Its square format, 8¼-inch page size, and consciously retro design mark The Best Dog in the World: Vintage Portraits of Children and their Dogs by Donna Long ’89 as a gift book—not a weighty tome by any means. Yet, unlike many other books of its kind, there’s enough substance in this little volume to keep readers coming back to it again and again.
The book brings together 111 photographs—both formal studio portraits or amateur snapshots—taken from 1875 to 1925. A number of the images were originally printed as photo postcards, and Long takes pains to preserve their identity as such, reproducing the entire image side of the cards, graphics and all, and in many instances the message side as well—either an advertisement for the photographer or a handwritten message and address.
Clearly, for both author and publisher, the book is primarily about dogs—hence the title, and the pervasive theme of dog breeding. Long explains that the period from which the photographs were drawn “also, coincidentally, witnessed the development of the majority of today’s dog breeds. Thus,” she continues, “a perusal of these images is also an introduction to an important era in canine history.” That emphasis carries through to the book’s caption material, which, except for a two-page note on the photographs, makes up the remainder of the text and consists mainly of commentary on a variety of breeds or their prototypes.
But because the photos are portraits of dogs and children, another current runs through the book altogether. Thus, Long’s assertion that “the mixed breed . . . is really the star of this collection,” undercuts the breeding theme and reinforces, at least by implication, the point she makes at the outset about the universality of the book’s appeal: “our ancestors were really the same as us: they laughed, they cried at the same things, and they certainly loved their dogs with the same passion that we do.”
Which leads me to make a point of my own. Though I’m as much a lover of dogs as anyone, it’s the children who make this book interesting to me. Whether posing solemnly for the camera or arrested momentarily in the midst of play, they dominate these pages with their humanity and the sense of their actual lives, exerting an irresistible pull across the years. Because they are no different than we. And that’s what makes The Best Dog in the World a book to remember.