Category Archives: material culture

Fleas and Other Itches, Part III: The Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, 1950

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Counter-top display, Comb-A-Flea atomizer, Comb-A-Flea Company, Seattle, Washington, between 1950 and 1952.

Flea season is back upon us, and pet owners everywhere are emptying their wallets for those expensive, but very effective, topical monthly treatments.  There is also a thriving online community of pet owners who share less expensive and chemical free approaches to managing fleas, from feeding dogs brewers yeast and garlic to spraying pets and their beds with solutions made from the herb pennyroyal.

I’ve written a couple of posts on “Fleas and Other Itches” (10 May 2014 and 5 October 2016).  These will give you background on the traditional use of flea combs, which I still use to check whether my pets are showing evidence of infestation despite my best efforts, and on the origins of commercial flea powders.

This entry focuses on the “Comb-A-Flea Atomizer,” a patented novelty that attempted combine the traditional flea comb with an atomizer that delivered powder close to the skin of the cat or dog.  My collection includes this unused counter-top display of ten Comb-A-Flea Atomizers. The comb head of each is carefully sealed in cellophane and contains a small instructional pamphlet.  The head of the comb is plastic; the bulb appears to be rubber and the material has become too stiff to squeeze.

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Detail, Comb-A-Flea atomizers in their display package.

The Comb-a-Flea Atomizer was patented in 1952 by John L. Sullivan, who assigned it to the Comb-A-Flea Company of Seattle, Washington.   Here is the drawing for his patent. The cutaway diagram shows how the powder was pushed up the neck of the comb when the pet owner squeezed the bulb.  Comb A Flea 2017-06-24 at 9.56.49 PM

It took almost three years between this application and the issuing of the patent, and around the same time, several other people also applied for patents for combs that dispensed flea powder.  Here is another patent drawing for an “Insecticide Comb-Applicator,” which was actually received two years before the Comb-A-Flea applicator.

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I have no idea why this kind of insecticide applicator became a topic of interest by more than one inventor, and so far I can find no evidence of contact among the inventors, or lawsuits about patent infringement.  This may just be one of those things — several minds facing the same problem and coming up with similar solutions.  One thing that almost certainly made the Comb-a-Flea possible is the proliferation of plastics after World War II.  Molding a hollow comb with a little hole at the base of each tooth was easy with plastics.

Each Comb-A-Flea came with an instruction pamphlet, and I was able to work one of them out without damaging the cellophane cover.

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Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator. Front side, unfolded.

Pets Blog 29 June 2017

Instructional brochure for Comb-A-Flea applicator, reverse side.

The Comb-A-Flea suggests a couple of interesting things to think about.  First, it is one example of the sudden increase in products for pet keepers in the two decades following World War II.  Examining magazines like All-Pets, which was aimed at pet-shop owners and wholesalers, suggests that small companies, perhaps associated with other post-war novelty businesses, pumped out many novelties intended to improve the experience of owning dogs, cats, parakeets and other creatures.   (I’ll discuss the novelties associated with the 1950s craze for keeping parakeets in another post.)  The Comb-A-Flea was intended to be convenient, a sales pitch used for many kinds of household goods at the time. This was because it combined grooming the animal AND treating it for flea, ticks and lice with one implement.  If you go back and read the instructions, however, you’ll see that the applicator wasn’t really any easier to use than a comb and a shaker of flea powder.  For one thing, the text suggests that it clearly had problems with clogging.

Second, the Comb-A-Flea did NOT make use of DDT, the toxic but ubiquitous insecticide that was introduced into many household products including flea powders. Pulvex, which made a line of over-the-counter remedies for dogs, introduced DDT into its flea powder as early as 1946.  The Comb-A-Flea powder contained Pyrethrins, Rotenone and Piperonyl, all of which had been around for a while and which are still in use in garden sprays and, in the case of a variant of Piperonyl, lice shampoos. Notice that the Comb-A-Flea brochure makes a point of assuring pet owners that the insecticidal powder is safe, and that it has been approved by veterinarians and dog breeders.

The Seattle-based Comb-A-Flea Company didn’t last long, and I haven’t yet been able to learn anything about it.  In 1951, the “Atomizing Comb-A-Flea” did appear in advertisements in a few East Coast newspapers;  here is a 1951 ad from Gimbel’s in Philadelphia. But the company seems to have been gone by 1953.

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Advertisement for Comb-A-Flea Atomizer, Philadelphia Inquirer 19 August 1951. The pet department of the Comb-A-Flea

The next innovation in flea control for pets, was the invention of the flea collar, a thick plastic strip impregnated with a flea-killing chemical.  I’ll discuss this, along with the use of DDT in flea powders, in a future post.  In the meantime, we might think about the balancing act in which we pet owners engage as we struggle between the desire for relief  (for both our animals and ourselves) from biting insects and the potential dangers  of prolonged intimate contact with potentially toxic chemicals.

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Filed under advice literature on pets, animal-human interaction, attitudes toward dogs, cats, dogs, flea powder, fleas, material culture, pet industry, pet supplies and equipment, pets, veterinary medicine

Comic Cats on Victorian Trade Cards

Nineteenth-century advertising trade cards are wonderful on so many levels, but my particular favorites are the comic ones.  Predating the appearance of comics in newspapers by decades (the “Yellow Kid” strip first appeared in 1895), the quality of trade card artists’ drawings can be as good as any of the more famous early comic artists.  Some comic trade cards even tell a story in series.  On July 6, 2014, I published a post on the story of a disastrous feline courtship told through six cards; you can take a look at this in the archives for the this blog.  Some comic trade cards are offensive today — they traffic in all sorts of stereotyping — but others are benign, as in the case of the comic cats I share with you here,

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Advertising trade card for Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, around 1890. Chromlithograph, publisher unknown. The corners have been trimmed; they may have been glued to a scrapbook page.

The Excelsior Botanical Company, which began to sell Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil (yes, that’s “Eclectric”) in the 1880s, published a series of comic trade cards featuring anthropomorphic animals that was made specifically for the company.  Eclectric Oil, which was sold until at least the 1940s, was recommended for everything from insect bites to earaches. The artist for these is unknown, but the card in my collection, “Grandma’s little Wootsy Tootsy” features a cat scrubbing her “grandchild” in a basin with a sponge. A proper linen towel with a red band hangs nearby. I love her glasses, neck ribbon (she is a proper house cat with a clean white bib and tummy ) and determined expression.  And you get all this detail in 3 1/2 inches of paper….

“All Promenade” features the Cat and the Fiddle, who is now performing for two sets of dancing kittens in an alley.  They all wear big smiles.  I love the pink and blue dresses worn by the girl kittens.  This card was copyrighted by Philadelphia printer George M. Hayes, who was probably the artist, too.  He copyrighted a number of trade card designs in the early 1880s.  They were sold as blanks; the “Presented by” caption was added by E. & H. Dilworth.

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“All Promenade.”  Advertising trade card for E & H. Dilworth Hardware, Beloit, KS.  Published by  George M. Hayes, Philadelphia, 1882.  Hayes was probably also the artist.

The practice of attributing human characteristics to animals, called anthropomorphism, is an ancient practice; think of Aesop’s Fables, for example. It has had many uses, some quite serious — imparting moral lessons to children, stigmatizing marginalized “others” and critiquing the powerful are just three of these.  However, sometimes anthropomorphism was intended simply to delight both children and adults.

These cats delight me, and I hope that they delight you, too!

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Buster Brown and His Dog Tige Wish You Happy Holidays!

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“A Merry Xmas.”  Giveaway postcard from the American Journal-Examiner, 1906.

Holiday greetings from the most famous cartoon dog of the early 1900s, Tige.  Tige, a bull terrier who could speak to his owner and to other animals (but not to adults), belonged to the cartoon character Buster Brown, the little boy in the Lord Fauntleroy suit with the blonde pageboy haircut.  Buster and Tige are accompanied here by Buster’s friend Mary Jane.

Created in 1902 by pioneering comic strip artist Richard F. Outcault (1863-1923), Buster Brown was the celebrity face of a popular line of children’s shoes. Buster Brown and Tige also hawked many other products; a quick web search suggests just how popular the character was.  (I remember Buster Brown shoes in the late 1950s, although Buster and Tige didn’t register with me.)  In fact, Buster Brown is still a brand name for children’s clothing, although the characters have disappeared from the labels.

Buster also appeared in the early Sunday comic pages, and some of the strips are really beautiful and are still quite funny today.  This particular card, printed on cheap paper, is not one of Buster and Tige’s finer manifestations.  It appeared in the American Journal-Examiner, a New York periodical that published many such postcards, along with joke books and early comics.  I think that this postcard was part of a comic-page giveaway.  This particular example was never mailed, and it is a small miracle that it even survived.

Buster was a sweet-faced jokester and naughty boy, but from what I can tell, it was Tige who really sold the strip. All sorts of bull terriers were popular pets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Unfortunately, dog fighting was a popular, albeit outlawed, betting sport at the same time that Buster and Tige appeared, and bulldogs like Tige were the dogs of choice for the pit.

It is hard to find collections of Buster Brown strips today, but here is a link to Buster Brown’s Autobiography, published in 1907.  It offers Buster’s story of meeting Tige at his grandmother’s farm and tells how Tige became his dog.  The pictures throughout are wonderful.

Buster, Tige, Mary Jane and I wish you a happy holiday season!

 

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Filed under advertising trade card, anthropomorphism, bulldog, Buster Brown, Christmas, material culture, pet humor, pets, pets in the comics, post cards

Fleas and Other Itches — ‘Tis Still the Season (Part Two)

On 10 May 2014, I published a post about the problem of fleas on household pets and the various ways people tried to treat this problem in the late 1800s.  I discussed the flea comb (used on people as well as pet animals) and introduced the early flea soaps, which were based on carbolic acid’s vermin-killing and disinfecting qualities.  I also promised to write more on the topic.  It’s taken me some time, but the flea season is continuing very late here in Delaware and on the Delmarva Peninsula — and I am inspired by the flea treatments I’m still having to use on Teddy and Stump.  So let’s continue the story.

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In 1912, this comic postcard was in circulation, but it reflected a real problem:  controlling fleas on dogs, cats and people, too.  Until the flea collar with its time-release insecticide was developed in the 1960s, pet owners still had to remove fleas by hand or go after them with soaps or chemicals that killed them on contact.  The Q-W Laboratories, founded by the French immigrant kennel-owner Henri Vibert around 1920, offered an array of remedies for dogs.  This advertising from the Q-W Handbook for Dog Lovers, published in the 1920s, offered dog soap, flea powder (which was also good for cockroaches and bedbugs) and Q-W Flea Oil and Coat Grower.

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Spread from Q-W Handbook for Dog Lovers (Q-W Laboratories, Bound Brook, New Jersey, n.d.) was offered as a free handout by stores carrying the company’s products in the 1920s.  Drug stores were important outlets for proprietary veterinary medicines; this particular copy of the book bears the stamp “McCUE & BUSS DRUG CO. 14 S. Main ST Janesville, Wisconsin.”

 

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Q-W Dog Soap, Q-W Laboratories, Plainfield, New Jersey, 1930s. The unused soap is still in this package.

This Q-W dog soap from the 1930s contained  Beta Naphthol. Naphthol (or napthol) soaps were in common use for household laundry until the development of modern powdered detergents; I still use Fels Naptha to dry out poison ivy blisters!  This was considered a good alternative to the old standby carbolic acid (which was also poisonous to people and pets unless well-diluted in the soap).  Here is an earlier trade card for a carbolic-acid soap, which was also recommended for disinfecting kennels.

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Trade card for Little’s Soluble Phenyle and Soap, no date (probably 1890s).

Another type of soap promoted to kill fleas and relieve mange was used creosol, which still appears in “tar soaps” used for severe dandruff.  Q-W Laboratories also offered one of these, and even added sulphur to the mix.

While flea-killing soaps were in wide use well into the 1960s, pet owners who were unwilling or unable to struggle with their dogs in the bath turned increasingly to powders. Cage bird owners had been using one insecticide,”Persian powder,” for decades.  Also known as pyrethrin, derived from a particular chrysanthemum plant, it became an ingredient of flea powders for dogs in the early 1900s.  It was poisonous to cats, however. If they licked enough of the powder off their fur and skin, it had neurotoxic effects.

By the 1920s, flea powders, along with “dry bath” products,  included another ingredient, rotenone, that could be used on both cats and dogs.  Rotenone is also plant-derived and is still used by gardeners today as an alternative to synthetic pesticides.  Mechling’s Flea Powder, seen below, was produced by a company in Camden, New Jersey, that seems to have specialized in agricultural chemicals.  Flea powder was a small sideline — it wasn’t that hard to mix rotenone and inert powders together and package them for sale at a high markup —  and this product probably had a regional market.

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Mechling’s Flea Powder, Camden, New Jersey, after 1922.  Mechling Bros. Chemical Company was incorporated that year and sometime in the 1930s became part of General Chemical Company, one of the five who organized Allied Chemical Corporation.

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Lowe’s Flea Powder. Edward Lowe C0mpany, 1960s.

When Edward Lowe, the man who created a national market for cat-box filler with his trademarked “Kitty Litter,” expanded his product line to include other products for cats in the early 1960s, he included this flea powder, which relied on rotenone but did contain a small amount of pyrethrins.  What’s important about this powder is that it seems to be one of the first marketed “especially for cats.”

Flea powders had other problems, too. I recall my mother struggling to powder the family cat.  Powder flew everywhere.  I’ll introduce other options for treating fleas on pets in a future post.

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Stump’s New Stroller

Stump in Pink BlankieMeet Stump.  I adopted him almost three years ago, along with his colleague Teddy.  There are some other photos of Stump (and of Ted) in the My Pets section of this blog.  Stump had a hard life — an unknown life — prior to his rescue as a middle-aged dog.  He was almost bald from flea allergies when he was found as a stray, and he had a big tumor on his hip.  When I adopted him, I thought that if the tumor proved to be malignant, at least he’d had a few months of the proverbial Life of Riley, which is now all the animals in my household live!   But that’s another story….

Walking the BoysStump and Teddy walk with me twice a day.  This is what a typical day looks like from my end of the leashes.  Neither seems to care that he is attached to a girlie pink leash once used for my much-loved dog Patti.

But Stump is enjoying his walks less these days.  He has arthritis in his lower back and hips, along with scar tissue from an ACL repair, and he can’t take pain-relief tablets because they give him a very upset tummy.  I’m trying some other options, but in the meantime, walks have gotten slower and slower, and Ted gets very annoyed because he is likes to trot along at a good pace — unless he needs to leave some pee-mail, which can lead to sudden, dramatic halts.  In any case, Ted and I haven’t been getting enough exercise in our designated walk time — what to do?

So a while ago, I saw a little old dog in stroller in New York City, and I was inspired to some online shopping.  This arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

Stump's stroller

It wasn’t too expensive, and I thought it was worth a try. After a little struggle assembling it, here is the first attempt at a walk with our new artifact.  Stump in stroller closeup copy

Success!  Stump sat in the stroller and, as we negotiated curb cuts and bumpy sidewalks, he got sleepy in the morning sun.

When did dog strollers become part of the expanding equipage of enlightened pet ownership, you ask?  The answer seem to be in the year 2003, when a company called Dutch Dog Design introduced the “Doggyride” line of products.  According to their website, the company began with dog trailers for bicyclists, which makes sense given the Dutch commitment to bicycle transportation.  They branched out to strollers when they realized the number of dog owners whose pets were too old or lame to go for walks.  Here is a brochure for the company’s dog travel products;  they now also make luxury orthopedic dog beds and other accessories.  The Doggyride™ stroller looks like the bike trailer that begat it;  there is a handle on the back and a single wheel in the front.

Stump’s stroller is a cheap model, and it looks like a baby carriage for a doll except that it has a screen attached to the rain hood that can be zipped to prevent escapes (or insects, I guess).  (It also has two cup holders.) I chose the blue plaid model because it did indeed remind me of my doll carriage, which was a favorite sleeping spot for Scotchie, a family cat, around 1960.  Bundled up in an old baby blanket, she would allow herself to be pushed along until the ride got too bumpy.

I venture that some small dog owners improvised with baby carriages before now, but purpose-built dog strollers are part of a new genre of prosthetic material culture for pets, including the wheeled carts designed for  cats and dogs unable to use their hind legs and a variety of braces and prosthetic limbs.  I’ll be looking into these more for a future post, so stay tuned.  And I would love to have a photo to share of your pet using one of these prostheses or mobility aids.

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A Mysterious Hero Dog of Chicago, 1958: Your Help Needed!

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“Spotty the Hero Dog,” posthumous photo,Chicago, IL, 1958. Photographer unknown.

Here is a mystery that really needs solving, and I hope that you can help!  Years ago, I purchased this posthumous photography of “Spotty Chicago Hero Dog.”  The images had no information on the reverse side, although the 8″ x 10″ black-and-whites looked like unused newspaper photographs.  The seller had no information on the pictures, either.

Spotty the Hero Dog won a “Lassie Gold Award.” For you youngsters, the rough-coated collie Lassie was the star of a young adult novel, Lassie Come-Home, published in 1940.  The novel became a movie in 1943, and Lassie (who was really a male collie named Pal)  became so popular that a series of movies followed.  Then came the television show Lassie, which first aired in 1954 and continued for twenty years. Pal did not live forever, of course, but his descendants played subsequent Lassies.  Not only was Lassie the centerpiece of a media machine, but Lassie products proliferated, too:  dolls, spin-off children’s books, lunchboxes and posters and other items. As a little girl, I watched Lassie, although I always thought that Timmy, the boy who had the thankless job of starring against Pal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was sort of a drip.

In 1957, the popularity of the heroic Lassie character led to the creation of the Lassie Gold Awards, intended to commemorate dogs that had done something exceptional, including protecting or rescuing people.  It’s not clear whose idea led to the awards, nor is it known who nominated or selected the winners. The first award in 1958 went to posthumously to a dog that had died in World War II.  So Spotty here was an early recipient of the award, which included a large gilded bronze medal with Lassie’s picture on one side.  One medal hangs above Spotty and a $500 Savings Bond, apparently part of the award, is visible to its right.  However, I think that the Lassie medal may be the larger one in the open case in front of Spotty’s coffin.

I searched for a list of recipients of the Lassie Gold Award, but I have been unable to find one.  One 1964 newspaper article I found noted that by 1964 more than 200 dogs had received it.  The award seems to have continued into the 1970s.

So who was Spotty?  I may have found him, but let me know whether you think I’m right and if you have more information.  Here is the heroic Spotty that I found.

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This is an image of Spotty nursing a head injury after saving his owner, Vivian Piorcharz, from a pair of robbers. Circulated  by the United Press as a human interest piece, this one was published in the 21 March 1958 edition of a local newspaper in Harlingen, Texas.   Returning to the original photo and using a  magnifying glass, I think that I make out her name on the Lassie medal.  Also, there are mounted clippings just visible to the left and right of the coffin.

So what happened to Spotty?  If this is he, the faithful dog didn’t survive long after his heroic deed. Perhaps he died from a head injury.  The white markings on the face of the corpse don’t exactly match the photograph, but perhaps Spotty’s body was dolled up a little.

I’ll keep looking for more information.  Don’t hesitate to let me know if you can fill out more of the story!

 

 

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Doghouses: Daily Life for Dogs in the Past

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.

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Advertising trade card for Charles Hall, Springfield, MA, undated (1870s). Chromolithograph, published unknown.  This image was purchased as a “blank,” and Charles Hall, who started his business in the early 1870s, added the store information, probably using a local printer.

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.

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Advertising trade card for W. Winslow, Peabody, MA, no date (1870s or 1880s).  Lithograph, Gies & Co, Buffalo, New York (c. 1871 – c. 1922).   This is another blank with the store information added later.

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.

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Advertising trade card for Prescott’s Universal Stove Polish, J. L. Prescott & Co., Berwick, Maine, undated.  Chromolithograph, publisher unknown. This card was distributed widely, and many copies survive.

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.

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“Beware of the Dog,” commercial photographic postcard.  Coryright 1907, Robert McCrum. Published by Bamforth & Co, New York, New York. This card was one of several comic photographic postcards  by Robert McCrum thar featured dogs.

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.

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Two dogs, a cat and a doghouse.  Real photo postcard, photographer unknown.  Sent from Pleasant Lake, MA, on 16 June 1908 to Phoebe Cahoon of Sandwich, MA.

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.

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Plan for the “Vero Shaw model kennel,” published in William A. Bruette, Amateur’s Dog Book: A Treatise on the Management, Training and Diseases of Dogs. New York: Field & Stream Publishing Company, New York, New York, 1906.  My copy of this little book, which is only 4 1/2 by 6 3/4 inches, is inscribed “From Foley Dog Supplies, Inc. 119 So. 19th St. Phila. Pa”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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