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Old Manhattan: The First Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on May 8 1877

Written by: Phil O'Brien. Published: May 8, 2023.

The event in 1877 was called the "First Annual NY Bench Show:

New Yorkers have always had a love affair with dogs — the streets of the city pay tribute to that every day with a parade of pooches. On May 8, 1877, the Westminster Dog Show began celebrating the city's affinity for these furry companions.

This prestigious canine event originated in the dog-loving 19th-century city at the upscale Westminster Hotel on Irving Place and 16th Street, where elite "sportsmen" would gather to boast about their prized sporting dogs. The men decided to form a club, named the Westminster Kennel Club after the hotel, specifically to hold a dog show.

The first Westminster show took place at Gilmore's Gardens, on the site of the future Madison Square Garden at Madison Avenue and 27th Street. The event attracted more than 1,200 dogs, including pointers, setters, St Bernards, spaniels, collies, Newfoundlands, dachshunds, harriers, beagles, wolfhounds and other purebred pups, all vying for a ribbon. Some classes were more popular than others, with the category for "Trick Dogs" attracting just one entry.

Gilmore's Garden in New York — original venue for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in May 1877. Photo: Robert N Dennis Collection

The show was a huge hit with the public and drew up to 8,000 New Yorkers on the first day. The New York Times reported that everyone was fashionably dressed and wore an air of good breeding. With 10,000 visitors on the second and third days, the club decided to extend the show. Proceeds from the extra day were donated to the ASPCA to establish a home for stray and disabled dogs, inspired by a similar initiative in London.

The Westminster Kennel Club predates the formation of the American Kennel Club by seven years and became the first club admitted to the AKC after its founding in 1884. Breed parent clubs create the standards for judging their breeds, with the AKC administering the rules about shows and judging. Dogs are judged by how closely they conform to a written description of the ideal specimen of that breed (the breed standard).

There have been some interesting entrants over the years. At the inaugural event, the dogs on show included two Staghounds listed as being from the late General George Custer’s pack and two Deerhounds bred by the Queen of England. In 1889, the Czar of Russia is listed as the breeder of a Siberian Wolfhound entered. Philanthropist J. P. Morgan made the first of many appearances at Westminster with his Collies in 1893. Famed American journalist Nelly Bly entered her Maltese in 1894 — just four years after she had completed 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 cover of the original 1877 catalog. The show was "under the auspices" of the Westminster Kennel Club.

While many breeds no longer need to perform their original jobs and are bred mostly for companionship, they are still judged on their innate ability and physical makeup to perform their original tasks.

The most-coveted award in the dog show world, Best In Show at Westminster, was presented for the first time in 1907. That year, and for the following two years, it went to a Smooth Fox Terrier bitch named Ch. Warren Remedy. She remains the only dog ever to win three times.

Today, the winning dog effectively becomes "America's Dog" for the year, starting with a media tour the day following the show. The winner makes appearances on nearly all television network morning shows and visits the Observation Deck at the Empire State Building. The New York Stock Exchange also invites the winner and related handlers to ring the opening bell.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers postponed the 2021 Westminster Dog Show and relocated it from Madison Square Garden to the historic Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown, New York. Then in December 2021, due to the surge of the Omicron variant, the 2022 show—originally planned for January 24-26—was postponed indefinitely. It was later announced on February 2022, that the show would be rescheduled for June and once again held at Lyndhurst. Last year, organizers decided to move the 2023 show to May and conduct it at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.

You can still get tickets for the 2023 event — or if nostalgia is more your thing, a copy of the original 1877 catalog is currently available on eBay for $18.95.