Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dog Blog

Dogs, were a part of life at Clermont probably beginning as soon as the Livingstons settled in with their furniture. Animals were most certainly present from day one, and the term "pet" was already coming into use to denote a preferred or "favorite," an animal or person to whom one devoted extra attention and love. The term "pet" was even used into the 19th century to refer to a special child.

While dogs and other animals have always been part of human life, they were most commonly viewed for many years as utilitarian beings. Cats were present to kill mice. Farm animals provided food and materials. Hunting dogs, shepherds, terriers, and other working breeds all served a purpose. Only certain animals were singled out for friendship, the most famous being royal examples (for instance Marie Antoinette lamented her separation from her favorite pug when she traveled from Austria to France for her wedding to Louis XVI).

Young King Charles II of England with his famed spaniels

The Livingstons, by nature of their priviledged status, would most likely also have been able to indulge in such luxuries as relationships with pets as early as the 18th century. By the Victorian era, pet dogs became linked closely with childhood, and their presence in the home became commonplace.

As an adult John Henry Livingston had a Jack Russell terrier named Soda, who met an untimely end at the hand of "ruffians" in Tivoli in 1902. His grief at Soda's death lead him to have a marble headstone carved for his pet, which located in the pet cemetary near an earlier grave, dated 1893. (Unfortunately, this second grave appears to be marked only "Dead" and the date so we do not know any more about the animal beneath. The font is difficult to read however, and we are interested if anyone else can venture a guess on what it might say.)

However, it was Alice Livingston's predeliction for pets that turned Clermont into a veritable dog house in the early 20th century. Alice loved dogs more than all her other pets, and she appears to have kept them close by her side throughout her life. In fact, she posed for several formal photographs with her dogs during her youth.

Pet photography was as yet uncommon, and these images are an important indication of Alice's relationship with her pets beginning as early as her mid-teens. Additional photographs show her with a pit bull and a cocker spaniel as well as the border collie shown here.

When Alice married John Henry and moved to Clermont, she continued to aquire more dogs who quickly became family members.

When her children were two and three in 1912, Alice and John Henry purchase an "English bloodhound puppy" named Bonhampton Lion--well, that was what they tried to name him. Honoria instisted on the more child-friendly moniker of Rufus. Rufus became the children's constant companion and appears in many photographs of their early life.

Later, when the family traveled to Italy in 1921, they brought their dogs and even purchased more during their occupancy. Erin (breed unknown) was sent back to America for killing chickens, but two borzois and a great Dane soon followed in his place. A Skye terrier was also picked up in England and an exotic Lhasa Apso (which she referred to as a Llasa terrier as was common around 1900) traveled with them as well.

Alice's younger daughter Janet appears to have followed in her mother's footsteps as a dog lover. She was a known supporter of the still-young Humane Society and appears to have had some interest in the earliest days of the Seeing Eye, the first organization to train guide dogs for the blind. Amongst her belongings we found a a program for a dinner in memory of Buddy, one of the first guide dogs. She was also portrayed in art closely entwined with one of her dogs as a teenager in Italy.

Late in life, Alice wrote a memoir several pages long chronicling the importance of dogs in her life. "In the course of a long life I and my family have brought up 20 different breeds of dogs...." she wrote. In a document several pages long (of which only three survive), she detailed most of the pets she had owned, beginning with the Skye terrier of her early childhood--"a real 'Grey Friar's Bobby' of a dog," in her opinion. Sadly, one of the prominent features of this memoir is the deaths of several of these dogs. For Alice, as for many pet owners, her close relationships with her pets lead to painful, life-long memories of their short lifespans. Much like the enduring tale of Soda's death, the deaths of her pit bull, Wagon the greyhound, and others were etched forever on the family's history.

Dog paraphanalia is a big part of Clermont's collections, and I took a quick spin through some of them today as I prepared this blog. A few objects relating to dog care remain, including several wicker dog beds and a water bowl that resembles one I myself owned as a child. Other objects are decorative item that have a dog theme. The little guy pictured on the left is an unaccessioned clay figurine that came from Honoria's cottage after her death. The other is a 19th century decorative statuette whose depiction of a small sight hound has always been one of my favorites since it so closely resembles a whippet.

One of my favorite decorative, dog-themed artifacts in the mansion is a figurine sculpted by Alice, which depicts a kneeling woman looking into a small dog's face. The intimacy of this gesture is touchingly familiar to any of us who have ever taken a moment to subject our dogs to "kisses."

Clermont is still a destination for dog lovers. Like most New York State Parks and Historic Sites, we are pleased to welcome leashed dogs. I am forever happy that many local visitors take advantage of our 5 miles of trails for regular walks with their dogs, and on any given day a visitor to Clermont can see poodles, a Hovawart, dobermans, American Eskimos, and spritely little mutts getting some exercise. It is pleasure to me that our doggy history continues in the spirit of these many beasties and their human companions.

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