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History of Rabbits; 1880 to 1920

Rabbits have been in all places of the world at one time or another, with the exception of Antarctica. Rabbit fossils have been found all over the world. Some evidence has been found that suggests that Phoenicians exported the first rabbits into Spain around 1100 B.C. Domestication of the early rabbit started with the French monks, and selective breeding of what is now the Champagne D’Argent.

Prior to 1898, America had almost no rabbits, while most of Europe was busy breeding new breeds, and improving former ones. Although America did have a few rabbits that were pink-eyed white pets, and a few small breeding farms that raised rabbits mainly for meat, the only rabbits most Americans saw were wild game. Americans had many various folklores that had to do with rabbits. The most common, which is still intact today, is the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny originates from a tale when the goddess “Eastre” turned a young bird into a rabbit. The rabbit was so pleased with this transformation, that she continued to lay eggs. Children who were good on Eastre (now called “Easter”) believed that this bird-turned-rabbit would lay eggs in the yard, and the goddess Eastre would leave the good children candy, or small treasures. Many Americans also carried rabbit’s feet, to guard them from “haunts” if they should venture into a graveyard at night. Other Americans carried a left, hind rabbit’s foot just for luck.

The year 1898 was a start of a time period in history that was probably the single most drastic moment in the history of the rabbit in America. This year was the start of the Belgian hare boom. The Belgian hare dates back to the early part of the 18th century, it was bred by Belgian rabbit breeders, to produce a practical meat rabbit, that was also handsome. This produced a rabbit that they called the “leporine.” It is unsure exactly what this leporine looked like, but Mr. Crabtree, a breeder who was alive in the 1900’s and experienced the Belgian hare boom says that “In body color, they were distinguishable at a glance from a Belgian, being of a light grayish cinnamon color… There were some black in their fur, but it was not ticking, which is the black end of the hairs, but rather the middle of the hairs, and nothing like what the standard calls for.” (“Belgian Hare History; the Leporine” 1)

Around 1881, the leporine was exported from Belgium to England, and renamed the “Belgian Hare.” At first, the English continued to breed for the meat aspect of the rabbit, but soon they began to compete in small shows and a non-meat type was needed. The first Belgian hare standards were written in 1882. To help gain more popularity, the English began to breed for a racy shaped rabbit, similar to the wild English hare. A revised standard was printed in 1889.

In 1888, Mr. E.M. Hughes from Albany, N.Y. brought the very first Belgian hares to American turf. Along with Mr. W.N. Richardson and Mr. G.W. Fenton promoted and exhibited the Belgian hares at small shows across the country. Shortly after, the first rabbit club of America was started and called the “American Belgian Hare Association.” This association lasted a little over a year, because the distance between members made a quorum difficult to reach. A second club, the “National Belgian Hare Club of America” was started in 1897 with their headquarters were in Colorado. The Belgian hare continued to pick up popularity and “…Hares fetched prices of $500 to $1000 each (in pre-1900 Dollars)…this was at a time when labor earned $.10 to $.15 per hour.” (“Origins of the Belgian Hare” 1) The center of the Belgian hare popularity was Los Angeles, because the weather was especially beneficial to the hare. In 1898, there were almost 60,000 Belgian hares in southern California alone, with the numbers constantly rising.

In Hagar’s Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, on February 8th, 9th and 10th, 1900, the National Belgian Hare Club of American held it very first show. (“History of the Belgian Hare; Rules…” 1) This show was very good for the breeders involved in the showing, raising the prices. According to one exhibitor, F.D. Guttery “…the value of the winners rose at once. I was in the midst of the fray, and these are the facts. The owner of the winning doe International Champion refused $750, while the owner of the champion buck refused all offers. Stud fee to the buck was boosted from $25 to $50 and dates booked months ahead. [Another breeder] quickly boosted his price from $500 to $1,000. A lesser buck sold for $500, and several six-week olds sold for $50 each. The best American Bred Doe won a $50 prize, and her littermate sold for $340. These prices are not surprising, as often the animals [were] earning $200 to $300 per month…” (“History of the Belgian Hare; Rules …” 2)Eventually, the supply of rabbits caught up with the demand, and the Belgian hare boom finally ended.

Throughout the Belgian hare boom, the Belgian hares were not the only rabbits that were imported into America. Other new breeds of rabbits were imported during the period of the Belgian hare boom, but none became near as famous. Another breed that was imported along with the Belgian hares, is know as the “Himalayan” in America, but around the world, is also known by over 20 names, including the Russian, the Chinese, the Egyptian, and the Black Nose. (Shepherd “…Everything…” 1) The Himalayan was imported to be used as a fur rabbit. (Shepherd “History…”) As other breeds of rabbits were imported, rabbit breeders decided that they needed something more than just a rabbit club for Belgian hares. According to rabbit breeder, Oren Reynolds, “…the time was ripe for organizing a national rabbit association devoted to all breeds.” (Reynolds 3) January 10th, of 1910, thirteen people gathered and a new club, the “National Pet Stock Association” was born. After the first election held at the Gibson brother’s house, William Lyons became President; George Eckert was the new Vice-President; and Charles S. Gibson emerged as Secretary/Treasurer. George Eckert, Ben Gibson, and Al Funkes became directors, and Fred Miller, John Wiggins, Otto Peans, Oscar Sennewald, M.S. Stanton, M. Milligan, Charles Cambers, and Jack Coil became members. This club not only included rabbits, but many other small animals as well. Throughout the rest of 1910, 170 members joined their new club. The club continued to grow, and in 1913 there was a re-election, and Roy Knill became the new President. The other officers remained the same. The club sanctioned its first charter club in September of 1914, the “Pike’s Peak Rabbit and Pet Association.” The club continued to grow, and charter more clubs until 1916 when Lewis S.J. Griffen. After a year, the National Pet Stock Association decided that the word “pet” should be dropped, as it was unfitting for an association of their type. The club changed its name to “The National Breeders and Fanciers Association of America.” At this time, the first Constitution and By-Laws and Show Rules were written. A new idea, to hold an annual national convention, was also presented, and passed. This first show was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1918, the membership had increased to just over 500 members, with over 40 associations chartered. W.H Ashton was elected President at this time. In 1918, there were two conventions held, one in Kansas City, Missouri, and one in Chicago, Illinois.

The club started to experience trouble in 1919, and split into “New National” and “Old National.” Joseph Blank became the President of New National, and Charles Gibson became Secretary/Treasurer. The old National kept H.M. Adolf, President, and George Eckert as Secretary/Treasurer. (“ARBA History” 4) In spite of the troubles in the club, the New National held 1919’s convention in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1920, the convention was in Syracuse, New York. Unfortunately, in 1920, the Old National ceased to exist. New National remained and although renamed, is still in existence today. In fact, it is the largest governing authority for rabbits in the United States, now known as the American Rabbit Breeders Association, Inc.

Rabbits went under major changes from 1880 to 1920, and they are still undergoing changes today. Sadly, the breeds that were popular then, are still around today, but have lost their popularity. There are still breeders of these rarer breeds, scattered about America, devoted to saving their precious breed of rabbit from distinction. These breeds have been overtaken by new rabbit breeds, which slowly fade, to be replaced by new breeds, and the cycle continues.

Works Cited

“ARBA History”

“Belgian Hare History; the Leporine”

“History of the Belgian Hare; Rules and Regulations Governing the National Belgian Hare Club of America’s First Expositions, Mart, and Feast”

“Origins of the Belgian Hare”. August 18, 1999. On-line. Internet. February 2nd, 2004

“Rabbit History”. 2003. On-line. Internet. February 6 th , 2004.

Reynolds, Oren. “The American Rabbit breeders Association, Inc. History”. Official Guidebook to Raising Better Rabbits and Cavies. M & D Printing Co. Henry, Illinois. 1996. pg. 3. Click here to buy the book.

Shepherd, Carl “Eli”. “History of the Himalayans in the United States”. On-line. Internet. February 8th , 2004.

Shepherd, Carl “Eli”. “The History of the Himalayan Rabbit: Everything We Know”. On-line. Internet. February 8th , 2004.