How many of you have a basket or bin (or just a pile) of these bedraggled objects: the toy box for your dog(s)?
When I was a child, our first dog, Gussie the basset hound, had a much smaller collection of possessions including an old tennis ball, a well-chewed soup bone that was periodically replaced by my mother, and — her favorite — a smelly toy made from two worn-out sweat socks, one stuffed in the toe of the other and tied off with a knot. The sock toy was good for both playing fetch indoors (no danger of breaking a lamp) and for games of tug.
Beginning in the early 1970s, our family dogs began to have a larger collection of toys, all purchased from pet stores. Rubber squeaky toys were especially popular. Our Lab/Golden Retriever mix, Jenny, had a very soft mouth, and she had one squeaky toy, a rubber peanut that had a face like a cartoon “bandito” and wore a sombrero. We called the peanut Roy, after the friend who presented this treasure, and Jenny played with it until just before she died. Roy is still somewhere in a drawer at my mother’s house; my father saved it along with Jenny’s collar. If I can find it, I’ll put it into this post.
The cover of my book Pets in America: A History (the hardcover edition) features a photograph from the 1880s of a man getting ready to throw a ball for a dog who is absolutely rigid with anticipation. The ball may be a baseball. It is certainly not a ball made just for the dog. I own a number of trade catalogs and photos that suggest the evolution of toys produced intentionally for the amusement of dogs. Let’s look at some of them.
Walter B. Stevens & Son, Inc. seems to have begun as a distributor of pottery, but by 1905 the company sold chain and leather dog collars wholesale. The company existed until 1976, although it moved away from a focus on dog “furnishings.”
There are many interesting things about this catalog, which offers a wide array of products in the heart of the Depression. The pages of toys are our subject today; I’ll share more of this catalog later. Notice that the rubber balls are shaped to look like animal heads. This is the beginning of marketing dog toys that are meant to be equally amusing to owners. The rubber rat relates back to the traditional role of terriers as vermin-catchers in barns and households. The “Sani-Bone” and “Happidog Bone” reflect new concerns about the health of dogs. (As I have noted elsewhere, the 1920s was the decade when small animal veterinary clinics proliferated, and concerns about the impact of germs on treasured pets appear in the popular literature. And they also imply that consumption of said bone would take place indoors, rather than out in the yard. No grease spots on the carpets!
The counter-top display box, depicted above, suggests that pet store owners present toys as impulse purchases. And the Christmas stocking is the earliest holiday packaging I’ve found so far.
Now let’s look at some dog toys from 1947, ten years and a world war later. Below is a catalog page from Lehman Bros. of Cleveland, Ohio, a company that I have not been able to find out much about. The letter to store owners in the June 1946 wholesale catalog and price list for “Sterling Quality Dog Furnshings” states that the firm had been in the pet supply business since the mid-1920s.
This page depicts rubber “squeaky” toys (which would not have been available when rubber was a strategic material) and tug toys. The rubber toys look like, and may be, identical to squeak toys for babies marketed at the time.
The rubber dog toys in the photo above , which I discussed in a post in January 2016, are a more complete expression of the trend toward toys taking shapes that dog owners would find amusing. Here the toys represent things that dog are NOT supposed to chew. In the pages of toys from Du Say’s, a mail-order pet business that has been the subject of a previous post, whimsy continues to shape the latex rubber toys. By now they include a Smurf called “Flower Boy,” Hillbilly Bears and even Magilla Gorilla.
The “All Time Favorite” Collection, at the bottom of page 12 above, recalls the simple toys of the 1930s and 1940s: tug toys, burlap squeaky toys and rubber ball and bones. Compare them to the Stevens catalog pages.
It’s clear that dog owners shared their postwar prosperity with their dogs by buying them lots of new toys. Take a look at the post titled “Look At All My Toys” from 26 January 2016. It analyses two snapshots of a black Pomeranian dog with all his prized possessions, dated December 1963. Here’s a detail of one. The rubber hamburger and steak, disembodied feet, and rubber pack of Winston’s cigarettes, along with the sheer number of toys, suggests how funny the photographer (presumably one of the owners) found the whole accumulation of squeaky things.
Dogs like to chew, tug, chase and carry the objects we give them to play with. My dog Gussie was happy with an old pair of sweat socks. While Lemony enjoys chewing on and tossing around toys from her basket, she doesn’t care that one depicts Dr. Seuss’ elephant Horton and another is a long purple snake with bug-eyes. Dog toys make us happy.