The town that introduced Mardi Gras to the New World in 1703 and fire ants in the mid-1930s can now be celebrated for putting hamsters on...
MOBILE, Ala. — The town that introduced Mardi Gras to the New World in 1703 and fire ants in the mid-1930s can now be celebrated for putting hamsters on the map.
This startling and perhaps forgotten bit of Mobile lore has been brought to the fore by a pet supply company marking the 70th birthday of hamsters in America.
At the center of the story is a slender, bespectacled man named Albert F. Marsh, who in the 1940s worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile.
He started a hamster-breeding venture after winning a hamster as payment for a $1 gambling debt.
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The history of pet hamsters has a precise start, according to Rolf C. Hagen Inc., maker of Habitrails, the colorful plastic tube structures that serve as hamster playgrounds.
Unlike dogs, cats and practically every other companion creature, the Syrian hamster came into homes directly from a laboratory.
In fact, up until the 1970s, virtually every Syrian hamster sold as a pet in the U.S was a direct descendant of a single breeding pair. Saul Adler, a researcher in Jerusalem — and translator of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” into Hebrew — obtained a colony of captive-bred Syrian hamsters for his medical research in the early 1930s.
Prior to that time, the obscure hamster had been a thing of the wild.
In July 1938, a dozen of Adler’s hamsters were sent to the Public Health Service laboratory in Carville, La.
Enter Mobile’s Marsh, who told a Press-Register reporter for a 1949 story that he won a Syrian hamster, no doubt from the Louisiana brood, in 1946 as payment of a $1 debt.
Just three years later, Marsh was on track to gross $200,000 as a hamster breeder, shipping $7,000 worth of hamsters in one week alone. A $200,000 gross would translate to $1.8 million today, according to a U.S. Department of Labor Web site.
His sales started when he asked a Mobile store to allow him to display a dozen of his hamsters in its show windows. By 10 a.m. the next day, they’d all been sold, and the store was calling him to ask for more.
But his real success came after he devised a national advertising strategy, touting hamsters as superb first pets for children. Soon he was collecting orders from every state, even other countries.
Marsh’s shipping method — pictured in a 1949 Press-Register photo — was simplicity itself. Coffee cans were packed with a hamster and a potato, the latter providing both food and water for the journey.
“The idea sounded ridiculous to my family and friends,” Marsh said in the 1949 article. “At first the wife did not take me seriously. When I came home and told her I had resigned, she was horrified. She prevailed on the wives of my friends to try to talk me into going back to engineering before I lost everything.”
Shortly after quitting the corps, Marsh purchased a house — which still stands — and mortgaged it, planning to pay it off in eight years. Hamsters proved so lucrative that he paid it off in eight months.
By 1948, he had hired 18 people to help him, including an office force of five.
Hamsters in Marsh’s day went for $5 a pair, compared to about $9 for a single one today.
Hamsters aren’t exactly perfect pets: They’re grumpy little guys, particularly if you try to pick them up when they’re sleepy. They’re also known to confuse the smells of your hands with food, leading to the occasional bite.
Thus pet stores often try to steer youngsters toward smaller, more peaceable gerbils. “Gerbils are desert animals, so they’re cleaner, but hamsters are cuter. Kids will always choose a hamster over a gerbil,” said Sally Trufant of B&B Pet Stop in Mobile.
G.E. Stewart now occupies Marsh’s old house. He and his wife have lived there for 15 years.
“I think I’ve heard that story,” Stewart told a visiting reporter armed with clippings. “Why is this a story again?” he asked, smiling.
A longtimer on the street, Sara Parks, remembered the hamsters well. She pointed to a small building behind the main house, which housed the breeding pens. Another small building was the office, she said.
“I went in there one time because I wanted to see what a hamster looked like, but they looked too much like rats,” she said, laughing.