Cover image for Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain By Ingrid H. Tague

Animal Companions

Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Ingrid H. Tague


$74.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06588-5

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06589-2

Available as an e-book

320 pages
6" × 9"
38 b&w illustrations

Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures

Animal Companions

Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Ingrid H. Tague

“Thanks to animal studies, the difference between ‘animal’ and ‘human’ is neither stable nor certain. Tague approaches this hierarchy from the human end of the spectrum, finding touching and significant ways in which human pet owners reified or challenged the animal-human relationship in the eighteenth century as pet keeping evolved from a proscribed to an approved cultural practice.”


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Animal Companions explores how eighteenth-century British society perceived pets and the ways in which conversation about them reflected and shaped broader cultural debates.

While Europeans kept pets long before the eighteenth century, many believed that doing so was at best frivolous and at worst downright dangerous. Ingrid Tague argues that for Britons of the eighteenth century, pets offered a unique way to articulate what it meant to be human and what society ought to look like. With the dawn of the Enlightenment and the end of the Malthusian cycle of dearth and famine that marked previous eras, England became the wealthiest nation in Europe, with a new understanding of religion, science, and non-European cultures and unprecedented access to consumer goods of all kinds. These transformations generated excitement and anxiety that were reflected in debates over the rights and wrongs of human-animal relationships.

Drawing on a broad array of sources, including natural histories, periodicals, visual and material culture, and the testimony of pet owners themselves, Animal Companions shows how pets became both increasingly visible indicators of spreading prosperity and catalysts for debates about the morality of the radically different society emerging in eighteenth-century Britain.

“Thanks to animal studies, the difference between ‘animal’ and ‘human’ is neither stable nor certain. Tague approaches this hierarchy from the human end of the spectrum, finding touching and significant ways in which human pet owners reified or challenged the animal-human relationship in the eighteenth century as pet keeping evolved from a proscribed to an approved cultural practice.”
“Ingrid Tague’s Animal Companions helps us understand the extraordinary innovation entailed in the rise of pet keeping in eighteenth-century England. Tague shows how, rather suddenly, the widespread acceptance of relationships of intimacy between human and nonhuman animals shaped political, social, and intellectual views and debates. The rise of pet keeping brought abstract Enlightenment questions into the realm of concrete debate—around the nature of the human, the concepts of ownership and slavery, relationships of affection and alterity, and the exercise of humanitarianism and the ideal of harmony. Tague’s book gives us new insights into the role of human-animal relationships in defining key questions about the human.”
“It would surprise many in our pet-centered world to know that keeping pets was once considered a highly suspect practice, a wasteful, sinful overvaluing of animals that threatened individual and national character. Ingrid Tague’s history of pet keeping in eighteenth-century England illustrates how it evolved, by century’s end, into a broadly accepted, even ‘natural’ part of everyday human life. Populated by memorable characters, both human and animal, and characterized by admirable scholarship and insightful analysis, this wide-ranging and densely detailed historical study investigates how pets functioned as important vehicles in some of the most vexed debates of the day concerning consumption, fashion, morality, sensibility, slavery, gender, and social class.”
“Ingrid Tague’s study contributes to the animalizing of social history since the Enlightenment. During the eighteenth century, global commerce, slavery, and empire made pet keeping newly possible for many people on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, Enlightenment ideas and the rise of commercial and consumer society fuelled new desires for the companionship of domestic animals. Pets ceased to be marginal and became central. Analyzing the entanglements of pets with class, gender, and slavery, but also fashion, frivolity, and property, Tague illuminates how eighteenth-century Britons and their colonial counterparts had recourse to animals for thinking through the most searching questions of their time.”
“Ingrid Tague’s well-documented and clearly written Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain, the first systematic treatment of pet keeping in Enlightenment Britain, traces the evolution of affection toward domestic animals from the beginning of the century, when pet keeping was stigmatized as a waste of human resources and feelings, to the end of the period, when compassion for animals was seen as a necessary sign of genuine humanness. The discussion of the relation between pet keeping and racial theory during the Enlightenment is of particular interest.”

Ingrid H. Tague is Associate Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and Associate Professor of History at the University of Denver.


List of Illustrations



1. The Material Conditions of Pet Keeping

2. Domesticating the Exotic

3. Fashioning the Pet

4. A Privilege or a Right?

5. Pets and Their People






In a cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, sits a monument to three beloved family members who died in the 1970s. All three were in their early teens, and the inscription on their common headstone speaks of the grief of their “Mommy” and “Daddy.” But these were not three human children; they were dogs named Lynett, Bizet, and Chou-Chou, and they lie interred in America’s oldest pet cemetery. The cemetery, which was founded in 1896 (and officially incorporated in 1914), now contains close to eighty thousand pets, mostly dogs and cats, and is still in active use today. The inscription for Lynett and her “siblings” is typical: “Here sleep my most precious possessions who have given us love, happiness, and companionship in past years. Now they are gone forever. Now we remain lonely.” In these sentences, we see the fundamental paradox of modern pet keeping: a deep emotional attachment to individuals who provide the great gifts of “love, happiness, and companionship” and whose loss means loneliness, and, simultaneously, an awareness that those individuals are “possessions.” How can we love a possession? How can a society decide that animals must not receive the privilege of burial among humans, and yet also decide that some are worthy of a cemetery of their own? And how do we choose which animals are thus singled out?

Pets are so ubiquitous in Britain and America today that it can be difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when they were seen as unusual. In our world of specialized accessories, food, and even hotels for pets, when a story of an abandoned or abused animal is an easy way for the local news to tug on our heartstrings, a failure to love animals can seem like a sign of cold-heartedness—a warning sign that a person may not be capable of loving another human, either. And yet we continue to treat pet animals in ways that are completely distinct from our treatment of humans. We may talk of our “fur babies,” but local laws require that dogs be kept on leads, entire breeds considered dangerous can be banned from cities, and, most strikingly, many pet owners agree about the necessity of spaying and neutering their animals. For all that we love our pets, we treat them in ways that would never be acceptable in treating other human beings. And the legal perspective is stark: pets are the property of humans. We may think of ourselves as “Mommy” or “Daddy” to our pets, but they remain distinct from our human children. This book explores the development of modern pet keeping and its attendant paradoxes in a time before the creation of the first pet cemetery, before pet supplies became a multimillion-dollar industry, before towns began to pass ordinances defining pets as “companion animals” and their human owners as “guardians.” During the eighteenth century, when pet keeping was first becoming a widespread phenomenon in Britain, many people were horrified by what they saw as a wasteful extravagance. Material and emotional resources that should have been devoted to humans, in this view, were diverted to the care of creatures that God had intended to serve humans as labor or food. Pet keeping was at best a useless luxury; at worst, it was actually sinful. Yet throughout the century, pet keeping became more commonplace, and by 1800 attitudes had changed so much that many people had come to regard the love of pets as a sign of moral virtue rather than corruption. One goal of this book is to explain why that transformation occurred. More than that, however, I aim to explore the role of pets in helping eighteenth-century Britons think through the major problems of their day.

My central argument is that pets, being neither fully human nor fully part of the natural world—part of a household yet distinct from its human inhabitants—offered a unique opportunity for eighteenth-century Britons to articulate their view of what it meant to be human and what their society ought to look like. This was a period when such questions took on special urgency. It saw the growth of a strong state government, supported through a sophisticated economic system of credit and debt and a greatly expanding overseas empire. Having begun to break out of the Malthusian cycle of dearth and famine, Britain became the wealthiest nation in Europe, with newly widespread disposable income and unprecedented access to consumer goods of all kinds. Closely connected with these material changes was the Enlightenment, with its implications for contemporary understanding of religion, science, and non-European cultures. All of these transformations generated both excitement and anxiety, and they were reflected in debates over the rights and wrongs of human-animal relationships. Pets were both increasingly visible indicators of spreading prosperity and catalysts for debates about the morals of the radically different society emerging in this period.

In order to understand the spread of pet keeping, it is helpful first to explore the meaning of the term “pet.” The word itself is relatively new; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation that refers to an animal comes from 1539, when it meant a “cade lamb”—one reared by hand in the house. The word derives from Scottish Gaelic, and the OED notes that the use was primarily confined to Scotland, northern England, and northern Ireland. This was the same definition that Samuel Johnson provided in his 1755 dictionary. This early meaning suggests two key characteristics of the modern pet: it is tame, and it lives in the house. Yet a lamb reared by hand is clearly not the same thing as a pet dog or cat in our current sense, and it is significant that the word “pet” was rarely used during the early modern period. The OED’s first citation of a source that refers specifically to “an animal (typically one which is domestic or tame) kept for pleasure or companionship” comes from Richard Steele’s Tatler in 1710. Steele describes an old woman who had “transferred the amorous Passions of her first Years to the Love of Cronies, Petts and Favourites,” which were various animals. But Steele’s use of the term relies primarily on another, older definition of “pet” as “favorite,” with the strongly negative connotation of a person who was favored unfairly. When people in the early modern period referred to “pets,” they most often did so in this derogatory sense. This meaning survives today in our concept of the “teacher’s pet”—and, of course, the modern notion of a “pet” incorporates the idea as well: a pet is an animal that has been singled out for special treatment. The word “pet” in the modern sense, combining favoritism and domesticity, did not come into common usage until the nineteenth century, and I contend that this lack reflects the relative absence of pet keeping in early modern society. The phenomenon had to exist before a term developed for it. Occasional references in the late eighteenth century suggest that its usage was gaining popularity during this period, as pet keeping entered the mainstream; for example, a popular children’s book from the 1790s called a woman who kept a cat “Mrs Petlove.”

The OED’s definition is a useful starting point, but I want to draw attention to more specific characteristics of the modern pet. Keith Thomas has suggested three defining features of a pet: it is kept in the house; it is given a special name (often a human one); and it is never eaten. Yi-Fu Tuan, in Dominance and Affection, takes a different approach and emphasizes the power relations at the heart of pet keeping; he argues that a pet is “a diminished being” and “a personal belonging, an animal with charm that one can take delight in, play with, or set aside, as one wishes.” Tuan thus stresses that humans such as women, children, and especially slaves can be pets. Tuan’s insight into the unequal power relations inherent in pet keeping is an important one, and I will return later in this work to the parallels between animals and slaves—parallels of which eighteenth-century observers were well aware. But for the purposes of this book, I want to keep the meaning of “pet” specifically related to animals, and I will emphasize two defining characteristics of the pet: it lives in the domestic space, and its primary purpose for humans is entertainment and companionship. While it is certainly true that people had for a very long time experienced strong emotional ties to animals like horses and hunting dogs, their utility and their exclusion from the house placed them in a separate category. As we will see, those emotional bonds were not seen as problematic in the way that, for example, a woman’s affection for her lapdog was. This differentiation between working animals and pets was, moreover, one that was widely recognized in the eighteenth century. Oliver Goldsmith thus followed tradition in categorizing dogs according to their service to humans, from turnspits to hunting dogs, and in simply dismissing breeds like lapdogs as “useless.” Although Goldsmith and his contemporaries recognized that many people kept dogs purely as pets, they regarded the practice as pointless, if not downright immoral and wasteful.

More recent work on pets and pet keeping has further developed our understanding of the roles pets play in human life. Marc Shell, for instance, argues that pets are defined by their boundary crossing: their human owners see them as simultaneously part of the family and not part of the family, and as simultaneously human and nonhuman. Shell suggests that the pet fulfills an important role in enabling people to consider how they define human identity and how they structure ideas of kinship. I argue throughout this book that it was precisely this liminal status that made pets so intriguing and so problematic in eighteenth-century Britain. In a society committed to interwoven hierarchies based on birth, title, wealth, gender, and race, and that struggled to maintain order within those hierarchies in a rapidly changing world, the fluid identity of pets played into many other anxieties. Yet, ironically, by the end of the century that same fluidity became a great asset, as more and more people hoped for the possibility of breaking down the boundaries between humans and the natural world.

Erica Fudge has also done much to theorize human-animal relationships, and in her book Pets she makes the important point that animals have too often been seen as filling a gap in modern life—that they are perceived to be compensations or substitutes for something that their human owners should be able to find in other humans but cannot. Thus pet keeping has sometimes been portrayed as a result of modern urbanization or industrialization and their concomitant problems of alienation. While, as I will argue, the spread of pet keeping is indeed related to the material changes brought on by increased wealth and consumerism, Fudge’s point that pets should not be seen purely as compensation for some sort of absence or failure is a crucial one to keep in mind. But the criticisms of pet keeping that she addresses have their roots in eighteenth-century responses to the spread of keeping pets, and thus understanding those responses can shed light on the persistence of such views today.

The idea that pets somehow fill a void created by modern social conditions reflects a common belief that pet keeping did not emerge as a widespread practice until the nineteenth century. Existing scholarship on the history of pets and pet keeping supports this view; the works of Kathleen Kete for France, Harriet Ritvo for Britain, and Katherine Grier for the United States all focus on the nineteenth century as the period in which pet keeping took off. In part, this scholarly bias reflects the widespread association, also posited by Keith Thomas, between the rise of pet keeping and the rise of the urban middle class. But there are two obvious problems with that association. For one thing, it is clear that pet keeping existed (especially among the elite) long before the eighteenth century. Moreover, studies of other cultures have shown that pet keeping occurs all over the world and does not require Western values or urbanization. Discussion of the rise of pet keeping sometimes seems to echo the old debates about “the rise of the middle class,” with claims for its emergence traced ever further back in time. Nevertheless, I contend that pet keeping does not take the same form, or hold the same meaning, across all periods or cultures, any more than practices such as marriage or child rearing do. This book thus recognizes the importance of growing prosperity among the middle ranks as a factor encouraging the acquisition of pets across a much wider segment of society, yet it also seeks to interrogate the retrospective association between middle-class values and pet keeping—the assumption that pet keeping is an inherently “bourgeois” phenomenon. Instead, I hope to situate thinking about pets in a broader context of social, economic, and cultural change, understanding class as one important factor among many affecting ideas about human-animal relations in the period.

Although recent scholarship specifically related to the history of pet keeping focuses primarily on the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century as well as the rest of the early modern period has proved fruitful territory for scholars in the field of animal studies. Erica Fudge’s groundbreaking work has helped put animals at the center of our understanding of Renaissance culture, while others have drawn attention to the importance of animals in Enlightenment thinking. Like Fudge, many of these scholars rely heavily on literary sources, from treatises on “wild children” to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos of Gulliver’s Travels. Another fruitful avenue of exploration, more rooted in social history, has focused on exotic imports. All of these works have done much to further our understanding of the role of animals in eighteenth-century culture. The humble house cat or dog, however, has received comparatively little attention. Yet ordinary pets like these formed the basis of much eighteenth-century thinking about animals, and such common animals are at the heart of this project. By emphasizing concrete social conditions, this book seeks to build on the existing literary scholarship; and by emphasizing the importance of lived experiences, it seeks to remind us that pets were not merely metaphors used to think about the world but living, breathing beings that had a direct impact on the lives of the humans with whom they interacted.

This work is thus situated within the field of animal studies, but it departs from some of the interests that have dominated that field. Thanks in part to the fact that many early voices in animal studies were motivated by an ethical concern about our treatment of animals, much work has focused implicitly or explicitly on the ethics of relations between humans and animals. As Donna Landry notes, a central aspect of animal studies has been an emphasis on the cruelty of humans toward animals, and a desire to advocate a more equal relationship between humans and nonhuman species. One aspect of this work has been an interest in historical debates about the boundaries between humans and nonhumans: not only attempts to define the nature of those boundaries, but also moments when such boundaries were challenged. The animal studies movement has been enormously helpful in reminding us that distinctions between humans and other species are not straightforward; they are no more natural than other ways in which people have sought to construct difference, such as race or gender norms. The assumption behind much of this work is that recognizing that the animal-human boundary is culturally constructed might in turn help break down notions of human superiority and thus lead to improved treatment for animals. And it is certainly true that even a cursory examination of early modern ideas about animals reveals the differences between what were then considered “obvious” or “natural” categories and those employed today: witness Goldsmith’s classification of dogs according to their utility. My primary interest is not, however, in encouraging new attitudes toward animals today; rather, my focus is on understanding how ideas about animals have been shaped in specific ways by their specific historical contexts, and on how thinking about animals in turn helped shape other kinds of thinking at particular moments in time.

This is a portion of the original introduction, edited for use on the web.