The modern biscuit our dogs know and love owes its existence to Ohio electrician James Spratt. It gets its international pedigree because he got the idea while on a trip to London around 1860, where he reportedly saw sailors who’d just docked throwing leftover hardtack overboard to stray dogs on the pier, who gobbled it up.
Hardtack derives from British sailors’ slang term for food, tack. Cheap and long-lasting, made from flour, water and salt, it was eaten when fresh food was unavailable, especially on extended 0cean voyages and military campaigns. It was called by other names as well: pilot bread, ship’s bread, sea biscuits, molar breakers and worm castles, due to frequent infestations which necessitated dropping a piece into hot coffee, then skimming off the insects which floated to the top.
Spratt was already a successful American businessman who had patented a type of lightning rod. While in London to sell them, he seized upon the opportunity to create and dominate a lucrative market that would target wealthy owners of sporting dogs. He formulated his dog biscuits with fresher ingredients than sailors and soldiers enjoyed: meat, vegetables and wheat.
He opened a factory there and began an unprecedented advertising campaign, using large colored billboard displays which depicted a Native American buffalo hunt, implying it was the source of the meat in “Spratt’s Patent Meat-Fibrine.” The true origin remained a closely guarded secret; after selling the company, Spratt retained the sole contract to supply meat for the dog biscuits until his death in 1880.
In 1876, he supplied free food to exhibitors at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, PA, the second World’s Fair held in the United States. The same year, he filed U.S. Patent #3864 for Spratt’s “Meat-Fibrine Dog Cakes or Biscuits…a square interspersed with punctures, with a St. Andrew’s Cross between the words ‘Spratt’s Patent,’ impressed in the center of the square.”
Spratt’s dominated the market until the early 1900’s when a biscuit made of waste milk from slaughterhouses and fashioned into the shape of a bone rose to prominence. It eventually became known as Milk-Bone and captured the imagination of dog owners everywhere. In 1931, the National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, bought the formula.
In recent years, as health problems caused by obesity have become more prevalent due to a rich diet, dog treat and food formulas have evolved and more nutritious options are available. There’s no doubt that dog biscuits have come a long way and deserve a little recognition. So give your pooch a big hug and have a happy International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day!