A tiny white fluffball of a kitten has joined my household, making my living room look like I have a toddler with toys strewn about. She brings much joy despite the chaos. Thinking about how important pets are in today's world, made me wonder if there were stories that we might be missing about our ancestor’s pets. Perhaps you have some that you are thinking about now? Let’s look at how and when pets played a role in those who came before us and look at ways to incorporate these stories into our family history
We’ve all seen images of nobility painting with their faithful hunting dog beside his master or moppet lap dog on her ladyship’s lap. Lucky you if these are your ancestors—you might even know the name of your 18th century ancestor’s dog! For the rest of us, we likely see pets appearing in photos in the 20th century with a few as early as the late 1800s.
If your ancestors were like mine, they were farmers or shopkeepers or tradesmen. Animals were kept to serve a purpose. Cats were expected to earn their keep mousing while dogs were tasked with guarding property or herding sheep and cattle. That said, it is likely that they were also part of the family, even if they were not quite as spoiled and pampered as today’s pets. As families had more disposable income, they could afford to have cats and dogs and other animals as pets. This became more evident when people brought them to portrait sittings in the 1800s. As you’ll see in some the pictures from the links further below, the animals were incredibly tolerant of their strange humans. And as more people were able to take their own photos, the family dog or cat usually managed to upstage their owners, invited or not!
You might be thinking that’s all very well that you want us to start finding the pets our ancestors had when you’re having enough trouble finding your ancestors! I’m not suggesting that you’ll even know that your 3 g-grandmother owned a tabby named Mouser. I do think we have some valuable clues and opportunities in old snapshots from the 20th century and perhaps can still ask those in the know who was “Buttons” or “Tommy”? Photos are great memory triggers. Or you might learn a different story, not about the pet, that was triggered by that picture.
There are stories that every family has about animals and pets that would be interesting to include as you write about your ancestors. Here are a couple quick examples from mine.
There was a collie mix dog who was extremely loving to his owners but did not like other people. However, if neighbor’s cattle got out, their red pickup would swing into the yard and they’d open the passenger side door and yell “King”. He’d jump right in and off they’d go to get the cattle in. How did he know that’s what they wanted? Why would he go with them when they couldn’t even pet him in the yard? Who knows? But he always did.
Many of you probably have stories about the old days of milking by hand. The farm cats seem to have internal clocks and no matter where they were prior, they’d mysteriously appear at milking time in hope of a squirt of warm milk fresh from the cow. (Yes, I know milk isn’t good for grown kitties but apparently a bit of warm milk on a cold winter evening hit the spot for those farm kitties.)
Your action this week:
Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.