The permanent collection at the National Sporting Library & Museum has over 1,300 objects, including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, weathervanes, and dog collars. That’s right, dog collars.
Fifteen years ago, Dr. and Mrs. Tim Greenan began collecting dog collars, eventually amassing 187 of them. In 2014, they donated their entire collection to the NSLM, making the museum one of the largest (if not the largest) repositories in the world for these niche objects.
Dr. Greenan and the Curatorial department are developing an exhibition for 2022 that will display the objects alongside works of art that feature similar collars. The show will also highlight the relationship between dogs and humans and how that relationship has evolved throughout the centuries.
It’s hard to remember a time when dogs have not been Man’s Best Friend snuggling up on our laps and eagerly awaiting our return. Initially, they were trained for war, hunting, working, fighting, and scouting. The one shown below dates from the 18th century and is firmly utilitarian. The spikes repelled attackers and protected the canine.
The brass one below would have been used for bear baiting or boar hunting. It is important to remember to not look at such collars through 21st-century eyes, but rather keep it in context of the 18th century. While we view it as cruel, bear baiting was considered a regular sport for all societal classes at the time. This collar is inscribed “WILLIAM ECKLES ISLAND HILL 1792.” The sharp sawtooth edges would have protected the neck of the dog wearing it.
The large horsehair collar below (and my favorite!) is from the 18th century, possibly from Goa, India. It is decorated with orange agate cabochons and is almost 12 inches in diameter. You can imagine that this is also quite heavy and would probably have been worn by a mastiff.
As dogs were domesticated, they also served as a status symbol: the breed, pedigree, and, of course, the collar. Tiffany & Co., known for their wonderful and highly sought-after jewelry, also produced many everyday objects, including the below silver dog collar from 1831-1832. It is inscribed with the owner’s name, “GEO. H. INGERSOLL ./ NEW YORK.,” is adjustable, and came to the collection with the owner’s choice for a lock. It was not uncommon for dogs to be stolen, their identification to be removed, and then be resold on the street as dogs in need of a home. The lock served to discourage would-be thieves.
The inscriptions could sometimes be whimsical and silly. The one below is from the 1920s or 1930s and reads, “I’M / H.O. SWINFORD’S DOG / WHOSE DOG / ARE YOU?”
The image below shows an Italian collar from the 1940s with distinctly Roman motifs. One crest has an image of Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his twin brother, Remus. The other crest shows the she-wolf that nursed the twins after they were abandoned. Incredibly appropriate motifs to adorn such an object!
Stay tuned as we continue to learn about these everyday, yet fascinating, objects. We’ll be posting more teasers in preparation for the forthcoming 2022 exhibition.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org