Thu, 05/13/2021 - 8:51am

Westminster in the Past

Bo Bengtson takes a walk down memory lane -- and the benching aisle

Here are some little-known facts from the past:

•  The first Westminster show was held in 1877. It was not yet called that, just "The First Annual N.Y. Bench Show." This was apparently because Westminster Kennel Club was not yet incorporated, which came to pass at a club meeting later the same year, on December 7. All shows held from 1878 onwards have been officially named after Westminster Kennel Club.

The first Westminster was not the first dog show in the United States. There had been dog shows in Hempstead on Long Island and in Chicago in 1874, and there are references in the first Westminster catalog to dogs having won at one or two of at least 10 different shows held 1875 and 1876. (Yes, you could list your dog's previous wins in the catalog in those days. You could even brag about its excellent breeding; some are sired by "the best dog in England," were bred in Lord Willoughby's famous kennel, or had an ancestor that was presented to the Prince of Wales …) 

•  For the first 11 years of its history Westminster was not held in February, as now, but in the spring — April or May. The change to February came in 1888 and became permanent from that year on. (Usually the show has been held in the first half of the month; in 2015 the dates were Feb. 16-17, the latest in more than 100 years.) The first Westminster lasted four days, from Tuesday through Thursday; in 1920 this was cut down to three days, and since 1941 the show has lasted for two days. (The weekdays initially varied: the now-traditional Monday-Tuesday began in 1949.)

•  There were 1,191 entries in the first Westminster show — a high figure in 1877. The number of entries did not correspond to the number of dogs, however. On one hand several catalog entries are not listed with regular numbers (how about having catalog number 647 & 1/2?), and some bitches were shown with puppies, which of course increased the total even though they did not have individual numbers. What primarily affected the total, however, was that more than 300 dogs were given two catalog numbers, so almost a third of the dogs appear twice in the catalog. In addition to being shown in the regular classes, these dogs were also entered for "special prizes" that were given a whole separate section in the catalog, with new numbers for each competitor. 

There were about 900 individual dogs entered. Of those 504 were Pointers or Setters: 121 Pointers, 150 English Setters, 148 Irish, 66 Gordons and 19 "Native Black and Tan or Black, White and Tan Setters." This is a clear indication that Westminster Kennel Club was, in fact, founded as a hunting dog organization — other breeds were at least initially more an afterthought. 

•  Most breeds could compete in just one class, although some were divided by sex. Pointers and Setters had additional classification, however. They had, for instance, classes for "Champion Dogs" and "Champion Bitches." (The entry requirement for these classes was simply that the dog must have won "First Prizes" — how many is not specified — at any bench show in this country or abroad. This was obviously sufficient to make a dog a "champion" in the days before AKC.) The Open classes for non-champion Pointers and Setters were divided between imported and native-bred dogs, and there were also Puppy classes for dogs under 12 months.

The following breeds were also classified at the first Westminster show, with number of entries in parenthesis: Chesapeake Bay Retrievers (2), Irish Water Spaniels (3), "Retrieving Spaniels, Other than Pure Irish" (5; the class was won by "Judy and four pups"), Cocker Spaniels (19), Field Spaniels (13), "Fox Hounds in Couples "(7 couples, so 14 dogs total), "Harriers in Couples" (1 pair), Beagles (6), Dachshunds (16), Fox Terriers (divided in two classes, not by coat but by age: 13 adults and 12 puppies), Greyhounds (18), Staghounds (6 entries, not a breed but a type of hunting Sighthound today; the winner of the class was "imported by the Grand Duke Alexis and presented to the late Gen. Custer"), Deerhounds (9), Mastiffs (25), St. Bernards (17), Newfoundlands (12), "Siberian or Ulm Dogs" (8), "Dalmatian or Coach Dogs" (5), "Shepherd Dogs or Collies" (separate classes for dogs and bitches with 4 entries in each), Bull Dogs (10), Bull Terriers (11), Pugs (27), Black and Tan Terriers, Exceeding 11 lbs. Weight (no entries), Black and Tan Terriers, Not Exceeding 11 lbs. Weight (13), Skye Terriers (23), Scotch Terriers (10), Dandie Dinmont Terriers (11), Toy Terriers, Not Exceeding 5 lbs. Weight (21), "Blenheim, King Charles, or Japanese Spaniels" (8, including at least three that were imported from Japan or had Japan-born parents; one was shown with a litter of five puppies, priced at $25 each), Italian Greyhounds (6), Poodles (2) and Miscellaneous (7, mostly with no breed given, but one is listed as an "imported Maltese Lion Dog," one as a "cross between a St. Bernard and Russian Setter" — and one, a 2-year old bitch named Nellie, is said to be "born with two legs only; father and mother had four legs each." She was listed for sale at $100.

            There was even a class for "Trick Dogs" with one single entry!

•  Most, maybe all, of the Setters and Pointers were double-entered within the "Special Prize List" classes. They competed under a different judge for e.g. "best Setter, of any breed, dog or bitch, in the show," with the winner taking home a silver cup from Tiffany & Co., valued at $150 (today the equivalent of about $3,500). That seems generous, but there were more than 50 entries in the class. The best Pointer won a "double-barrelled, breech-loading, central-fire shot gun," manufactured in England and worth as much as the silver cup. There were also special classes for "best brace of Setter," "best brace of Pointers," "best collection of Sporting Dogs of any kind, not less than 5 to be exhibited by one person," and "best Stud Dog, either native or imported, to be shown with not less than two of his own get." There was a class for "best native bred", even one for "best [n]ative dog or bitch, owned in the States of New York and New Jersey." 

•  There were only five judges for about 1,200 entries, but since there were four days of judging none of them was over-taxed. Two came from England: Rev. J. Cumming Macdona, of Cheadle Rectory in Cheshire, who owned Setters, Newfoundlands and St. Bernards, and T. Frank P. Kavnagh, F.R.G.S., an acronym that stood for Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. The American judges were "honest John Davidson" from Monroe, Michigan; Dr. L. H. Twaddell of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (who according to the catalog judged the Dachshunds and also exhibited several dogs of the same breed, which surely must be incorrect), and Capt. John M. Taylor, of Nottoway County, Virginia.

It may cause some raised eyebrows, at least today, that Rev. Cumming Macdona's father, G. de Landre Macdona, traveled from England to the show accompanied by at least eight dogs, including two St. Bernards — a breed judged by his son. Those two dogs were only entered Not For Competition, however, but instead were listed for sale: Mungo ("born at the Hospice du Grand, St. Bernard") for $100 and Neva, who was in whelp to Prince ("one of the grandest dogs in England") for $75. Westminster Kennel Club had entered a dozen dogs at its own show, most of them — but not all — listed as Not For Competition in the catalog. (One of the "Not For Competition" dogs was the famous Pointer Sensation, whose silhouette adorns the Westminster catalog to this day.) 

• A very high percentage of the exhibitors lived in New York. Some came from the neighboring Eastern states, a few from the Midwest but none from the South — the Civil War had ended just 12 years earlier. California had been a U.S. state for less than 27 years at the time and did not provide any entries either; the only reference I can find to the West Coast is that one of the Setter entries was sired by a dog "from San Francisco." Some dogs came from Canada, however, and a not inconsiderable number from England. One of the British exhibitors, George Raper, would go on to great fame and later visited the U.S. many times as a judge. At the 1877 show he was still in his 20s and showed a Greyhound and a Bulldog. His compatriot T. Medley, of Piccadilly, London, brought two Deerhounds that had been bred by Queen Victoria "from the late Prince Consort's famous breed;" they were listed for sale at the prohibitive price of $10,000 each. (The bitch, Dagmar, did not place; the dog, Oscar, was second to the 5-year-old Brau, "formerly Young Toram," listed as Not For Sale.)

Another young man who exhibited at the first Westminster and was later to become known far and wide, even outside dogs, was Augustus Belmont, Jr. He was then only 24 years old but already deeply involved in both dogs and race horses, and would go on to become the first president of the Jockey Club and the fourth president of AKC. More importantly, with his great wealth he was able to support the U.S. war effort during World War I and later financed the construction of the original New York subway.

Most exhibitors showed several dogs, but none more than Jessie Sherwood, of the Edina Kennel from the small town of Edina in Missouri. He had 19 dogs entered, mostly Setters and Pointers but also a Field Spaniel and a couple of Beagles. The mind boggles when you consider how difficult it must have been to get all those dogs to New York before the days of cars. (The First Transcontinental Railroad had been completed just a few years earlier.)

•  Initially, at Westminster as at other shows, the exhibitors were not allowed to show their dogs themselves or to determine what handler would present them. Uniformed attendants simply brought the dogs into the ring for the judges, a custom that gave rise to much dissatisfaction and was gradually abandoned.

•  In most cases there was no Best of Breed award and, of course, no formal competition for Best in Show. Consistent rules for this type of competition were not introduced by AKC until much later, but sometimes a "best dog in the show" was nevertheless chosen. There is a reference in the 1877 catalog that the previously mentioned Pointer, Sensation, had won "1st at Baltimore, and divided with Rock for best dog in the show." This may be one of the first references to BIS in the U.S., but it also illustrates the fact that such wins were then awarded very informally: obviously the award could even be shared by two dogs. Sometimes a dog would be declared as "Best in the Show" even if it had been defeated in a class earlier in the day, for instance. 

This, of course, caused much heartache, and AKC eventually introduced official rules for Best-in-Show-judging in 1924. They are basically still in place, with a Best chosen in each breed, those winners competing in a Group, and only the Group winners allowed to be considered for Best in Show. The current Westminster Kennel Club catalogs include a list of past BIS winners that goes back to 1907, but there are informal reports of even earlier winners. The only dog to win Best in Show three times was the Smooth Fox Terrier bitch Ch. Warren Remedy in 1907, 1908 and 1909, owned by socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd. (Outside of dogs, Rutherfurd was known to all readers of the tabloid press for his love life: he was the man Consuelo Vanderbilt had to renounce when she was forced to marry the Duke of Marlborough. Much later Rutherfurd married Lucy Mercer, who was 30 years younger and had been President Franklin D. Roosevelt's mistress.) In 1910 Remedy was defeated by another Smooth Fox Terrier, Ch. Sabine Rarebit, owned by F. H. Farwell from Texas. Rarebit also won Best in Show. History does not report how Rutherfurd took the defeat, but his big winner was in fact sired by a dog from Farwell's kennel.

According to most sources Westminster did not start awarding Best in Show until 1907, the first year Ch. Warren Remedy won. According to historian Anne M. Hier, however, a Best-in-Show-winner was selected as early as 1904, when George Raper (mentioned above as an exhibitor at the first Westminster 30 years earlier) awarded BIS to the English Toy Spaniel Ch. Darnall Kitty.

•  Westminster has been held at Madison Square Garden since the early day, but there have been several locations with that name. The original site, facing Madison Square Park on the corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue, was originally occupied by P. T. Barnum, who named it "The Great Roman Hippodrome" and used it for presenting his circus there. In 1876 the arena was known as "Gilmore's Garden" and hosted flower shows, beauty contests, music concerts, temperance meetings — and the following year Westminster Kennel Club's first dog show. By 1879 the venue was called Madison Square Garden, and that name stuck even when the location changed.

The original Madison Square Garden had no roof and was essentially an outdoor arena. For the dog show it was covered by a tent, creating a big-top feeling, but spectators in the 10,000-seat arena sweltered in summer and froze in winter. The "drafty, combustible" old arena was torn down in 1889 and reopened in June, 1890 — too late for Westminster Kennel Club that year, so their show was held at the American Institute Fair Building instead. (This venue also hosted Westminster twice earlier in the 1880s, apparently due to a dispute about the rent at MSG. In addition, Westminster was held at the now torn-down Grand Central Palace three times in the early 1900s, but since 1921 the show has been held only at Madison Square Garden.)

•  The second Madison Square Garden was located on the same site as the old but much larger and more luxurious. The main hall was "the largest in the world;" there were also a theater, a concert hall, the largest restaurant in the city and a roof garden, which became notorious when the celebrity architect who had designed the new Garden, Stanford White, was shot dead there by a jealous husband of the beautiful showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in what was at the time labeled as the "crime of the century." (Later fictionalized in a 1955 movie with Joan Collins, "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.")

Exactly where the dog show was held in 1926 and 1927 is unclear. The modern catalog lists the location for those years as "New Madison Square Garden," but according to other sources the old venue closed in 1925 and the new one did not open until 1928.

•  The third Madison Square Garden was not located on the same site as the previous venues, but the name remained the same, because by that time it had become synonymous with big-time concerts and sports event. The location was now 50th Street at 8th Avenue, just a block from Broadway. This Garden lasted until 1967 and became famous as the place where New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia held a "Boycott Nazi Germany" rally for thousands in the 1930s. Billy Graham held evengelist meetings there every night for 16 weeks, Gene Autry hosted a rodeo attended by 13,000 and Marilyn Monroe rode an elephant at a party celebrating the film "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1957. This is also where Monroe famously serenaded President Kennedy on his birthday in 1962. 


Westminster Best in Show, 1940. Photo Brown.


•  The dog show saw some major changes at the third MSG. For one thing, in 1929 the old method of having a team of several judges determine Best in Show was replaced by the single-judge system: Dr. Carleton Y. Ford from Canada awarded BIS to the youngest BIS winner Westminster has ever seen, the 9-months-old Rough Collie Laund Loyalty of Bellhaven, imported from England and never shown again after this win. The reasons for this vary depending on whom you listen to; owner Florence Ilch stated that she received death threats for the dog if he were to be shown again. It is a fact, in any case, that Loyalty never became a champion, although he's incorrectly listed as one in the catalog's list of past winners.

•  The current Madison Square Garden's opening in 1968 was not without controversy, as the old Penn Station, "perhaps the city's finest example of Beaux-Arts architecture," had to be torn down to make room for the new structure. The Garden hosts more than 320 events per year: in addition to the dog show there's been hockey, basketball and boxing (the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight took place here in 1971). John Lennon's final concert appearance was here, as was the "Concert for New York City" after the 9/11 attacks, and Elton John considers the Garden his "favorite venue in the whole world."     

•  The future of the current Garden is less certain than you might think. In spite of the $850-million renovation that's underway, current Garden leadership has stated that there may be a relocation across the street, potentially utilizing what's now the James Farley Post Office.

What would the people who showed at the first Westminster in 1877 think if they could come back to the show 142 years later? In most respects I think they would be tremendously impressed: the combination of respect for tradition and willingness to try new things have resulted in a unique dog show experience that attracts the top dogs and, importantly, the top dog people from around the globe. Westminster isn't the biggest dog show in the world, but in many respects it's the best, and we dog fanciers in America are very lucky to have it.

But what those early dog fanciers would think of the top winners today — that might be a different story!



New York in 1877


The fact that the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is always held in New York City, in the heart of Manhattan, was a major reason for its success from the start. New York in 1877 was on its way to become a world-class city, growing fast, already more than a million inhabitants strong but still anxious to prove itself every bit as rich, as sophisticated and as cosmopolitan as any of the big cities in the "old world." The early dog shows coincided with "The Gilded Age," an expression initially coined by Mark Twain to indicate a beautiful exterior with an underside of corruption and unfettered capitalism. Wealthy industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt made huge fortunes and would sometimes be labeled "robber barons" by their critics. (Nevertheless, Carnegie gave away 90% of his wealth and Rockefeller donated $500 million to various charities.) It was an era of rapid economic growth and unrestrained industrial expansion.


Westminster, 1879.


Central Park had opened in 1857, skyscrapers began to shoot up in Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum was founded in 1870 and the Metropolitan Opera ten years later. Department stores, "marble palaces of unparalleled luxury," were the new big thing (the first Macy's had opened in 1858), providing a new and previously unknown way of shopping. The late 1800s saw the advent of the phonograph, the telephone and radio; the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines; the growth of commercialized entertainment, new sports — basketball, bicycling, football — and the appearance of the automobile and electric trains.

At the same time, the vast flow of immigrants from Europe increased, providing cheap labor and resulting in devastating poverty for many. The Statue of Liberty went up in 1886 and Ellis Island opened in 1892. Typhus, cholera and tuberculosis reached epidemic proportions in the slums. Horse manure covered the streets and animal carcasses could remain on the street for weeks. Not until 1894 were sanitary reforms and mandatory street cleaning introduced. There was an epidemic of violence centered on Five Points and Hell's Kitchen, both in Manhattan, with gangs like The Bowery Boys and their sworn enemies The Dead Rabbits committing everything from petty theft to murder. (The movie "Gangs of New York" in 2002 with Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio is a fictionalized version of real events.)

The disparity between the wealthy and the poor was greater than at any other time in America's history. The wealthiest one percent owned more than half the property in America, while the bottom 44% combined owned just a little more than one percent. During the 20th century more people entered the middle class, which affected society as a whole and hobby activities like dog shows in particular. According to their own records, Westminster first attracted 2,000 dogs in 1911 and then again in 1925, more than 3,000 for three years starting in 1937, again from 1972 through the rest of the '70s. Westminster was eventually forced to limit the number of dogs exhibited due to space constrains. The entry has mostly remained steady at around 2,600-2,800 dogs in recent years. In 2013 daytime breed judging moved to more space on Piers 92/94, a special event venue at 55th Street and the West Side Highway in Midtown Manhattan. The 2018 entry was one of the largest in many years.




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