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.”

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born on this day in 1564.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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