Is there an animal more closely linked with humankind than the dog? Our histories are so intertwined that dogs are often portrayed with human characteristics, hence the lasting power of the “man’s best friend” cliché. Legendary animals like the heroic movie-star Rin Tin Tin or Laika, the Russian pooch who became the first animal to orbit the earth, have cemented their iconic status in our minds.
Images of dogs appeared in artwork as long as 6,000 years ago, though archaeological evidence suggests the animals were part of human society long before. The Egyptian guardian of the deceased, Anubis, was often depicted on funerary monuments in the form of a black dog or jackal-headed human. In the Buddhist tradition, so-called Foo Dogs (actually miniature lions), were believed to guard the faith thanks to their supernatural protective powers. Other societies believed dogs were our distant ancestors, passing down to humans their best traits, like strength or bravery.
While many traditions recognized the role of dogs alongside hunters, other mythologies revered the animals for their nurturing abilities. For example, the allegory of Romulus and Remus begins with a wolf nursing the abandoned infants who would eventually found the city of Rome.
As the relationship between dogs and humans became increasingly domestic, more objects and household items featured imagery of dogs, from pottery and vases to fine jewelry and accessories. The animals were also aligned with newer religious traditions, most notably Christianity, which continued to heighten their faithful reputation.
As breeds diversified, specific types of dog became associated with particular moments in history. During the Renaissance, for example, lapdogs like Toy Spaniels or Shih Tzus became fashionable among the elite; today they remain symbols of affluence and luxury. The transition from hunting as a necessity to a leisure activity elevated the nobility of sporting breeds such as Greyhounds and Pointers to match that of their wealthy owners. And the St. Bernard still symbolizes protection and loyalty after a family of the animals gave lifesaving assistance to a group of monks in the Swiss Alps during the 1700s.
By the Victorian Era, dogs took center stage as subjects in artwork and design. Queen Victoria had many portraits commissioned of her favorite hunting dogs, and noble scenes of masters and their hounds were soon widespread on Staffordshire dinnerware.
Later breeds were celebrated for their famous owners, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fala or Richard Nixon’s Checkers. Spaniel-shaped cookie cutters or Scottie-topped ink blotters are just two examples from the flood of products that featured these breeds after they became celebrated as presidential companions...
The growth of mass marketing meant that dogs were also asked to lend their positive qualities to new products, whether confirming the indestructibility of Keds shoes or the reliability of John Hancock Life Insurance. Nipper, possibly the most well-known dog in advertising, first appeared in a painting titled “His Master’s Voice.” Used to sell audio equipment manufactured by the Gramophone Company in 1900, the image shows a young puppy with his head cocked listening to a phonograph. Nipper's images went on to promote HMV, Victor, and RCA.
In 1938, after witnessing the tragic sale of family dogs in depressed industrial areas, reporter Eric Knight wrote the original “Lassie Come Home” article for the "Saturday Evening Post" magazine. During the next 20 years, the story was expanded into a children's novel, a radio show, multiple films, and finally a television series. Accompanying the story’s success was a barrage of collectible memorabilia, from lunch boxes to lobby cards, perhaps the most bizarre being a series of campaign-style pinback buttons featuring the familiar canine face and reading “I voted for Lassie.”
While Lassie played into a longstanding cultural association between family dogs and the innocence of childhood, her popularity among children had secured a new audience for dog-centric stories. Throughout the 1950s, the animals continued to captivate kids in films like Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” and “Old Yeller.” Meanwhile in the comic-strip universe, canine characters like Marmaduke and Snoopy became more popular than their human cohorts.
By this time, consumers wanted their dogs everywhere: on candy molds, bookends, and rugs; on teapots, table lamps, and jewelry. Figurines and paperweights were particularly fashionable, as these diminutive versions of the cuddly pets were simply irresistible to homemakers. British stalwart Royal Doulton produced a collection of regal hounds, and Fenton’s art glass paperweights ran the gamut from friendly lapdogs to brawny bulldogs.
Adorning your household with images of dogs conveyed a host of different meanings depending on the type of dog. One might choose decorative pieces featuring hounds to show perseverance and loyalty, while Scotties suggested warmth and compassion. Products featuring breeds like Collies and German Shepherds, widely loved after their portrayal on-screen, also proliferated.
Poodles were the trendiest breed, with a look that combined fun, femininity, and a touch of irreverence. The distinctive Poodle cut, originally created to provide better mobility in water when retrieving hunting spoils, made them a perfect fit for spaghetti art ware in the 1940s. These ceramic figurines are distinguished by their strands of spaghetti-like hair, created by pressing raw clay through a small screen or tea strainer, and were often cheaply made by Japanese potteries like Ucagco or Lefton. Another brief style was the poodle skirt, a calf-length felt skirt which came in bright colors with a contrasting dog appliqué.
Into the 1960s and '70s, the abundance of dog-themed productions aimed at children continued to spread, from television shows like "Huckleberry Hound," "Quick Draw McGraw," and "Scooby Doo" to feature films such as “101 Dalmations” and “Benji.” During the 1980s, in sharp contrast to the Disney dogs, Budweiser created the Spuds McKenzie character, a Bull Terrier that lived it up in a series of “Official Party Animal” ads.