In 1877, New York was well on its way to becoming the world’s greatest city. This was the year that a group of sporting gentlemen decided that this would be a good time to hold a dog show in Manhattan. It didn’t take long before the Westminster Kennel Club, following the lead of its home town, would be on its way to becoming the world’s greatest dog show.
With its spectacular beginnings and extraordinary growth in the years to follow, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was quickly reflecting the growth and success of New York City. As the dog show grew every year, so did the Westminster Kennel Club’s position as the symbol of the purebred dog, with its influence being felt in show rings everywhere, and eventually in millions of television homes across the country. Westminster has become America’s Dog Show.
“Westminster gets its name from a long gone hotel in Manhattan. There, sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments. Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there and hired a trainer.
“They couldn’t agree on the name for their new club. But finally someone suggested that they name it after their favorite bar. The idea was unanimously selected, we imagine, with the hoisting of a dozen drinking arms.”
– Maxwell Riddle, from a newspaper story quoted in “The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster” by William Stifel
It was at one of those meetings that the members decided that they would stage a dog show so that they could compare their dogs in a setting away from the field. The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, given under the auspices of the Westminster Kennel Club, was staged in 1877 at Gilmore’s Garden (the forerunner of Madison Square Garden) in New York City, drawing an entry of 1,201 dogs.
The show was such a hit that it was extended to four days from its originally-scheduled three, and drew this coverage from “Forest and Stream” magazine:
“To say that the dog show held in the city last week was a success would but poorly convey an idea of what the result really was. It was a magnificent triumph for the dogs and for the projectors of the show. We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town.”
To fully grasp the place in history of the Westminster Kennel Club and its famed annual dog show at Madison Square Garden, consider this:
Westminster pre-dates the invention of the light bulb, the automobile, and the zipper; the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Monument; and manned air flight and the establishment of the World Series. The dog show has outlasted three previous versions of Madison Square Garden and is currently being staged in MSG IV. It is one of only four events to be held in all four “Gardens.”
The dog show has survived power outages, snowstorms, a national depression, two World Wars and a tugboat strike that threatened to shut down the city, in the process becoming the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country. Only the Kentucky Derby has been staged longer – but by just two years.
Westminster even pre-dates the establishment of the governing body of the sport, the American Kennel Club, by seven years. In fact, in 1877, members of Westminster and members of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia had together adopted a set of show rules and regulations and established a Board of Appeals to oversee these rules. This was the precursor of the American Kennel Club, which was finally created in 1884. As one might imagine, the history of the club and its show is rich and colorful.
In the early Westminster years, some interesting names showed up in the catalogs. In the first show, there were two Staghounds listed as being from the late General George Custer’s pack and two Deerhounds that had been bred by the Queen of England. In 1889, the Czar of Russia is listed as the breeder of a Siberian Wolfhound entered, and the following year, one of the entries is a Russian Wolfhound whose listed owner was the Emperor of Germany.
Philanthropist J. P. Morgan made the first of his many appearances at Westminster with his Collies in 1893. Famous American journalist Nelly Bly entered her Maltese at Westminster in 1894, some four years after she made a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, racing the record of Phineas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
The most-coveted award in the dog show world, Best In Show at Westminster, was given for the first time in 1907. That year, and for the next two years as well, it went to a Smooth Fox Terrier bitch named Ch. Warren Remedy. She remains the only dog ever to win three times.
Six other dogs have won Best In Show twice, the most recent being the English Springer Spaniel, Ch. Chinoe’s Adamant James in 1971 and 1972.