History of Innovation

Follow Her Lead

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

Dog illustration.

Illustration Courtesy of Shutterstock

You will find a marvelous variety of dog leashes in the patent stacks. The evil-sounding electronic training leash (for those unable to bridle their pooch with a real electric eel?) administers corrective shocks. The gentle stop retractable leash reduces yanking by gradually braking the line as it unspools. There are two-dog leashes and harnesses with handles and quick-release harnesses and a no-tangle retractable multidog lead with flashlightThere is, in the corner of the patent warehouse reserved for physically connecting dogs to their owners, evidence galore of both American ingenuity and something wackier: American pet obsession? A fetish for control?

I was talking it over in the park with my dog. He was wearing a leash (simple black strap, choke chain) because in Washington, as in many urban spaces across the country, walking your dog off-leash in public is against the law. Though only Michigan and Pennsylvania mandate on the state level that owners put leads on their pets, most municipalities regulate loose animals in some form or another. Impound laws allow unfettered dogs (called “dogs at large”) to be collected or even killed on sight. More granular ordinances further restrict the movement of female dogs in heat, or all dogs between the hours of sunset and sunrise, or dogs in specific locations like beaches, parks, schools, and protected national areas.

If we are living in a golden age of leashes—and the pet industry’s profit margins support this claim—we can partially thank our contemporary expectation that dog owners put a lead on it. “The laws are much stricter today,” says Katherine Grier, author of Pets in America: A History. “And communities are also much more aggressive about complaining and demanding that they be enforced.” While farm dogs and village dogs still roam free, in 2014 you are almost as likely to encounter an escaped Egyptian cobra on the streets of New York City as a hound unbound.

Yet leashes themselves are an ancient technology, winding back at least to the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian dog owners who sought a way to control their pets without physically gripping their skin. “Along with collars, leashes are the obvious first step in domestication,” says Grier, “and the oldest pieces of material culture to be associated with dogs.” Portraits from the 17th century show well-heeled pet parents flaunting their status via dainty dog chains and glittering neckbands. Lower on the economic ladder, working mutts were kept in line with a plain leather strap ending in a loop for the human to grasp. (You might ask your local harness-maker to fashion you one when you came in to saddle your horse, Grier explains.) 

Mary A. Delaney’s patent for a leading device.

The first dog leash patent hit the books in the United States in 1908. Called simply a “leading device,” the plan promised “certain new and useful improvements,” such as a drum and spring allowing the chain to be paid out in stages. The filer, a woman named Mary A. Delaney, remains something of a mystery—a New Yorker who appears nowhere in the obituary sections of the local papers, and whom the handful of historians I consulted for this article had never heard of. Yet her invention is cited by eight subsequent patents, including the 1940 blueprint for an adjustable leash most frequently referenced by lead-dreaming posterity.

Delaney arrived on the scene during a fraught moment for American dogdom. By 1908, with industrialization in full swing, dogs had become a focal point for cultural anxieties about urban existence—its filth, disease, brutality, madness, and unpredictability. New York City had leash laws, but they were spottily enforced; one turn-of-the-century poll estimated the number of strays citywide at 155,000 while the more than 200,000 pooches with homes often wandered the streets unsupervised. To many, these “curs”—dirty, vicious creatures that fought, bit, and thieved—represented the menace of the city itself. Newspapers ran fear-mongering stories (“Three Children Bitten by a Dog in Brooklyn”) and weighed the merits of filing down the canines of the “whole four-footed race.” “Can you tell me what dogs are good for in a city?” inveighed NYC health commissioner Sigismund S. Goldwater soon before Delaney filed her patent.

Public health officials had particular reason to fear and hate dogs: rabies. Hydrophobia—or more accurately, given the low incidence of the disease, hydrophobia-phobia—haunted the Northeast, driving calls for muzzle ordinances and shoot-to-kill laws. As historian and University of British Columbia professor Jessica Wang writes in her wonderfully thorough account of the time period, New York had long depended on a ring of vigilantes to catch dogs during the summer months for a 50-cent bounty. In 1850, the establishment of a Dog Bureau helped supplement the volunteer efforts. (It also authorized employees to club unmuzzled pets to death.) But the bureau did not provide an instant solution to the problem: Dogs “swarm in all the streets, obstruct the pavements, make night hideous with their howls, and have a worse name than Aldermen in New York,” complained the New York Daily Times in 1856.

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.