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Cats, Dogs, fleas
Polk Miller as founder of Sergeant’s Pet Care Products

Though domesticated for millennia, cats and dogs didn’t enjoy the indoors much until relatively recently….

Until the mid-19th century, cats and dogs allowed indoors were mostly lap dogs of the wealthy or working cats expected to earn their keep as mousers. Even cherished pets usually slept outside, say, under the porch or in a shed.

One obvious reason for not letting animals in the house was vermin. Richmond pharmacist and Confederate veteran Polk Miller helped solve that problem.

The products he concocted at his pharmacy for his hunting dog, Sergeant, were so successful, they launched Sergeant’s Pet Care Products. Such products opened the door to the animals who rule our lives today.

Katherine C. Grier, author of Pets in America: A History looks to the mid-1800s as the period when “pet keeping really becomes part of the ideal family.” She points out, “that’s a period of time when the United States is commercializing really fast, so you start to see the beginning of many of the pet products that we have today: patent medicines, flea remedies, special foods, toys.”

Skin Balm and Disinfectant for dogs was not Miller’s true vocation, nor his only claim to fame. Yet Miller did not leave animals entirely behind when he retired from his pharmacy. Enjoy Miller’s absurd Pussy Cat Rag (youtube), with vintage images.

There’s much more to the Polk Miller story: his is the story of a white man who tried to glue together his life, sliced in two by the Civil War, by uniting in himself the most irretrievable parts of his past: master and slave. It’s story that cobbles together, too, a paradox of American music — a paradox of music anywhere: the exploitation of folk music by privilege is often the essence of its preservation. It’s the story of Polk Miller, “Negro delineator.” For Miller’s strange life story, begin here

Sources: Grier quotes from Newsweek via The Daily Beast / biographical info on Polk Miller: Ken Flaherty, Jr. and Jas Obrecht via Tim Gracyk / picture of Polk Miller from / photo of drugstore via Richmond Then and Now


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