“Never Pick up a Rabbit by the Ears”: Pet Keeping and Children’s Material Worlds in Nineteenth-Century England and Beyond

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This article explores the material worlds of children and their pet animals in nineteenth-century Britain. In the early nineteenth century, pet keeping was established as a popular social practice. There was an increasing emphasis on its value for children as a means of establishing moral understanding and appropriate social behaviour. Advice literature suggested that caring for pets taught kindness and empathy and provided basic training in domestic values for both boys and girls. Katherine Grier and Ingrid Tague have shown that there was a widespread cultural understanding of this role in Britain and North America. This article builds on their work by exploring pet keeping as a social, material, and embodied process that formed an important part of children’s material worlds in the second half of the nineteenth century. Focusing on rabbits (which were thought to be ideal for fostering caring practices), the article will use advice literature to reveal how children were expected to construct material environments for their pets and how pet care created new everyday routines and practices. Oral histories and memoirs will be used to examine how children experienced pet keeping, as well as the ways in which the material realities of caring for rabbits often fell short of these ideals. In particular, the rabbit’s dual material role as a foodstuff for many families led to difficulties and conflicts of interest. An extended conclusion will review how far the findings presented in the article were specific to Britain and Western Europe, using extant secondary literature to explore different cultural understandings of the role of pet animals in households and families in the East and West.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)266-287
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of the History of Childhood and Youth
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2022

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