The History of Panto Animals
The vintage photo of a man in a dog fursuit has made rounds around the internet in furry communities, primarily on Tumblr. It has been called the first fursuit, Paleo fursuit, Ol grandpappy fursuit, among others. The image, of a Mr. Fred Conquest, never has any captions with it stating where it comes from, however. After being left to scratch my head once too many, it was time to figure out the story behind the photograph.
Animal History Daily says this about about Mr. Conquest:
Fred Conquest, like many others, worked full time as an animal actor. In the image to left he appears as Mother Hubbard’s dog, but equally he was at home as a goose, cat or in ‘a skin’ as a one-person donkey or cow. Although a pantomime horse is popular today (think Dobbin from ‘Rentaghost’ et al), the Edwardian stage was almost devoid of horses – there were more camels than horses in an old panto store. According to ‘It’s Behind You’ website, London once had an entire shop devoted to the panto animal – ‘Theatre Zoo’ in New Row, Covent Garden. Here you could hire any creature – you had to book early for Christmas.
American English uses the word “pantomime” to refer to miming, but in British English, it is something entirely different. The art of Pantomime began in the 1870s in England. Known as Panto for short, it is a type of performance that primarily tells childrens’ stories with a musical and comedic lens. Many of these stories included animals. When using real animals were not feasible, people acted in their place. The role of an animal was called a “skin role” or “skin part.” What we know as a fursuit today was then called a pantomime or panto animal, and sometimes just a “skin”. The people who were in skin roles were called animal actors, animal performers, or animal impersonators. Fred Conquest, who first inspired our journey through fursuiting history, is actually a part of a large family of animal actors. The IBY site has this to say about Fred’s brother, Arthur:
Arthur Conquest comes from a long line of Animals- Born 1875-1945. Son of Theatrical family-George his father was theatre manager and had excelled in skin parts – monkey, octopus, even a porcupine were among his roles. Of his three sons, Arthur specialised in skin parts, his finest role being Daphne the Chimpanzee. His Brother Fred found fame as Goose in Mother Goose and brother George as Dame. Fred and George took over the running of the Surrey Theatre when their father died.
That passage accompanies a photo of Arthur playing Priscilla the cow: This is an especially interesting photo to look at, because it shows a one-person quadruped, which were briefly mentioned earlier. The photo is cited as being taken in 1910 or 1911. What a far cry from the quadsuits we know of today! This article states that panto animals became particularly popular in the Edwardian Era(1901 – 1910), but they continue to be relevant today. The author remarks:
I enjoyed my five years in “Skin” roles, and have nothing but full and total admiration for anyone sweating and gasping in a skin- they have the power of magic in their grasp- done properly and with conviction that collection of fur or feather can, in a child’s eyes become real. Done properly when Daisy is sold at market , sitting out there you could get a tear in your eye- the scene stealer can be the craftsman who can make that costume live. Last year at Wolverhampton the guys in the Cow Costume did just that- they created Panto magic!
Pantomime shows still occur across the UK and Europe today, but they never really took off in the USA. Since the panto animals were used in mainly comedic shows, it is not surprising that “skins” have deteriorated in quality over time. Most panto animals today look cheap and unlife-like, meant specifically to be an anthropomorphic animal to be laughed at. But they can still be used in serious respects sometimes. TV Tropes states that the LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring used a panto horse in some shots. Although in this case, it is more likely that the horse was primarily animatronic rather than the traditional type of panto animal.
Having now been educated about the history of the panto animal, some questions still remain:
– What makes a panto animal different from a mascot?
– How did the mascot community break from the panto community?
– We have many fursuiters today that are exceptional pantomime performers. Is it possible that fursuiters could enter the panto community as a specialist and bring modern-day, exquisite fursuits, further into the public eye? (This subway advert says maybe!)
Some fursuit makers have worked with the film and performance communities, but on the whole, it may be that many of those looking for panto talent just don’t know modern day fursuits and their performers exist.
Who knows what the future will bring!
Fursuits have a unique and very interesting history! Hope you enjoyed reading about it, and happy reviewing! =)