Culture in Miniature: Toy Dogs and Object Life

Chi-ming Yang

Originally published in Eighteenth Century Fiction, full article available here

Spaniel image

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.
—Walter Benjamin [1]

In April 2007, National Human Genome Research Institute scientists published their discovery of a single gene responsible for the smallness of small dogs. The research showed that minute genetic mutations can determine the vast difference between a chihuahua and a Great Dane, two creatures that are poles apart but nonetheless share the elastic designation “dog.”[2] Canine diversity and amenability to being domesticated, bred, and continually shaped into new combinations owes something to the little dogs that, over the centuries, have conveniently fit into the intimate and increasingly crowded spaces of human transport, migration, and settlement. In some cases, they have maintained a high degree of genetic variability despite long histories of being inbred and selected for the desirable physical and “personality” traits that constitute modern breed standards, fill the pages of illustrious stud book lineages, and, unfortunately, also produce numerous genetic disorders. The recent genomic breakthrough further links the fates of human animals to their canine diminutives in that these inbred disorders can now be studied for disease genes relevant to saving human lives. The toy dog, it appears, is far more than mere accessory.

The life of a miniature presents a peculiar type of commodity. Its value as a fetish object stems from its small size and multiplies with each iteration of scale downward even to the level of the gene.[3] Specimens of bio-capital with extractive genomic worth, small dogs at the same time defy utility through their uncanny ability to “embody sheer delight.”[4] Such excess and anti-functionalism inhere in the very classification of the “Toy Dog” as a double negation: a diminutive of the “Non-Sporting Dog,” which in turn counters the properly active “Sporting Dog.”[5] In this way, modern classifications assign to the petite canine the sought-after virtues of both an original, or key to life, and a derivative, or copy. If the plasticity of dogs makes them adaptable to recombinant breeds, the miniature embodies the challenge of replicating the idea of dog-ness while stretching the limits of the species in the pursuit of a novelty that ultimately showcases the marvels of technological innovation. Western attempts to categorize the toy dog, from the eighteenth century on, reveal a striking correlation between size, uniqueness, and the commodity form. A lapdog’s smallness makes it an accessory seeming to lack intrinsic value of its own; it not only circulates with ease, but its meaning is also articulated metonymically through its resemblance to proximate companion objects and humans. And yet, the miniature also invites a scrutinizing gaze upon the singularity of its form. Its intricacy of detail signals the labour of its making, namely the human manipulation of the natural world into a desirable breed. Such is the appeal of a copied life, that which encapsulates the techniques of reproducibility and mimicry at the heart of modern consumer culture.

Replicas of bigger, more substantive originals, toy dogs rarely stand alone; their scale places them in relation to other, often inanimate, things, and they beg to be part of a collection or greater narrative—cultural, national, and biographical (see Figures 1–3). Breeds such as the King Charles spaniel and the pug have long been affiliated with luxury and European aristocracy; they are the indoor counterparts to the robust horses and hunting dogs of royal recreation, and in their capacity as status symbols they sit in the lady’s lap or at the family’s feet in numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits. From within the painted frame, these creatures at once emblematize and witness a world of patronage and pedigree. In their smallness, they direct our attention to the finely wrought details of dress and ornamentation that convey publicly the intimate life of the nobility. In English history, the legends of great men have been told through little dogs, and vice versa. These are, one must keep in mind, mutually constructed biographies. Whereas Charles i and ii were paired with their spaniels to distinguish the Stuart line of royal succession, the so-called “Dutch pug” that saved the life of William i, Prince of Orange, furthered the repute of a heroic, non-hereditary line of English monarchy. As the legend goes, William’s little white dog scratched him awake one night in the Low Countries as the Spanish were attacking his camp; his defence of the Netherlands would earn him the title of founding father of the Dutch Republic, and his grandson William iii would eventually become, through marriage to Mary, the king of England in 1689. The House of Orange thus brought with it an inherited love of pugs and a devout Protestant line.[6]

The lore of religious patriotism and unbroken pedigree belies another story of origins and value: the long-distance borrowing and lending that transported little dogs from East Asia along with companion commodities such as tea and porcelain. Together, these future metonyms of Englishness and empire embodied a form of cosmopolitan value through the dual fetishization of pure origins and endless cross-species as well as cross-cultural mixture. What Donna Haraway has studied as the dog’s “trans-species encounter value,” we might expand to include its transcultural encounter value.[7] The Asiatic origin of the toy dog, as bred and rendered in art and in life, assigns the China trade a critical role in shaping species categorization and the representation of human-animal relations. Factoring objects into these relations provides a more complete picture of a greater chain of being at work across eighteenthcentury consumer culture. The empirical resemblances between human and non-human animals posited by eighteenth-century classification systems of natural history are explored in parallel by the economics and poetics of classifying miniature dog life, or by the “social life of things.”[8] By tracing the intertwined biographies of the toy dog and the East-West commodity exchanges of early modern England, we can better understand the power of ornament, craft, and miniaturization upon innovations in aesthetics as well as the life sciences. In the object-organism spectrum, art not only imitates life, but also, in effect, breeds it.[9]

Pug Figurines

Classifying the Eastern Toy

By current kennel standards, “toy” designates a group that includes some twenty or so breeds of dogs that share not much more than their small size.[10] The toy dog has long troubled taxonomy, and its classification history is one of borrowed legitimacies. The earliest official record of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is an 1806 entry under “toy”: “Applied to an animal, esp. a dog of a diminutive breed or variety, kept as a pet, e.g. a toy spaniel or terrier.”[11] By the mid-nineteenth century, with the advent of dog shows and increased efforts to systematize breed standards, toys became a class of their own, although still identified by their attachments to others. The authoritative J.H. Walsh, or “Stonehenge,” included a section titled “Ladies’ Toy Dogs” in British Rural Sports, first published in 1855.[12] Long before this, references to small dogs had appeared in texts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the most cited example being John Caius’s entry in Of Englishe Dogges: the Melitaeus, or Canie delicates, a “delicate, neate, and pretty kind of dogge called the Spaniel gentle or the comforter [of women]” from the island of Malta.[13] Centuries later, the connection between the “Comforter” spaniel and the female sex continued to be reiterated, as in naturalist and artist Thomas Bewick’s description of an “elegant little animal … generally kept by the ladies as an attendant of the toilette or the drawing-room.”[14]

The works of other eighteenth-century natural historians also included theories that the “shock dog,” “pet dog,” and “lion dog” were simply lesser versions of larger canines. In his Natural History, General and Particular, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, applied the same climactic determinism to dogs as to humans. Of the thirty varieties of dogs listed, seventeen were defined by the “influence of climate,” which entailed the propensity to shrink, lose hair, change voice or colour—in short to “become ugly”—in the north or in “warm” places such as Turkey or Persia.[15] The other thirteen types, including the three most popular lapdogs of the period—the “shock dog,” pug, and King Charles spaniel—were simply “copies” of the primary group.

Little dogs appear only as cursory addenda to histories of “useful” hunting dogs until the early twentieth century, when the “oriental” character of the breed group was established. Against previous accounts tracing the dogs to Spain, Holland, or Italy, Judith Lytton, in the influential Toy Dogs and their Ancestors, argued emphatically for the Chinese ancestry of toy spaniels in particular. For those who followed her lead, the link would prove to be elusive, irresistibly suggestive, and yet selfevident, if only by the sheer force of analogy. After all, Lytton wrote, “compiling a history of the Toy Spaniel breeds has been like unravelling a Chinese puzzle.”[16] Art and etymology become precious evidence in attempts by dog historians to match known breeds with the images in countless paintings and to unravel the often mistranslated textual references to stock names such as “King Charles” or “Shock.” The challenge of pinpointing the origins of the small dog is part of the storyteller’s and breeder’s shared delight in shaping difficult material, and in recognizing the hybridity of their subject matter even while attempting to preserve and replicate a pure form. In one instance, Lytton laments the degeneration of the breed and professes her commitment to reintroducing the original spaniel type based on its representation in the paintings of Paolo Veronese and Antoine Watteau.[17] The miniature dog of art is, in this case, the model for the living object, which in turn bears the mark of Western breeding and the added import value of Eastern exoticism.

To take one notable example, the pug is necessarily a different beast today than it was centuries ago, but the name functions as a cultural palimpsest of interactions between races, species, and commodities. Past and ongoing efforts to authenticate the toy dog’s ancestry illustrate the force of analogy that links a spectrum of objectified life. In the eighteenth century, a “pug” was defined as diminutive in the broadest sense: a term of endearment, any type of dwarfed animal, or an epithet for a lower-caste human such as a prostitute or a ship’s servant boy.[18] Before denoting lapdog, “pug” referred to monkey; the transfer of monikers indicates their shared status as exotic, domesticated pets as well as the perceived resemblances in appearance and “character” potentially transferable across species. For instance, the likeness between monkey and dog was considered a result of their common descent through interbreeding in Edward Topsell’s 1604 explanation of the small “mimicke dog,” seen to display apelike qualities and thought to be “conceived by an Ape, for in wite & disposition it resembleth an ape, but in face sharpe and blacke like a Hedghog.”[19] An interplay of homology, metaphor, and metonymy is similarly at work in the racialized adjective “pug-nosed,” a shorthand for ugliness applied to humans that intimates the Afro-Asiatic origins of monkey and dog and the features for which they were known—stout, dark faces. Following the massive influx to Europe of Asian commodities and the products of African slave labour, the onset of industrialization and technological developments in the ceramic arts influenced a further turn of phrase and created another link in the associative chain: “pug” also came to refer to a type of plastic clay used for pottery and brickmaking. This material could be shaped into an array of forms, mimicking that most plastic of Eastern imports, porcelain. The history of pet classification is thus one of migrating signifiers: traits are imagined to transfer across objects and species, racializing humans and non-humans alike. The miniature enacts a certain promiscuity, as suggested by the pug’s connotations of erotic servitude (prostitute), overseas travel (ship’s servant boy), and the emotional responses that vacillate between affection and revulsion. In other words, the miniature travels in the service of desire. Its changing attachments and propensity towards being exchanged make it at once an object difficult to classify and a powerful instrument for gauging human attributes and affect.

Perhaps the most troubling legacy of mapped resemblances between canine and human can be seen in ongoing efforts to prove the Eastern origins of the pug. Dog historian Robert Leighton thought the pug must have originated in China, “particularly in view of the fact that it is with that country that most of the bluntnosed toy dogs, with tails curled over their backs, are associated.”[20] Another writer calls the pug “a typical Chinese dog; the short nose, bold, prominent eyes, and curled tail.”[21] And one J. Nave, a breeder of the 1880s, praised the “the nature of the Japanese” in the King Charles spaniel: “We shall be glad to see a fresh importation of Japanese Spaniels so as to revive the short nose again.”[22] The arrival of Pekingese dogs from China following the 1860 Anglo-French invasion and looting of the imperial Summer Palace has been well documented; James Watson, for one, touted the “pure Chinese stock” of Click, whose parents Lamb and Moss “were Chinese beyond dispute.”[23] Further noting the “pushed-in” heads of English and Japanese toy spaniels, he declared, “there is no getting away from the obvious, the very plain indication that the pug was an oriental importation.”[24]


1 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 223.

2 The mapping of the dog genome sequence was completed in December 2005, and subsequent research related to the project reveals that small dogs have a gene variant that represses the gene IGF1 (insulin-like growth factor 1). See, for example, Elaine Ostrander, “A Single IGF1 Allele Is a Major Determinant of Small Size in Dogs,” Science 316, no. 5821 (2007): 112–15. DOI: 10.1126/ science.1137045 See also J.R. Minkel, “Gene Makes Small Dogs Small,” Scientific American (5 April 2007),

3 On the concept of “gene fetishism,” see Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@ Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997). Thanks to Javier Lezaun for contributing to this discussion of genomics. 141

4 American Kennel Club, “AKC Breeds by Group: Toy Group,” My thanks to Barbara Kolk for access to the American Kennel Club Library archives in New York City.

5 American Kennel Club, “Breeds By Group,” Breeds are designated according to function: “Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, Herding, Miscellaneous.” The breeds of the UK Kennel Club differ slightly: “Hound, Working, Gundog, Terrier, Utility, Pastoral, Toy,”

6 Roger Williams, The Actions of the Lowe Countries (London, 1618). More recent writers have contested the identification of the dog as a pug. See Robert Hutchinson, For the Love of Pugs (San Francisco: Brown Trout Publishers, 1998); and Nick Waters, The Pug Heritage and Art (Eindhoven: BB Press, 2005.)

7 Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 46.

8 Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

9 An earlier version of this essay benefited from participants’ feedback at Finding Animals: Toward a Comparative History and Theory of Animals, a conference presented by the Visualizing Animals group at Penn State, University Park, PA, 30 April–1 May 2009.

10 The American Kennel Club, for example, includes the following, with the caveat that small breeds can also be found under other groups: affenpinscher; Brussels griffon; Cavalier King Charles spaniel; chihuahua; Chinese crested; English toy spaniel; Havanese; Italian greyhound; Japanese Chin; Maltese; Manchester terrier; miniature pinscher; papillon; Pekingese; Pomeranian; poodle; pug; Shih Tzu; silky terrier; toy fox terrier; Yorkshire terrier. The UK Kennel Club lists a slightly different assortment of breeds.

11 OED, 2nd ed. (1989); online version March 2012 (earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1913), s.v. “toy, n.”

12 I cite the 7th ed. of British Rural Sports (London, 1867), which included several breeds of toy dogs: the Italian greyhound, Maltese, toy terrier, lion dog, small poodle, Blenheim spaniel, and Pomeranian. By the 12th ed. of 1875, “Toy Dogs” was included as a formal heading in the table of contents. The earliest mentions of the formal designation “Toy Dog” that I have found are J.G. Wood, Illustrated Natural History (London, 1851) and an 1852 advertisement for a dog show. Both these sources are cited in Waters (17, 43).

13 John Caius, Of Englishe Dogges the Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties (London, 1576), 21. References are to this edition. (The work was published originally in Latin in 1570 as Johannus Caius, De Canibus Britannicus.)

14 Thomas Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1790), 312.

15 Barr’s Buffon: Buffon’s Natural History, vol. 5 (London, 1792), 319, 322–24, 332–34.

16 Judith Lytton, Toy Dogs and Their Ancestors (New York: D. Appleton, 1911), 11. She argues that the Chinese dog is the ancestor of the red-and-white toy (Blenheim) spaniel, the Japanese black-and-white spaniel, and the Pekingese (250). The original King Charles spaniel was curly and black, and was crossed with the Pyrame to get the black-and-tan modern King Charles (66, 79). For background on Lytton’s work and an in-depth analysis of nineteenth-century pet-keeping, breeding, and showing, see Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

17 Lytton, 79.

18 OED, 3rd ed. (2007); online version June 2012 (earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1909), s.v. “pug, n.2”

19 Edward Topsell, The History of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (London, [1658]), 161. References are to this edition.

20 Robert Leighton, The Complete Book of the Dog (London: Cassell, 1952), 273.

21 C.G.E. Wimhurst, The Complete Book of Toy Dogs (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 204.

22 Cited in Viva Leone Ricketts, All about Toy Dogs (New York: Howell Books,
1965), 134.

23 James Watson, The Dog Book (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1906), 698.

24 Watson, 724.