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Of Canaries and Cats… Pets in the Victorian Era

When I was researching for my latest Silver Rush book, A DYING NOTE, I used an 1886 “business directory map” to work out what businesses were in the neighborhood of my fictional D & S Music Store in San Francisco. That is where I bumped up against “A. C. Robison, Importer and Dealer in Birds and cages, etc.”

My mind began churning.

Birds, eh? What kinds of birds did people keep as pets in the late 19th century?

Birds were popular pets in the late 19th century. By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Well, I couldn’t let a question like that go unanswered.

I turned to the internet, and down the rabbit hole I went….

According to the article “Our American Birds,” by Michael K. Boyer, which appeared in Godey’s Magazine, September 1889, songbirds were popular.

There is the canary, of course, but also a variety of finches: the goldfinch, the indigo finch, and the Nonpareil are mentioned. Other birds include the bobolink and the blue jay, as well as the mockingbird.

The mockingbird??

We have these chatty fellows in the trees in our backyard, and I swear, in the late spring/early summer they NEVER stop calling. I can’t imagine having them going on indoors. I’d go nuts.

Boyer spends a fair bit of space on varieties of parrots: the yellow-headed Mexican (which “stands first” as a talker), the grey African (a prime choice for a whistler), and the Cuban (which cannot be relied upon as a talker… but is inexpensive, so has the largest sales).

And, if you have a pet bird that has been exposed to drafts and contracted asthma, Boyer even gave some suggestions for hastening your feathered companion's recovery:
… keep the bird extra warm, and feed a paste made of a piece of white bread, about the size of a walnut, made by boiling it in four tablespoonfuls of milk, stirred with a wooden spoon until it becomes an even pulp; a few grains of cayenne pepper can be added.  Feed fresh for several days.  A little lettuce or water-cress will also be found beneficial.
Now, if you’re more interested in the feline’s position as a pet in the Victorian household, you can read a Good Housekeeping article (1889) titled "A Plea for Pussy and Her Possibilities As a Pet."  (From the title, I'm guessing cats did not enjoy the popularity that they do now.)

Here again, birds arise in the conversation:
"How can you keep a cat when you have birds?" friends often ask.  My cat has been taught that the birds are not for him, and I am almost confident he would not venture to take one of my birds if I offered it to him from my hand.
Cat vs Parrot: Think a truce can be arranged? By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t imagine the Diva Miss Mia (who “rules the roost” in my home) could be convinced to tolerate a two-footed twittering companion. Good thing that I'm not about to try!

Are we having chicken for dinner??

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for editor/writer). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.


  1. Great bit of research, Ann. Those rabbit holes do come in handy, especially when we find unexpected treasures that can enhance our tale even more. Because so many people have pets these days, their presence in a story can be an effective tool for pulling your readers into the lives of your characters.

  2. Interestimg. Birds were still common pets when I was growing up, but can't think of a single friend with one now, unlike cats.

  3. That's interesting! Except for dogs and horses, I hadn't considered any of my historical characters having another type of pet. I can imagine an outlaw with a parrot, though. :D

  4. Hi Linda!
    So true... there's a reason that "cozy mysteries" often feature dogs and cats on the covers. :-)
    None of my characters have a "pet," but I'm pondering a possible alley cat or stray dog that might hang around.
    Or a pet songbird. Or maybe a parrot.
    We'll see!

  5. Hi Liz!
    True! Birds don't seem as popular as they once were. Not sure why. Too noisy? Too messy? You can't take them for walks?

  6. Hi Pat!
    I think a parrot could be fun to include. It could even provide a clue in a mystery. Hmmm. Has that been done before? It "feels" familiar....

  7. My very first pet was a parakeet I named Lucky. I would let him fly around the room and he would land on my finger. I learned for the first time what losing a pet felt like, and it was just awful. I've experienced that feeling many times since, but I still recall the pain I felt as an eleven-year old.

  8. It is interesting that birds are not as popular as pets as they used to be. I can remember seeing them in numerous homes of friends and relatives, and we had canaries for quite a long time in the early 70s. We also had a cat, so the bird was seldom out of his cage, but he seemed okay about that. We gave him a lot of attention, and when he whistled, my hubby would whistle back. Sometimes that would go on for 20 minutes or more.


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