In the British American colonies, people raided squirrel nests for their young, & the young squirrels were sold in the city markets. I am curious about animals appearing in paintings with 18C Americans. Are they real? Or are they just emblems symbolizing some quality trait of their owners?
Reliable art historians Roland E. Fleischer, Ellen Miles, Deborah Chotner, & Julie Aronson suggest that these squirrels are not real. They suggest that the squirrels are either copied from emblem books such as Emblems for the Improvement and Entertainment of Youth published in London in 1755, or from English prints. The latter theory is supported by the fact that some of the squirrels depicted in the paintings are composites of squirrels found in both America & England. The 1755 emblem book describes the meaning of the emblem, "A Squirrel taking the Meat out of a Chestnut. Not without Trouble. An Emblem that Nothing that's worth having can be obtained without Trouble and Difficulty."
Actually squirrels in imagery seem to have had various symbolic meanings throughout the ages. Sometimes they were seen as symbols of grasping covetousness; because of their hoarding food for winter, they were seen as greedy. At other times they were seen as an affectionate friend. Later squirrels were symbolic of obedience & personal restraint.
All right, we all know that patience & diligence are virtues, but is there more than meets the eye here, or perhaps less?
1765 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Frances Deering Wentworth (Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr.)
British clergyman, Edward Topsell (c 1572-1625) , described squirrels in his Beastiary as “sweet sportful beasts and…very pleasant playfellows in a house,” despite their predilection for chewing up their owner’s woolen garments. Since they could easily chew their way through wood, special tin cages were developed, possessing metal bars sturdy enough to house them.
While visiting the British American colonies in 1748, Peter Kalm noted, “The gray and flying squirrels are so tamed by the boys that they sit on their shoulders and follow them everywhere.” Colonial tinsmiths began making amusing cages for these pet squirrels in the forms of mills with waterwheels.
From The Virginia Gazette, December 15, 1768
A young Lady's COMPLAINTon the DEATH of her SQUIRREL .
A thing so pretty as my PHIL,
A thing so sprightly and so queer,
The pet I lov'd so very dear,
To rob me of the pretty elf,
For him I've lost each night's repose,
Nothing enjoying but my woes.
Oh could my squirrel but survive,
But he is gone ! ne'er to return!
And useless 'tie to sigh and mourn.
I'll therefore seek another pet ,
Amongst the fops or empty beaus,
Because he'd surely make me fret,
And prove a very worthless pet.
In The Pennsylvania Gazette of October 10, 1771, Melcher Wisinger announced that he had wire work for sale including cages for birds and squirrels.
An advertisement in The Pennsylvania Gazette of October 10, 1792, gave notice that William Zane had for sale squirrel chains.
On Dec. 31, 1798, Philadelphia resident Elizabeth Drinker noted in her diary that her son William had “bought a flying squirrel in market, brought it home to please the children,” and added ruefully, “I should have been better pleased had it remained in the woods.”
Later, in 1799, Drinker noted in another entry that. “An account in one of the late papers of a natural curiosity, I think ’tis called, to be seen in Walnut Street; a fine little bird, a beautiful flying squirrel, a rattlesnake, and other animals, are living in the most amicable terms in a neat, strong box or cage. William went yesterday to see them; the bird was hopping about, ye squirrel laying asleep in a corner; 2 or 3 frogs in the box; the snake appeared torpid, but would stir when disturbed by a stick. The torpid situation of ye snake accounts to me for their friendly living together.”
1770 Attributed to Cosmo Alexander (American artist, 1724-1772).
In the 19th century New American Cyclopaedia the squirrel is examined in detail. "The cat squirrel, the fox squirrel of the middle states, is...found chiefly in the middle states, rarely in southern New England; it is rather a slow climber, and of inactive habits; it becomes very fat in autumn, when its flesh is excellent, bringing in the New York market 3 times the price of that of the common gray squirrel...They are easily domesticated, and gentle in confinement, and are often kept as pets in wheel cages... The red or Hudson's bay squirrel...is less gentle and less easily tamed than the gray squirrel."
1760 Joseph Badger (American artist, 1708-1765). Portrait of Two Children. One hold a coral teething rattle and the boy on the left holds a pet squirrel.
Peter Kalm, the Swedish-Finnish explorer & naturalist who traveled through North America from 1748 - 1751, published an account of his travels in a journal En Resa til Norra America, which was translated into German, Dutch, French, & English. He described more than squirrel pets in British colonial America. Although there are no paintings including pet beavers or raccoons, Kalm noted,
“Beavers have been tamed to such an extent that they have brought home what they caught by fishing to their masters. This is often the case with otters, of which I have seen some that were as tame as dogs, and followed their master wherever he went; if he went out in a boat the otter went with him, jumped into the water and after a while came up with a fish."
“The raccoon can in time be made so tame as to run about the streets like a domestic animal; but it is impossible to make it leave off its habit of stealing. In the dark it creeps to the poultry, and kills a whole flock in one night. Sugar and other sweet things must be carefully hidden; for if the chests and boxes are not always locked, it gets into them and eats the sugar with its paw. The ladies, therefore, have some complaint against it every day."
1760 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Boy (Henry Pelham) with a Squirrel.
1760 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Boy (Henry Pelham) with a Squirrel. Detail
1771 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Daniel Crommelin Verplanck with Squirrel
1790 Denison Limner Probably Joseph Steward (American artist, 1753-1822). Miss Denison of Stonington, Connecticut possibly Matilda.
1798 Ralph Earl (American artist, 1751-1801). Elizabeth Eliot (Mrs. Gershom Burr)