Boston Terriers: How a hybrid bulldog became an American icon

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In the 1920s, Emanuel Jay Rousuck, a bon vivant and art collector, was smitten with the Boston terriers at a dog show in Boston’s Horticultural Hall. To him, the Boston terrier was the quintessential American dog– a dog as “democratic as the motherland herself,” who attracted a “motley” crowd “from all corners of the globe even as America has attracted all peoples and held them in her heart.” Among the Boston terrier exhibitors he saw at the show: an Italian-American “‛dark-complected’ fellow” and his bald Irish-American companion; a “big, raw-boned African”; a priest with “Teutonic persistency”; Bennie Loojinsky, a Jew; a “Chinaman”; and an Irish wagon washer. It was “ripping,” he said, that America created its own dog in whom “livery stable and Bar Harbor” met.

Roussuck was not alone. Others, too, saw the dogs as a symbol of America.

The Boston terrier was considered the American dog because, unlike almost all other dog breeds, it was one of the few that Americans claimed to have created, though that claim came under debate. To complicate matters, the Boston terrier’s advertised persona as representative of democracy opposed its also advertised persona as a little aristocrat, which came partly from its selective breeding for a certain look – the look of a tiny, refined creature wearing a tuxedo.

When a “mutt” becomes a “breed”

Warring against the notion of the Boston terrier as an aristocrat and legitimate American-created breed was the accusation that it really remained a mutt. According to Vincent Perry, a breed historian, an American Kennel Club official once pronounced, “Bulldog, indeed! Why this hybrid from Boston is nothing but a mongrel!” It took a long time for the Boston terrier to be accepted as a breed. Perhaps for that long time it was like some modern designer dogs, not a mutt just because of human intention, but yet perhaps a mutt because for generations it did not breed true. If a Labrador retriever and poodle mated on their own, would the progeny have been considered a breed? Well, no. And if it took several generations of deliberately breeding labradoodles before a casual observer could identify one (early on they each looked and acted so different), was the labradoodle truly a breed before the dogs called labradoodles all looked alike?

The Boston terrier was created by crossing the English bulldog with the white English terrier and perhaps with the French bulldog. Its original ancestor was most likely Judge, sold about 1870 to Robert S. Hooper of Boston by William O’Brien, also of Boston. Judge might have come from England on a cattle-boat; he certainly was imported. Three-quarters English bulldog and one-quarter terrier, he looked like a toy bulldog. Two generations later came Barnard’s Tom, who had a screw tail and was, according to W.H. Huntington, writing in the early twentieth century, “really and truly the progenitor of the Boston terrier, the father of the breed.”

Another story goes that the Boston terrier came about when, in the 1860s and 1870s,  Boston working-class breeders created fighting dogs by mating their employers’ English bulldogs, English terriers, and French bulldogs.

American mongrels?

At the Boston Bench Show, in March 1891, people interested in the breed decided to create a specialty club, planning to defining a standard. The club picked the name Boston terrier, much because Boston was the dog’s origin.  The American Kennel Club admitted Boston terriers to registration and classes in February 1893, and eighteen Boston terriers were entered in the Westminster Kennel Club Show in 1894. From then on, it was considered important to avoid crosses with English bulldogs and bull terriers to correct tendencies to throw back to the opposite. Strangely, few, if any, comparisons were made between new breed creation and  attitudes toward human mating across class and ethnic lines in the United States.

Well into the new century, Boston terrier breeders had not yet rid themselves of the “mongrel” stigma, even as prize Boston terriers were selling for huge prices. As late as 1905, one English dog expert said that Boston terriers were just mongrels, the kind someone could “pick up in the Potteries [a region in England known for Staffordshire terriers] for thirty shillings.’” This was not entirely true —  some Boston terriers were “breeding true” after six generations.

But not all. In 1910, Edward Axtell asserted that all too often Boston terrier litters contained throwbacks to the original bulldog and bull terrier, but that if breeders would mate dogs intelligently and “put aside” those puppies that did not meet the standard, “a type of dog will be bred true to our highest ideals,” which would “gladden the eye and fill the pocketbook.” As in most recountings of dog breeding, those highest “ideals” smack of eugenics, with the unacceptable young being “put aside,” in the pocketbook’s shadow.

In spite of all the controversy about its origins and breeding, the Boston terrier quickly became popular in America. Its “star [was] in the ascendant” by 1905, according to The New York Times, when at the Madison Garden dog show there were “ten visitors to the Boston terrier benches to one at any other bench.” According to the Boston Terrier Club, the breed was either in the number one or number two spot for popularity in the United States from 1905 to 1935. Today, it doesn’t even make the top ten.

Certainly Boston terriers were popular because urbanization favored the small pet, and were meant just to be an amusing companion (like many aristocrats, Boston terriers never held a real job, though their ancestors were fighters). Also the Boston terrier was popular at least partly because of its cuteness. It had the look of an adorable baby mammal with its perky ears and large, round eyes, which, according to the standard, should not bulge so much that they looked “fish-like.” They have a look that some claim may have been favored because it resembled another American icon of the 1900s: Mickey Mouse.

Ann Elwood is the author of Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star and The Dog Park: A Collection of Stories with a Common Cast of Characters

(Image of squirrel and Boston terrier via Lili Chin; Boston Terrier Club poster from New York Public Library’s archives)


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