Show Me the Collie

Having established that Queen Victoria’s direct influence on the proliferation of the show Collie is insubstantial at best, let’s explore what impact the Monarchy may have, in fact, had on the culture of dogs during her reign.

Five. If the show Collie owes more to simply being there at the start of dog shows themselves than to being the beloved breed of a style setting maven Queen Victoria, can we at least trace the popularity of dog shows to the monarchy? Yes, but not to Queen Victoria.

It was her husband, Prince Albert, who played a part in establishing the paradigm of agricultural improvement shows. He was one the sponsors and organizers of the landmark Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851, the first of the World’s Fairs and a cultural happening major importance.

More than a quarter of the British people would attend the event before its close and the notions of upward mobility through engineering and enterprise would have lasting repercussions on class identity, art, architecture, agriculture, manufacturing, science, technology, and the practice of leisure and hobbies.

So man is approaching a more complete fulfillment of that great and sacred mission which he has to perform in this world. His reason being created after the image of God, he has to use it to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation, and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer nature to his use — himself a divine instrument. Science discovers these laws of power, motion and transformation; industry applies them to raw matter which the earth yields us in abundance, but which becomes valuable only by knowledge; art teaches us the immutable laws of beauty and symmetry, and gives to our productions forms in accordance with them.
Gentlemen, the Exhibition of 1851 is to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions.

– H.R.H. Prince Albert, October 1849

We see in this speech all the elements necessary to justify the paradigm of dog shows: the search for a platonic ideal, the subjugation of nature to man’s whims, the tenuous link between objective science and subjective art, high praise for beauty and symmetry, and the “form follows function” ethic.

While the forces of human ingenuity, industrial advancement, and cultural change can’t be packaged neatly as coming from a single cause, person, or event, the good Prince Albert did win top billing, and thus a share of the credit.

The success of Prince Albert’s ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851 made all types of display an acceptable form of entertainment in the days of Queen Victoria.
By 1861 the Industrial Revolution was well advanced, and with it the country acquired a new social class of Industrial Entrepreneurs largely based in the North and Midlands. Their wealth giving family members the time for leisure, but without either the education, or social contacts to make them acceptable to the established middle classes. Many had backgrounds in animal husbandry, which could successfully be applied to the canine fancy where entrenched social values did not matter. A ready supply of cheap manual labour, and easy travel afforded by this country’s already comprehensive railway network all contributing to the advance of this new interest.
Never has private enterprise been valued to the extent it was during the Victorian Era, and dog shows were no exception to this rule. All the early shows were organised by either private individuals or companies with canine associations, profit being the guiding motive, although few appear to have fulfilled their promise on this account.

– Collies Through the Ages, 1861-1870

The obvious takeaway from this passage is that dog shows were driven from the bottom (perhaps middle) up, not the top down, at the hands of the nouveau rich and burgeoning middle class. They were fueled not by Royal decree, but by the free market and people looking to make a buck in dogs in the same manner others had made great fortunes in other sectors of industrial advancement.

The labor saving advantages of the Industrial Revolution gave what used to be a hand-to-mouth working class the time and money to pursue hobbies like tinkering with toy trains, rare flowers, and dogs.

But dog shows aren’t the only consideration. The story isn’t just that Queen Victoria kicked off dog show splendor, she is also credited with vaulting the Collie to the premiere pet.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, largely as a result of the queen’s sentimental love for her own animals and the mass-produced images circulated of them, the keeping of domestic pets became very popular. No longer looked upon as simply the servants of man, whose place was the farmyard and the kennel, dogs in particular were welcomed into the bosom of the family by Victoria and occupied a special place in her affections.
Queen Victoria by Helen Rappaport, p. 34

While it’s well documented that the Queen, especially following the death of Prince Albert, became a great collector of many things, including pets; it’s nearly impossible to truly assign credit to one woman, no matter how prominent she may be, for starting or helping foster such a large and nebulous trend as pet ownership.

Given the current furor over what mutt the Obama family–fresh off their own coronation–may pick there is no doubting the potential for plenty of good press for the pets of the monarch. But Obama didn’t make the Labradoodle any more than Queen Victoria made the Collie, and forces well out of their control are more significant than forces in their control. Monarchs make excellent distilations for society-w
ide movements, there’s a reason we name eras after them.

My personal opinion is that dogs have played an emotionally significant role in human families for a lot longer than the 19th century. We have graves of people buried with their dogs which suggest a bond as intimate as man and wife, a bond that goes back tens of thousands of years. But since it’s rather impossible to prove the Queen’s influence one way or another, I may as well put forth the best evidence for her influence.

This episode [Queen Victoria aquiring Collies] marked the epoch of the Collie’s day and gave it the impetus that assured its destiny. From that time forward its popularity grew rapidly and, for many subsequent years, it flourished not only as the animated ornament which served to complete the out-of-doors equipment of the leaders of fahsion but, as that of the fashionable househould pet of the majority of dog lovers.

It became a common sight to see the fashionable “Collie companion,” spick and span, well groomed, revealing a life of luxury, fulfilling, with all the alacrity of satisfaction, the mission of accompanying its owner on his customary ambulations.

The Collie by O.P. Bennett, 1924

While the greater social movements of agricultural improvement, eugenics, competitive hobbies, leisure time, dog shows and pets were all in play outside of the Queen’s influence, they also were active on her watch. And since academics from social anthropologists to artists are satisfied naming the entire era after Victoria, so too must I judge her influence, if not dominance, as plausible.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.