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 Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes were a mix of grains, beetroot, vegetables and “the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef,” as the company explained in an early advertisement. (A full-color London billboard depicted the fictional origin of this meat — Indians slaughtering bison.) The biscuits were expensive — a 50-pound bag cost the equivalent of a day’s wages for a skilled craftsman — but Spratt’s target market was England’s country gentlemen. Their testimonials figured prominently in the advertisements. “My greyhound, Royal Mary, winner at Altcar of last year’s Waterloo Plate, was almost entirely trained for all her last year’s engagements upon them,” wrote one.
By 1895, Spratt’s was established in the United States and dog biscuits were soon being described in The New York Times as “the principal food” of show dogs. (In 1902, the dog show at Madison Square Garden was rocked by the murder of the prizewinning bulldog, Lady Ellen, a crime suspected to have been committed via a strychnine-laced dog biscuit.) But it wasn’t until 1907 that the American inventor Carleton Ellis came up with the idea of making dog biscuits in the now-iconic shape of a bone.