As we have chronicled here through the past few years, there are many things the Boomer Generation saw — or precipitated — during their early years. Now add pet ownership as we know it today to the list.
Surely pets have always been part of the human experience, and part of the American landscape since the founding of the country, but pets as companions — not workers — were rare outside of the wealthy class. In the late 1800s, wealthy families began acquiring songbirds, which were among the first animals for which there was specialized food and merchandise available for purchase. Goldfish followed, and all along, dog and horse ownership was there, but they were not specifically intended for the pleasure of owning a pet.
After World War I, canned dog food was sold in the U.S., opening up a market to a wider audience that had earlier remained in rural areas and wealthy families. The roaring twenties saw dog ownership increasing when they were first sold as pets in department stores, but the Great Depression held down the number of pets people would buy for the next decade. There is nothing like a major Depression, followed by a second World War, to put the brakes on a burgeoning industry that required discretionary income.
After the War, American optimism was at an all-time high. People began dreaming of a better life, and an ideal life. Suburbia was born both out of the necessity for housing returning troops who were ready to start families, and the ideal American notion of owning a small piece of land and a house. Unlike crowded city dwellings, suburbia offered backyards that enabled pet ownership.
In 1947, cat litter was introduced in the U.S., sparking a new trend of indoor cat ownership. By the time the 1950s arrived, pet ownership, like the Baby Boom Generation, was increasing by leaps and bounds. Where the people migrated, small-pet veterinarians followed into suburbia to care for the increasing number of pets. The “anything is possible” attitude of the 1950s that defined the new modern family briefly spurred a trend toward exotic pet ownership. Monkeys, pigs, wild cats like lynx and ocelots, hamsters, turtles and more all became part of the pet scene.
Movies and TV also helped propel pet ownership. Boomers and their parents would watch famous TV dogs like Rin Tin Tin (1954), Lassie (1954) and even the brandy-loving ghost dog, Neil, on Topper (1957) as a regular part of their TV viewing. Meanwhile, at the movies, more pets were being featured in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951 — a monkey with Ronald Reagan, no less) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), among many others. Additional animals were also shown to be pets, like the talking horse, Mr. Ed (1958), though it could be argued that Mr. Ed was far from a pet. The Flintstones introduced Dino, an animated cartoon pet dinosaur that barked like a dog, in 1960.
Mister Boomer’s family first jumped on the pet bandwagon in the very early 1960s, when a local five-and-dime store offered free goldfish as a promotion to sell more of the cookie-jar sized glass aquariums. Brother Boomer brought home a fish and bowl, but alas, like so many others can attest, the fish didn’t make it more than a day or two.
The next pet the family owned was a dog that was brought in, not specifically as a pet, but as a hunting dog for Mister B’s father. It was a German Shorthair, a dog bred for bird hunting. As such, a pen was made in the backyard, where the dog lived in a wooden dog house. Mister B’s father was an annual pheasant hunter. He recalls his father talking about the first time he took the dog with him. The dog was barely out of puppy stage, but when he was let loose in a field, he instinctively began criss-crossing through the vegetation to scare up any pheasants that might be lounging in in the grasses.
Mister Boomer’s sister and mother were instrumental in helping to turn the hunting dog into a real family pet. First, it was cold winter nights that allowed them to plead with Mister B’s father to let the dog into the house. In the beginning, the dog remained in the basement, away from the family, but safe from the frigid outdoors. Slowly the boundaries changed, to where the dog could enter the kitchen and dining room, but not the carpeted living room.
Mister B’s younger Sister Boomer would play dress-up with the dog, wrapping scarves around his head. Though his expression suggested he didn’t enjoy the activity, he did allow Sister Boomer a great deal of leeway in her play. It wasn’t long before the dog’s favorite place to stretch out was in front of the dining room heat register.
The dog especially loved playing with the Boomer family children outdoors where he could run and jump. One day, however, he was in the backyard when a neighborhood kid entered through the gate to retrieve a basketball. The dog bit him. The family had later learned that the kid had been throwing dirt balls at the dog before the incident. Nonetheless, the damage was done. The kid’s parents were raising a fuss about it, so Mister B’s father took the dog back to the people he had got him from, who owned a nearby farm (yes, really). The Boomer kids could not be consoled. A few months later, word came that the dog had been struck on a road, his owner surmising that he was trying to find his way back to the Boomer family — a scenario worthy of a boomer-era movie.
It would be ten-plus years before the family had another pet. Sister Boomer saw someone giving away puppies in a store parking lot, and pleaded with Mister B’s father until he gave in. As the Boomer children grew and left the household, that dog, a Beagle-Terrier mix, became Mister B’s mom’s constant companion, living a very comfortable fifteen years.
Did your family have a pet in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, boomers?