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A definitive history of dog biscuits
Hello, Snackers. You know who loves snacks? Everyone. Including dogs. But the history of dog biscuits has never been fully told—until now.
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Americans haven’t used the word “biscuits” in the same way as the British for hundreds of years, but no one thought to inform American dogs.
Have you noticed this? How dog treats in the USA, which look very much like what we would usually call a cookie or a cracker, are uniformly identified as dog biscuits? (If you haven’t pondered this, I assure you others have, including the inquisitive people of Quora.)
The word “cookie” comes from the Dutch “koekjes,” meaning “small cake,” and entered the English language in the early 1700s, back when New York still had plenty of Dutch linguistic and cultural influences going around, and just in time for the American rebellion against all things British (tea, monarchs, Take That, etc.).
According to The Food Timeline, this cross-pollination of colonialism—including the desire to shun King George III and Co.—is how the USA became a land of cookies, a place where biscuits are something else entirely (taller, softer, more buttery, more likely to be topped with gravy).
Why, then, do the canines of this country eat biscuits? And when did they start eating biscuits?
This is our snack quest today.
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The New York Times Magazine investigated the roots of dog biscuits back in 2014, offering this origin story:
For most of their history as human companions, dogs have scavenged scraps from the supper table. But that all changed in 1860, when an Ohio electrician named James Spratt journeyed to London to sell lightning rods. After watching quayside mongrels feasting on hardtack, the dry biscuit that fed sailors on long voyages, Spratt set about making a biscuit for dogs that could serve as their primary food.
Spratt’s company told its own version of the same story, in even more grandiloquent terms, in an ad that ran in The Daily Telegraph, the London newspaper, in 1905. See if you can count all the corporate mythology cliches in this one paragraph:
Yet this world-famed industry began in quite a modest way, and the building up of it has been quite a romance in itself. It was some forty years ago that the late Mr. James Spratt, who had travelled a great deal and gained a good deal of experience, especially in America, came to the conclusion that there was something radically defective in the methods of feeding dogs in vogue at that period. Either the animals were forced to live upon weevilly ship’s biscuits mixed with very doubtful meat refuse from soap boilers’ factories, or they were fed upon scraps that did them a great deal of harm. Nutritious biscuit, containing sound, wholesome meat, was obviously the right food for dogs.
What we have here is a classic rags-to-riches tale—or, in this case, make that rods-to-riches. The plucky American has an idea, seizes the moment, develops a new product, changes the world. But, like so much self-made-man mythology, this narrative doesn’t doesn’t hold up to fact-checking, as quickly discovered when I started digging in the newspaper archives. A recurring theme of this newsletter is that most food origin stories are wrong, but this one is especially wrong, off by more than fifty years.
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The oldest mention of “dog biscuits” that I could find was an ad from The Bath (England) Chronicle in October 1809:
The way this is phrased, it seems that the dog biscuits are a known product—there’s no “Be It Known That We Hath Have Developed A Most Exquisite & Exceptional Comestible” preamble here, just a straightforward classified ad—so it’s likely that this product was not new. I’ll also note that none of the earliest mentions I found include a specific name of a brand or manufacturer, which indicates that it was something people made without trying to turn it into a significant business. It was just kinda there, a product without a corporate label or someone trying to claim it as their own personal invention.
It wasn’t until the 1820s—still well before Mr. Spratt’s Grand Adventure—that the brands arrived, in the form of Smith’s Dog Biscuits. Based on an amusingly detailed endorsement in The Sporting Magazine from the keeper of Lord Viscount Ashbrook’s dogs, it appears that Smith’s was in business by 1821, if not earlier. (These particular aristocratic dogs had previously snacked on “oatmeal, old sea stores &c.” and were apparently quite happy with the upgrade; their keeper reported that he typically ordered the dog biscuits by the half ton.)
Smith’s advertised itself a highfalutin’ sort of brand, one most appropriate for sporting dogs with royal connections. The company quoted that letter from Lord Viscount Ashbrook’s dog guy in an ad they ran in 1825, and three years later, they published this ad with the endorsement of the Duke of Glocester:
By 1841, dog biscuits were sufficiently common among aristocrats that The Journal of Agriculture, based in Scotland, printed a trend piece, that observed “in the south of England, it is much the fashion to give sporting-dogs a food called dog-biscuit instead of barley-meal, and the consequences resulting from this simple aliment are most gratifying.”
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It’s possible that James Spratt genuinely didn’t know that dog biscuits were an established product in England before he saw the fateful “quayside mongrels feasting on hardtack.” Perhaps he was so engrossed in his lightening-rod sales that he hadn’t noticed that dog biscuits were a thing beyond the docks.
It’s curious, though, that he used the name “biscuits” for his product, a term that both overlapped with an established dog food in England and diverged from the naming conventions of similar treats for humans back in the USA. It’s a low-key conspiracy that I’m offering, but a conspiracy theory nonetheless: I suspect James Spratt saw a product, brought it back home, and claimed it as his own invention, with an evocative alibi. The beauty of a story is in the details, and Spratt dutifully added them: the pitiful mutts along the waterfront, the “weevilly ship’s biscuits mixed with very doubtful meat refuse from soap boilers’ factories.” I have no doubt that such scenes existed or that Spratt witnessed them. I have many doubts that they’re the origin of the product he would go on to promote for its innovation and authenticity.
All of which is to say: The reason we call them dog biscuits (instead of dog cookies or dog cakes or dog crackers) is that they were created and popularized in Great Britain sometime around 1800, decades before an American tried to claim them as his own invention.
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Notes and stray thoughts
This book from 1886 says that James Spratt was an English optician, not an American salesman. All my other sources list him as the former, so we’ll go with that, but none of those accounts are from the nineteenth century, which makes me unsure who to trust, quite frankly. The same book includes its own brief riff on the curious usage of “biscuits” for dog snacks in the USA.
The New York Times Magazine story says that Milk-Bone created the first bone-shaped biscuits, which appears to be correct.
In 1902, there was a biscuit-related scandal at the dog show at Madison Square Garden, when two prizewinning dogs were poisoned with strychnine slipped into dog biscuits. The culprits were never found.
Here’s a dog joke from an 1890 edition of the humor magazine Pick-Me-Up: