Dubious Victorian Advice for Keeping 6 Unusual Pets

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The Victorians loved to keep pets—but they were often not content to make do with an ordinary cat or dog, and preferred something a little more exotic. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a wombat; collector Walter Rothschild had a tamed zebra; and Charles Dickens famously featured a fictionalized version of his pet raven, Grip, in his novel Barnaby Rudge. This love for unusual pets is reflected in the many 19th and early 20th century manuals on pet ownership, which offer plenty of helpful (and not-so-helpful) advice on the favored pets of the day. The manuals make for amusing reading—although we don't recommend trying any of this at home.

1. SQUIRRELS

A selection of Victorian pets from the book "Domestic pets: their habits and management" by Jane Loudon
Jane Loudon, Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management, Google Books // Public Domain

Wild squirrels were frequently caught and kept as pets in Victorian times. As C. Pridham remarked in Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Treatments (1893), “It does seem strange that such a shy, wild-wood creature should ever submit to be made a pet; still more that it should quickly become so very much at home as one generally finds pet squirrels are, with such fond, winning, playful ways of their own that we cannot choose but to give them the petting in which they take such delight.”

Pet squirrels didn't come from pet shops; the manuals suggested that you catch them yourself, preferably as babies, since the young were easier to tame. If climbing up the nearest tree and extracting a wriggling, biting baby squirrel seemed a little too challenging, it was suggested you turn to an obliging gamekeeper. If they had to turn to outside help, buyers were warned not to accept a “dopey” squirrel, as it was likely hopped up on laudanum and would probably soon expire.

Jane Loudon, writing in Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management (1851) noted that squirrels were best kept "in little ornamental kennels, with a platform for the squirrel to sit on, and a little chain to fasten to a collar round the squirrel’s neck.” But pet squirrels were also sometimes allowed to roam free in the house, making use of the furnishings: “[The squirrel] will run up a window curtain, and along the cornice at the top with wonderful grace and agility; it will also run round the cornice of a room, and if it is richly carved, it will peep out between the leaves and flowers in a very amusing manner.”

G. P. Fermor, in Home Pets Furred and Feathered (1902), chided squirrel owners who did not adequately house their pet: “The harmless, festive little squirrel has, in its wild state, about as joyous a life as any other creature in the world, and it is a matter of wonder that any one who really cared for such a pet could have evolved the painfully cramped cages, with that miserable attempt at a playground, the maddening little wheel.” Instead, he advised that squirrels are happiest with a mate and a large cage with bare branches for them to scamper around. A box filled with moss, dry leaves or hay was recommended to serve as a nest, while bread, milk, nuts, and sugar were said to be the best diet.

2. BADGERS

The quaint Eurasian badger of Wind in the Willows fame does not have the vicious reputation of the North American badger, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the Victorians attempted to tame them (the two are actually different species). In Pets and How to Keep Them (1907), Frank Finn says of the badger, “[It] is a very interesting pet with many quaint and curious habits, remarkably like those of a bear on a small scale.”

The problem, Finn noted, comes with finding a secure place to keep the badger, as they are such good diggers they can burrow out of almost any enclosure. To prevent this, the author recommends installing a cement floor and high wire fences. The author also advocates feeding badgers on dog food, but supplementing this with dried fruit and the odd treat of a “wasp’s nest full of larvae."

3. OWLS

A Victorian illustration of an owl
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Although they're not an obvious choice for a furry companion, the Reverend J. G. Wood claimed in his book Our Domestic Pets (1871) that “There are worse pets to be found than owls … by proper management they can be made into very companionable birds, quaint, grotesque, and affectionate withal.”

But then comes the rub: “The chief drawback to the owl as a pet is its nocturnal habits.” That said, the reverend provides a tactic to get around this wrinkle: “Now, although at first to wake the owl will be found rather a tedious business, and to keep it awake still more difficult, a present of a mouse, or a small bird, or a large beetle, will generally rouse it, and cause it to remain awake for some little time.”

4. RAVENS

A selection of Victorian bird pets from the book "Domestic pets: their habits and management" by Jane Loudon
Jane Loudon, Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management, Google Books // Public Domain

By the Victorian era, ravens were becoming rare in the wild in Britain, in part because so many of these intelligent birds had been captured as pets. Pridham revealed that if found in the wild, ravens could be taken from the nest as fledglings, but that due to their scarcity they were more easily bought at market. He advised raven-keepers to select the largest cage they could find, or else tame them sufficiently that the bird chooses to stay in one's garden, where they “make themselves very useful by clearing the plants of slugs.”

Taming ravens, however, was no simple matter: Reverend Wood wrote that his own family had "been for some months undecided whether we shall have a raven or not. We should greatly like to possess one of these birds, but then we know he would pull up all our newly-sown seeds, get into the milk-pail, tear our papers to pieces, and, in short, spoil everything within his reach.”

5. JACKDAWS

Jackdaws, a smaller and more readily available member of the crow family, became a popular alternative to ravens. “To procure a raven, an order to a dealer is almost necessary; but every boy should be ashamed if he cannot catch a young Jackdaw for himself,” Reverend Wood wrote.

Like ravens, jackdaws could be taught to do tricks and learn words, but as the reverend points out, this did have its limits: “Jackdaws are very easily tamed, and become very talkative after their fashion. Their vocabulary is, however, limited, and is mostly restricted to the word 'Jack,' which is uttered on every imaginable occasion.” The 1883 tome Every Day Home Advice Relating Chiefly to Household Management noted that jackdaws, like other talking birds, were subject to various diseases, but that "a rusty nail in their water ... stick-licorice, chalk, or scraped root of white hellebore" could be helpful.

6. MONKEYS

Victorian men giving a monkey a bath
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Monkeys were considered fashionable pets during Victorian times. Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them by Arthur Patterson (1888) includes tips on choosing a suitably simian name, recommending “Bully, Peggy, Mike, Peter, Jacko, Jimmy, Demon, Barney, Tommy, Dulcimer, Uncle or Knips.” However, prospective monkey owners were advised to understand that the creatures weren't exactly easy to manage: “Any one who undertakes to keep one of this family as a pet must be prepared for somewhat unlooked-for developments. Their capacity for mischief and insatiable curiosity are things that have to be reckoned with,” warned M. G. P. Fermor in Home Pets Furred and Feathered.

Fermor recommended that a whole room be set aside for the use of the monkeys: “The furniture of such an apartment need not be expensive—poles, ropes, bars and swings are what the occupants will appreciate more than chairs or sofas.” If just one monkey was to be kept, it could be attached to a light, strong chain, which should be affixed to something it couldn't drag around. But Fermor cautions: “The Larger monkeys cannot be given as much freedom as their smaller brethren, for should one of them embark upon a tour of destruction, or give free rein to his impish wickedness, it would be a serious matter to restore order.”

If all else fails, Patterson recommended the following ploy for gaining your monkey's trust: Let a friend go up to the animal's cage brandishing and swinging a stick in order to frighten the animal. “In the midst of this nonsense, rush forward, and pretend to take the part of your pet, thrash your friend to within an inch of his life with the very stick he has been using, and put him out. Next take the monkey some savory morsel, such as a date, or an apple, and sympathize with it. You are sworn friends from that time.”

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

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iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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