remembered the big black dog, Zark, that had been their brother's favorite. Buried in a special ceremony, Zark, was laid to rest with several stones over the grave as commemoration. It is through archaeology, documents, visuals and memories that we can rediscover Alexandria's heritage.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.