Mary A. Delaney, inventor of the first retractable dog leash.

A Mysterious Woman’s 1908 Patent Exemplifies the Drama of Dogs in America

A Mysterious Woman’s 1908 Patent Exemplifies the Drama of Dogs in America

The making of America.
June 10 2014 11:56 AM

Follow Her Lead

How a mysterious woman’s 1908 patent exemplifies the drama of dogs in America.

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Mutts’ reputation suffered further as the characters and institutions tasked with controlling them were linked to thuggishness and violence. The mythic dogcatcher was an unsavory underworld figure, or a brutal immigrant, or a sordid boy. Then, during the municipalization years of Tammany Hall, corrupt officials took the reins of the city’s dog problem—with even worse results. Wang narrates how New York mongrel collector Charles P. Matthias, hoping to secure a higher political appointment, “threatened to release sixty dogs he had captured, some of whom he claimed ‘show symptoms of hydrophobia,’ onto the streets of the city if a position failed to come through.” This was only slightly worse than business-as-usual.

Yet even as dogs were tarred as industrial hellions, a parallel narrative began to emerge. Wang describes how Victorians’ refinement of a “domestic ethic of kindness to animals” gave traction to the idea of the pampered middle-class pet. Dogs became figures of “intimate family life,” fuzzy helpmates who could instruct children “in their development as moral beings.” The first pet stores opened their doors in the 1840s and were thriving by the 1890s. As training manuals offered tips for “civilizing” the four-footed, the American Kennel Club ran ads in its gazette for such luxuries as beetroot chow (yum) and cold-weather puppy clothes.

While dogs were learning to eat right and dress sensibly, thanks to the pet consumer industry, the animal welfare movement was advancing too. By 1894, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had succeeded in wresting control over dog-catching efforts from city officials and bounty hunters. ASPCA workers now issued dog licenses, enforced dog laws (they vociferously objected to the muzzling requirements, though leash ordinances were OK), and ran the city pounds. While the public health corps continued to slam dogs as urban miscreants, social reformers took a different tack, deploring canine abuse at the hands of street ne’er-do-wells. “With a bribe of fifty cents, the idle youths of this City have been, in many instances, for the first time seduced into the temptation of stealing and betraying their friendly companions, the dogs,” cried ASPCA founder Henry Bergh. Newspaper reports railed against hardened criminals snatching away four-legged innocents: “In a contemptible way the roughs whom the city pays to do this work stole up behind the man, seized the dog, and bore it away to their wagon.” Depending on whom you asked, dogs were either the agents of urban corruption or the victims.


Enter, finally, the retractable dog leash, which perfectly captures the duality of the turn-of-the-century pooch. Here is Mary Delaney’s description:

It is usually desirable that the dog should have a certain freedom in running about, but it is difficult to prevent the animal from running on the wrong side of lamp posts or pedestrians, thus causing much annoyance to the owner, who is constantly required to adjust the length of the leash in her hand and frequently the leash is dropped and the dog permitted to run away. … The objects of the present invention are to obviate and overcome all these difficulties and annoyances due to the usual form of leash, and prevent the leash from becoming tangled as the dog runs about.

Delaney imagines a form of humane constraint, a technology for increased control that nonetheless allows the pup some degree of self-expression. Her phrase “a certain freedom” has a dog-whistle poignancy, especially considering where she’s from. Underneath the canine debate—Do animals belong in congested urban spaces? Shouldn’t they live in the country where they can roam free?—ranges a similar set of anxieties about humans: Are cities evil and contaminating? Do they pollute what is pure and natural in us, too?

Those concerns find further (weird) expression in the genderedness of Delaney’s patent. “The invention is particularly adapted for ladies,” it reads. On one hand, making dog walking a feminine endeavor has the effect of lifting dogs off the street and into the home. It also reinforces a connection between pet care and childrearing, one that social reformers played up when they fretted that dogcatchers would infect the youth with immorality. But on the phone, Wang suggests a subtler link between women and pets. “There was disagreement about the real sources of rabies,” she says, “whether it came from the wild street dog or the overindulged creature of the drawing room.” What if dogs went mad when they were subjected to too much civilization? The theory that mania bloomed in the brains of the confined had plenty of support when applied to human psychology. But what passed for rabies in animals went by a different name in women: hysteria.

So the retractable dog leash hit the patent mill at a strange transition point. More than previously available options, it looked ahead to a new model of pet ownership, in which dogs were like children, benefiting from a softer touch. This was probably too soon. According to Grier, retractable leads failed to really catch on until the 1970s, when the idea of dogs as dangerous strays had all but vanished. Good news, though, fans of Delaney! Now the practice of leashing your loved ones seems to have lost its stigma entirely. Just ask the kids at the local mall.