As Kathleen Kete writes in The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeting in Nineteenth-Century Paris petkeeping rapidly developed into a mainstream passion in the nineteenth century, a solace against the tensions and tedium of daily life, and a means of communication: “it was the way bourgeois talked about themselves.” By the mid-nineteenth century, the pet dog in particular had become the cliché accessory to modern life. Breeds of dogs mushroomed. In 1788, the French naturalist Buffon described fourteen breeds. By the end of the nineteenth century, over two hundred breeds could be distinguished. Sheepdogs, Great Danes, bulldogs, collies, proliferating breeds of poodles and lapdogs, each reflecting their owners’ class, style, and intrinsic sensibilities. Dog care manuals, canine coiffure, combs, embroidered collars, and the entire trousseau of clothing likewise emerged to complete the transformation of the dog from a working companion into essential domestic figure. And into this denatured world of fantasy and control, of dog bubble baths and perfumes and little leather booties for stormy days, of pet cemeteries filled with sentimental epitaphs, also add the popularity of having a deceased pet’s head mounted on a plaque, trophy style.
Although stuffed pets were immensely popular in the nineteenth century, the practice was not universally approved. Alfred Bonnardot, inventor of the pet-care book in France, was certainly not a fan. “This mode of remembrance repulses me,” he wrote in 1856. “It is a sad thing to see one’s little companion whose look was once so lively and bright forever immobile and staring. Moreover, if one kept all his successors this way, one would end by having a somewhat cluttered and encumbered museum.” The mode of remembrance Bonnardot recommended was a photograph or painting taken of the pet “at the time of his brilliant youth,” although just its coat “as long as it had not lost its silkiness” also made a nice bit of memorabilia. Once a pet is coddled and cherished, once the pet has crossed over from animal to quasi-human, you would think there is no return back to animal.
In nineteenth-century England the mania for pets and for preserving their carcasses was a source of constant spoof and lampooning by satirical newspapers like Punch and Fun. A weekly series entitled “About Taxidermy” published by Fun in 1882 gives a good jab at the rising fashion of stuffed pets along with the poor quality of Victorian preservation.
In Episode 5: The Lifelike Pet, Fun exclaims “How beautiful and touching a trait of human character is the untiring affection for, and belief in the lifelikeness of, the effigy of a depart pet!” Fun himself in his jester’s suit encounters a stuffed pet spaniel seated on a stool in a lady’s parlour. Oblivious his bulging eyes and patches, his owner proudly exclaims, “You would never suppose he was stuffed, now, would you?” Even many years later when both the lady and Fun are decrepit and the dog’s eyes have fallen out and his paws sprout straw, the lady still believes in its lifelikeness. The joke is not only the lady’s delusional faith that her pet is physically unchanged. Far more nonsensical is her insistence that her pet still exudes a lively persona: “you notice how he terrifies all the cats,” she exclaims.