Advertising trade cards, the little slips of paper that businesses handed out to promote their products, are rich (and under-used) sources for studying animal-human relationships in the late nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of Victorian trade cards survive because they were meant to be kept. Many were pasted into scrapbooks, but “metamorphic” trade cards like this one were little comic books before the comic book was invented. They probably survived because they got shut into drawers or boxes and forgotten. The wear on the folds suggests that this particular example was unfolded multiple times, suggesting that it was viewed repeatedly.
The card tells the story of an unfortunate thief who takes advantage of the dozing woman minding an outdoor booth selling “Hold Fast” chewing tobacco. He’s poor, just a barefoot youth, and his works (“I’ll be after taking a plug of HOLD FAST”) suggest that the figure is supposed to be an Irish immigrant. But he is foiled by a bulldog named “Tige,” short for Tiger.
This is the same name given in 1902 to comic character Buster Brown’s pit bull-type dog, seen in the postcard above. Buster Brown’s bulldog Tige looks a little scary with his round eyes, wide mouth and array of teeth, but he was a a friendly boy’s pet — and he could talk, at least to Buster and the reader. The Hold Fast trade card’s “Tige” is a homely brute who means business. “By faith the dog was awake,” cries the thief while the woman yells “Sick him Tige.”
In the fully open card, the policeman, seen in the distance in the second view, has the thief by the ear while Tige has his leg — and the woman has Tige by the tail (an unintended visual pun, I think) and cries “Hold fast.” “Hold-Fast” was both an order and a traditional name for bulldogs, reflecting their instinct to bite down and hold on to a bull’s nose or another fighting dog to the death. (Don’t ask me how I know this — I will have to root around in old note cards for hours. I know a note about bulldog naming is in a folder somewhere.) This may suggest something about the attributes of Hold Fast chewing tobacco, which was first sold in 1878.
The back center panel for the unfolded card offers another interpretation of “Hold Fast,” a tug-of-war between a child and the family dog over a doll, while the cat looks on from a chair back. This dog is a terrier, another popular dog type in Victorian America. Terriers were regarded as good family pets, but they were also esteemed as rodent-killers.
Watch dogs like the Hold Fast seller’s Tige were common denizens of city life, and both families and businesses relied on them as four-legged security systems. Bulldogs, the ancestors of the pit bull and other bully breeds today, were the most popular types for this purpose because of their reputation for being protective and fearless. They are often depicted as chained to a doghouse in a fenced back yard or alley. Further, the idea that they would attack and bite trespassers was wholly acceptable, and even the source of humor. Notice that this bulldog is wearing a spiked collar and has dragged the doghouse behind him.
Humor about bully-breed watchdogs sometimes took strange turns. Some humorous cards survive showing innocently naughty boys dealing with savage-looking watchdogs as big as they are. The card on the left, below, is one of these. The dog’s eyes are deeply unsettling!
Americans liked bulldogs — they certainly kept a lot of them, in a variety of shapes and sizes — but they were also afraid of them. This was not without reason in the case of urban watch dogs. In the case of the Hold Fast card, the bulldog was the secret weapon in a comic story about crime among the poor. Yet the other images suggest other ways that people found humor in the discomfort that a large bully-type watchdog could create. This is a trade card that I reproduced in another post, on pet photography, but it encapsulates the tension nicely — and the drawing is still funny today.