Leave It to Beaver perfectly captured the Fifties' love-hate relationship with pet rats
Back when every kid went through a phase where they kept a rat in their pocket.
The last episode of Leave It to Beaver where Veronica Cartwright appears as Violet Rutherford centers on a pet rat that Beaver acquires through a series of swaps with kids at school.
When Ward tells Beaver the rat isn’t welcome in their home, the Beav eventually sells the rodent off to Violet, sending her father Fred Rutherford straight to the Cleavers to demand a refund.
The punchline of this episode arrives when "Beaver’s Rat" becomes a beloved pet of Mrs. Rutherford, because in the Fifties, it was largely believed that housewives feared mice and rats above all else.
In 1956, The Sacramento Bee ran a story featuring a series of interviews with housewives declaring they were not afraid of mice, contrary to popular belief. One housewife in that interview recalled keeping her own pet rat as a girl and developing a deep fondness for the rodent.
"I once had a pet rat and thought very much of it," the housewife said.
But even though she loved her pet rat, she had seen firsthand how rats could incite fear.
"I remember one time a small boy took the pet rat and placed it on a woman," she went on. "Not only did the experience scare the woman, but the rat as well."
Before Beaver got his pet rat, people had been keeping rats as pets for 100 years, but the whiskered critters started really gaining popularity as pets starting in 1901.
The story goes that’s when professional breeders started selecting rats for science experiments based on their personalities and colors of coats. From there, the friendliest, fanciest rats never made it to the lab, instead becoming prized companions in homes of rodent lovers everywhere.
And by the 1950s, pet rats had become so ubiquitous that a stereotype had emerged where it was expected that every boy went through a stage of life like Beaver did where he kept a pet rat in his pocket.
In 1956, a reporter from The Bend Bulletin interviewed a woman who had recently opened a pet store. When the reporter asked the woman about the rats in the store, she was visibly surprised he found them to be an odd pet and asked, "Didn’t you ever have a pet rat?"
"No, no pet rat," the reporter answered.
The woman couldn’t believe it and felt the need to elaborate:
"You didn’t ever carry a pet rat in your pocket when you were a boy?" she asked.
There is plenty of evidence to back the pet store owner’s notion that every boy kept a pet rat at some point.
Stories in the newspapers of young boys making mischief with pet rats span the decade, including this report from the Alternative Press in 1951:
A 4-year-old boy named Denny Ray was playing with his pet rat when it ran into a dark closet. Hoping to find the rat, the boy unknowingly lit a match near some cleaning supplies and though no one was hurt, the resulting fire caused his house and 14 others on his block to burn down.
Sometimes these news stories almost seem to stoke fear of rats, sensationally reporting injuries and potential tragedies, small and large.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 1959 when a 12-year-old boy got bit on his right thumb by a pet rat his sister Norma brought home from a biology class. As in Beaver’s case, the rat was promptly rehomed.
On the more distressing end of the pet rat story spectrum, The Miami News reported in 1951 that a 2-year-old boy was playing with his pet rat when he got bored and wandered off.
The pet rat in the meantime crept into his baby sister’s crib. When their mom found the rat so close to endangering her baby, she too put the pet rat out of the home for good.
But not everybody was put off by pet rats.
Other families went to the papers to report the tragic losses of cherished rats.
In 1958, The News Tribune reported a family in Kansas was moving when they misplaced their pet rat. The truth behind the rat’s disappearance was revealed when they asked their 2-year-old daughter if she’d seen the rodent and she responded, "Kitty, yum, yum."
In fact, most of the stories of pet rats that were kept in the Fifties are from fans who are depicted at ages young and old, cradling their rodents tenderly in photos.
This intense bond is a feeling that only people who once kept a pet rat in their pocket can understand.
On Leave It to Beaver, Fred Rutherford shows a little befuddlement when he ends up telling Beaver that his wife loves the pet rat (adorably named Peter Gunn) even more than the young boy does.
Perhaps the shared sentiment is captured best by a 10-year-old named Dickie, who felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of The Leavenworth Times in 1952, explaining what made his connection to his rat so special: "I have a pet rat. I like him very much. He liked me."