Doghouses were once a common sight in the back yards of American households. Well into the 20th century, family dogs often spent their nights outdoors, and quite a few dogs seem to have lived outside all of their lives. Don’t assume that this meant that people did not love their dogs, or that outdoor dogs weren’t pets. There are many reasons that dogs lived in separate houses. For instance, watch dogs were important for many households; often, a barking dog was the only burglar alarm available. Especially during the warm months, flea infestations were so hard to control that the best way to limit household infestations was to keep dogs outside. (I’ll be doing another post on flea control later this summer.) If a family had a stable or barn, dogs often slept there and did not have a doghouse.
A few doghouses from the nineteenth century survive; there is a charming one in the collection of the John Quincy Adams house. But most are long gone. However, lots of images of doghouses, in a variety of media, show use what they looked like and how they were furnished and used. This trade card, from the 1870s, depicts a mother dog with her pups receiving a pan of milk from two children. It’s a plain, unpainted structure with a peaked roof. It looks like it may have a floor, too, and the adult dog lies on bedding of straw.
The trade card above, from around 1880, shows a doghouse that has been fashioned from a barrel. In this domestic scene, the mother terrier has brought a rat to her puppies and seems to be instructing them on their duty as terriers to hunt and kill rodents.
Here’s another trade card image that shows an improvised doghouse made from a barrel steadied with bricks to keep it from rolling. The adult dog is absent, but a collar and chain lies in front of the barrel, as does a pan containing a large bone. Frances Butler, the author of Breeding, Training, Management, Diseases, Etc. of Dogs (first edition 1857), advised his readers, “If you are in the habit of keeping your dog on a chain, let him at least run a few minutes every day.” Perhaps that is what is happening here.
Another crudely constructed doghouse from the early 20th century is depicted in this comic postcard from 1907. It shows a bewildered puppy chained to a doghouse that is raised on improvised legs nailed to the exterior and has an open roof line for ventilation. The dirt yard suggests that this doghouse is in a city backyard or alley — not a great place to keep a dog, but a location where many city dogs lived.
Advice books about dog keeping often included plans for making a good doghouse, but nothing I have seen looks remotely like this improvised structure. Set well off the ground, it is covered with what were probably leftover shingles. With its small entrance, it was probably cozy in winter, especially if two dogs slept in it. Again, we see the straw bedding in the doorway. Notice the cat keeping company with the two spaniels here.
Finally, here’s a plan for an improved dog house, published in a small paperback titled Amateur’s Dog Book, which was published in 1906. Called the “Vero Shaw model kennel.” It could be taken apart to enable thorough cleaning and had a bench front that allowed its occupant to “rest and enjoy the air.” Notice the trim on the peak of the roof and the glass window! This doghouse was intended to be a significant little outbuilding, an asset to the yard it occupied.
As a side note, Vero Kemball Shaw (1851-1921) was a British peer (I haven’t figured out his title yet) who was apparently active in the British dog fancy. He published The Illustrated Book of the Dog (Cassell, Peter, Galpin & Co) in 1881. The book featured beautiful chromolithographs of purebred dogs, and the images have often been pulled out of the book and sold for framing.