Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite websites, occasionally publishes articles on dogs. In this piece, from 30 June, Michael Waters reveals the origins of bone-shaped dog biscuits.
In 1907, organic chemist Carlton Ellis came up with the recipe for what became the “Milk-Bone,” a dog biscuit that was designed to use waste milk from cows sent to slaughter. Waters reports that at first the biscuits were square, and Ellis’ own dog rejected them. He tried the same recipe, this time shaped like a little bone, and the dog ate it with enthusiasm. Ellis always wondered whether the shape made the difference, but in any event, the biscuit that became the Milk-Bone was born. Ellis sold the patent to the National Biscuit Company, an important early commercial bakery.
I’m quoted in the article, talking about the diet that most dogs still enjoyed (or not) when the Milk-Bone was invented. On April 4, 2016, I wrote a post about a behind-the-scenes tour of the Milk-Bone factory from this May-June 1938 issue of the National Biscuit Company’s NBC Magazine, which seems to have been directed to store managers and owners. This is the cover image. By then, Milk-Bones were regarded largely as dog treats, although the company still suggested that dogs could live off them alone.
Thank you, Atlas Obscura!
Corporate magazines can be useful sources for historians interested in business and American consumer society. Of course, the obvious interest of public relations departments in presenting firms in the best light possible has to be taken into account. Even so, they often contain information and pictures that can’t be found anywhere else.
Studying the history of companies that made pet food has lots of obstacles; the absence of business archives from the many small firms operating in the first half of the 20th century is a big one. I was lucky to find this issue of the National Biscuit Company’s corporate magazine from 1938. The cover story was about Milk-Bone dog biscuits Taking readers “behind the scenes,” the article stresses the modern, clean, mechanized facility, providing “good, wholesome nourishment, made with such scrupulous care.” I especially like the last photo and caption, introducing the group of women who handled requests for free samples of Milk Bone and a booklet on dog care, received through mail-in coupons published in magazine advertisements. “These girls keep busy….”
Remember that this dog-biscuit factory was in successful operation during the Great Depression. My research on the history of dog food has suggested that the 1930s were actually a break-through decade for the use of commercial dog food, especially among urban and suburban households. My post on the Canine Catering Company and its sales giveaway, the Puppy Puddle, discusses another Depression-era dog food business, one focused on a very well-to-do clientele in the greater Philadelphia area.