To the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in every thing important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister. – description of Lady Bertram by Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
One is continually struck by the varied roles that dogs have played (and continue to play) in civilized society. Take the Georgian era, for example. Dogs were either pampered and coddled in the upper echelons or considered a work dog at best or a pest in the lower stratas. The image of Lady Bertram caring more for her pug than children, and of the upper crust caring for their hunting dogs and appreciating their courage and companionship is reinforced by paintings commissioned at that time. Edwin Landseer, the famous Victorian painter of animals, painted a typical series of paintings for the day: Dogs in Low Places and High Places, which showed the dog in pampered and humble settings.
But for every coddled Georgian canine, there were a score of dogs that lived lives of misery as garbage collectors (scavenging what they could off the streets), or were used for cruel sports, such as dog fights or bear baiting. (I have deliberately used a small image, for I cannot think of the unspeakable cruelty such “sport” must have been to the animals.) Dog fights are still popular today, as evinced by the Michael Vick scandals.
“Industrialization and urbanization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries shifted the focus of blood sports from baiting (in which dogs attacked other species) to fighting (in which dogs attacked each other). Rural laborers flocked to cities to become factory hands. They retained their love for blood sports but lacked the space and free days for baits of large animals. Dogfights, on the other hand, could be held indoors, artificial light allowed evening matches, and workers could still go to work the next day. Businesses called pits arose to meet the demand.” Edmund Russell, A Tale of Two Smithfields, UVA Today
Despite the cruel way in which dogs were treated, increased urbanization marked a change in which dogs were regarded. Edmund Russell goes on to say in his article, “At the same time, industrialization and urbanization in Britain changed attitudes toward dogs. Urbanites had little experience with raising farm animals for slaughter, while more and more families kept pets. Pet dogs had individual names, lived in the house, and never arrived for dinner on a platter.”
Hunters were bred for specific purposes, and these dogs were kept in kennels to live lives of relative ease and prosperity.
But in an age when many people were displaced and lived in abject poverty, the last thing on their minds would be the well-being of their canine friends. During times of plague and epidemics, dogs were killed by the scores as potential carriers of diseases such as rabies. In her cookbook, Hannah Glasse provides recipes to make cures for those bitten by mad dogs. The first one is an 18th century recipe (1747) provided by a Dr. Mead.
As the 19th century progressed, humane societies were formed and paintings of dogs took on a sentimental turn, like this painting by Edwin Landseer entitled “Saved.” Today, the dog’s role in society has not changed much from what it was in Jane Austen’s day, and they still occupy a niche in all strata of society, from the high to the low … to the despicably cruel. (See image in this post.)
For more about dogs in this era, click on the following links:
- Dr. Mead’s Mad Dog Recipe, Gentleman’s Magazine
Landseer High and Low images from Picturing Animals in Great Britain: 1750-1850