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Today, Saturday, April 11, is National Pet Day, but those of us who share our lives with an animal know that their presence is celebrated every day.

Early American Pets

Throughout history, animals have played an important part in the lives of humans. Pet keeping practices as we recognize them today are quite different from the practices that arrived in the United States with European settlers. Settlers brought dogs and cats to North America to perform a variety of jobs, though many developed a fondness for their animals after so much time in close proximity.

In early America, most households owned some sort of animal regardless of socioeconomic standing, and similarly, there were no class restrictions on the development and display of affection for these animals. Any household could keep pets, but animals in favor, especially esteemed working animals, were rarely referred to as pets by 18th and 19th century Americans. More commonly, any animal the owner harbored a special affection for was referred to with the term “favorite.”

One historic pet lover was George Washington, who is credited as one of the first American dog breeders. Washington kept nearly every group of dog recognized by the American Kennel Club today. The names of his dogs, Sweet Lips and Tipsy, appear frequently in Washington’s papers, hinting that these dogs were “favorites” as well as hunters.

George Washington

Victorian Era Pet Keeping

During the Victorian era, pet keeping in the modern sense began to really take hold. Raising animals — primarily dogs and cats, but also fish, birds, rabbits and other small animals — was strongly associated with children. Family households often kept a variety of animals, and the Victorian ideals of domesticity and cultivation reinforced the practice of pet keeping as an essential part of a child’s upbringing.

During this time, we see children’s storybooks, toys and china all featuring animals, in an effort to teach children to be kind and nurturing. The idea of a domestic ethic of kindness established a set of principles in how children should be taught to interact with animals.

Dressing Up the Cat

Dressing Up The Cat, Harper’s First Reader 1888

The 19th century publication, Letters to Mothers by Lydia Sigourney, was a popular volume in children’s instruction throughout the period. In it, the author writes:

“If the infant seizes a kitten by the back, or pulls its hair, show immediately by your own example, how it may be held properly, and soothed into confidence. Draw back the little hand, lifted to strike the dog. Perhaps it may not understand that it thus inflicts pain, but be strenuous in confirming an opposite habit.”

These ideals continued well into the 20th century, as children continued to spend time with animals. The widespread use of photography during this time meant an enormous number of photos were produced of everyone’s favorite subject — their pets. Often, studio portraits of children included their prized companions, from everyday dogs and cats, to rabbits, mice and any number of other small creatures.

Boy with Dog

Pets in Wheeling

In Wheeling, families were taking pictures of their pets, shopping for their pets and even entering them into contests. A Facebook thread on Memories of Wheeling offers insight into Wheeling’s pets of the past:

“We lived in Stamm’s Lane and in the ‘60s everybody allowed their dogs to run free. As I remember the neighborhood tolerated the dogs well. For sure the kids loved it!” — John Hastings

“I loved that pet store. That brings back great memories of me and my grandma walking there to see all of the animals.” — Lisa Detamore about Braunlich’s Pet Store

“There was a pet store on the plaza. They had a big parrot whose name I believe was Pedro. Murphy’s used to sell birds, fish and turtles.” — Bonita Mihlbauer

“(Muffin the otterhound) was a wonderful dog and my dad’s best friend. They played golf together every day.” — Beth Norton-Taylor Brown

“Murphy’s used to have a pet section. I bought a chameleon that changed colors no matter what he was on. His name was Fred. He had a string leash with a safety pin attached. I would pin it to my shirt and he would sit on my shoulder.” — Sandra Seamon

  • Pedro the parrot
    Pedro the parrot c1965 courtesy of Sam Jerrome

Wheeling Pet Lovers Today

Today, the Wheeling community continues to love its pets. The Fitzsimmons Family Dog Park, Heritage Trail and Oglebay Park are all places people go to enjoy spending time with their pets.  Last summer’s 101 Dalmatians dog-friendly outdoor movie at Heritage Port was met with enthusiastic success. Local celebrity Scoot even has his own 2020 calendar available at KEY animal hospital.

Scoot Key Animal Hospital

And for some, that love has become their career. Jessica Barclay’s first job was at the Pet Store at Braunlich’s. Today, she’s the owner of Play N Stay pet camp in Wheeling and St. Clairsville.

Of her first job she recalls, “I’m still in the pet business today, with Play N Stay Pet Camp — WHG, Wheeling’s only Dog Hotel and Dog Daycare! I’ve been in Elm Grove/Triadelphia since 2012 and St. Clairsville since 2006. Additionally, my coworker at Braunlich’s Pet Store also is enjoying a lifelong career with animals. He’s a bird handler at Taronga Zoo in Australia!”

Working with so many animals, Barclay sees how much the community cares about its animals.  Clearly, these are not just pets, they’re family.

“We get to partner with owners to care for the most loved dogs in the valley. It brings us amazing amounts of joy to know that local pet owners value their pets’ happiness. It’s wonderful to see our clients and their pets have fun every day.”

Play and Stay Dogs

Another Wheeling business born from a love of animals? Zeb’s Barky Bites. Started in the kitchen of now 11-year-old Zeb Helmick, Zeb’s Barky Bites makes healthy, preservative-free cat and dog treats. The business began after Zeb expressed concern about the ingredients in traditional dog treats. As he says in this video. “You can count all the ingredients on less than 10 fingers.”

Zeb’s treats are available locally at the Public Market, The Artisan Center Shop and their home storefront in Center Market. In addition to pre-packaged treats, Zeb’s Barky Bites will make custom products to special occasions, like dog birthdays

Zeb's Barky Bites Cake

It’s a great day to celebrate your own pets today on National Pet Day, with some treats, a drive in the country or a walk in the park.




• Betsy Sweeny, historic preservation program manager at Wheeling Heritage, is an architectural historian and Wheeling transplant. She spends her free time on Heritage Trail with her dog Marshall.


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