Paula Harrington’s “No Mongrels Need Apply” first appeared in issue 74/75 of the minnesota review in 2010.
In the 1880s, two events occurred in New York that would prove pivotal in the social history and iconography not only of the city but of American culture as a whole. One was as public and deliberately emblematic a moment as the country has witnessed: the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty by President Grover Cleveland before a crowd of thousands in 1886. The other was a private gathering of wealthy sportsmen at Madison Square Garden two years earlier: the first meeting of the American Kennel Club (AKC History). While the former eclipses the latter in its iconic representation of immigration and changing class structures, the introduction of dog breeds—and more broadly the pursuit of canine breeding, showing, and sports known as “dog fancy”—also holds up a prescient and revealing mirror to class in America. We can learn much about American notions of class both from the history of our dogs and from the patterns of our immigration, and an especially revelatory picture emerges when we view the two in juxtaposition. For the embrace of purebred dogs coincided with the scorning of immigrants, and the desire for these dogs among upper and middle classes grew as anxiety increased over a loss of power and status in an altered society symbolized by Lady Liberty.
The craze for purebred dogs and dog shows began in the British Empire. While dogs that look like greyhounds and mastiffs date back to ancient Egypt (Thurston 29-30), breeds as we now know them did not come into vogue until nineteenth-century England. Before that, dogs were known for the tasks they performed, not the bloodlines they represented: “beast dog,” “coach dog,” and “vermin dog,” for example (Thurston 100-101). Queen Victoria, who kept some eighty dogs, is often credited with turning breeding into a popular “sport.” In turn, it took hold with her subjects (Thurston 103-105). The first organized dog show occurred in Newcastle, England in 1859 (National Dog Show), and by the end of the century a purebred dog had become a status symbol among Britain’s growing leisure class.
What had begun in England took on a life of its own on our shores. If in England owning a purebred dog showed social standing in a rigidly classed culture, in America it signaled family origins in a supposedly classless one. At the height of nineteenth-century immigration, when Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, and other so- called “races” kept arriving, a purebred dog was not a mongrel, much as someone born in the United States—read a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant—was not an immigrant.
Paula Harrington teaches writing and literature at Colby College, where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Farnham Writers’ Center. She is currently at work on a book about dogs in American culture, America: A Dogology. To read the rest of the article, visit our online archives. You do not need a subscription to read the full article.