26

We all know this from cartoons and stuff and off course it doesn't make sense today but are there any evidence that the dogs really carried barrels of brandy?

I'm not sure the Wiki is saying a resounding NO:

St. Bernards are often portrayed, especially in old live action comedies such as Swiss Miss, the TV series Topper, and classic cartoons, wearing small barrels of brandy around their necks. Avalanche victims supposedly drank the brandy to stay warm while awaiting rescue, although this is medically unsound. The monks of the St. Bernard Hospice deny that any St. Bernard has ever carried casks or small barrels around their necks; they attribute the image to an 1820 painting by Edwin Landseer, perhaps Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler (which became a popular engraving in 1831 by Charles Landseer). The monks did keep casks around for photographs by tourists.

  • 2
    This is an interesting question. I have seen the old cartoons and heard the answer that St Bernards never did that, but I have never seen it from any good sources. Also more details about how that popular stereotype came to be would be interesting as well. – Wertilq Feb 22 '13 at 15:40
15

This seems to be indeed a myth.

The Barry-Museum, the museum in Bern where the most famous of the St. Bernhard dogs is exhibited, states in its English brochure:

One of the best-known Barry legends is that of the small barrel of ‘eau-de-vie’ that the dogs were believed to have carried around their necks so that exhausted travellers (sic!) could revive themselves with a stiff drink. All over the world, the famous barrel is firmly embedded in the public imagination, and virtually every Saint Bernard featured in advertising or tourist brochures is seen with this accessory around its neck. However, the barrels belong to the realm of fantasy. Some dogs were probably accustomed to carrying provisions in small ‘packsaddles’ from time to time, but the first appearance of the barrels in pictures was not until the end of the 19th century. The barrel became a recognized symbol, the use of which was a success story in the early days of marketing. In 1956 a chaplain at the hospice put the story straight regarding the small barrels of rum: ‘At no point in time did the dogs carry such barrels’.

I guess this is a bit more authoritative than Wikipedia or the other sources given so far.

(German version here)


The German Wikipedia claims (permalink) explains its likely origin:

Viele der mythischen Geschichten um den Hund sind denn auch frei erfunden, wurden aber so oft weitererzählt und umgeschrieben, dass es schwierig ist, Wahrheit von Legende zu trennen. Dazu zählt auch das berühmte Schnapsfässchen, das die Hunde auf jeder Abbildung um den Hals tragen, angeblich um den Lawinenopfern einen Schluck daraus zur Aufwärmung zu geben. Die Legende entstammt vermutlich einem Brief, den einer der Soldaten Napoleons beim Zug über den St. Bernhard schrieb. Die völlig überforderten Chorherren hatten die Hunde als Transporttiere eingesetzt, um den erschöpften Soldaten Verpflegung zu bringen. In diesem Brief stand: «Wir staunen darüber, dass es in diesem Kloster sehr große Hunde gibt, die Reisende aufspüren, die im Schnee verloren gingen. Sie richten sie auf, bieten ihnen Branntwein dar, den sie um den Hals gebunden mitführen und führen sie ins Haus.» Die Geschichte wurde mündlich weitererzählt und in verschiedenen Filmen als Motiv aufgenommen, ihr Wahrheitsgehalt ist jedoch höchst umstritten. Einige der erhalten gebliebenen Fässchen zeigen, dass es sich wohl nur um ein Schmuckstück handelte, denn diese Fässer haben keine Öffnung. Dazu wäre das Fass für die Hunde bei der Suche nach Verschütteten im tiefen Schnee sehr hinderlich – ganz abgesehen von der Tatsache, dass der Konsum von Alkohol bei Unterkühlung kontraproduktiv ist.

In English:

Many of the mythical stories surrounding the dog (race) are simply invented but were passed on and changed so many times that it is hard to separate truth from legend. Within this scope lies the famous schnapps casks some of the dogs carry around their necks on pictures, allegedly to offer avalanche victims (literal transl.) a gulp from it to warm up. The legend likely originates from a letter one of Napoleons soldiers wrote during their move across St. Bernhard. Some clerics used the dogs for transport to provide the exhausted soldiers with supplies. This letter said: "We are amazed that this monastery has huge dogs that are able to find travelers who got lost in the snow. They spirit them (i.e. the lost travelers) up and offer them brandy which they carry bound around their necks and lead them into a house." The story was passed on orally and was picked up as motif by several movies, its truth however is highly controversial. Some remaining barrels show that these were likely just trinkets because these barrels have no openings. Additionally the barrel would be very cumbersome in deep snow - not to mention the fact that the consumption of alcohol in a state of hypothermia is counterproductive.

I tried to stay as true as possible to the original content in my translation. The italic parts in parentheses are my comments and the link to St. Bernhard is for informational purposes.

The mentioned "type" of clerics seems to be specific to German-speaking regions, at least I couldn't find anything coming close enough to it, so I was stuck with the generic term here.


Another source, Swiss-German (website of a newspaper) claims a different, but also French origin - translation of the contents to English:

Who imputed the St. Bernhard its cask?

[...] In actuality the dogs of the (St. Bernard) Hospice never carried such barrels. Creator of the legend is likely Anne François Joachim Fréville (French Wikipedia), a French pedagogue, historian and writer. Towards the end of the 18th century he published other than "Les Enfants célèbres" his "Histoire des chiens célèbres" with a chapter about Swiss avalanche dogs with their survival water (literally "Überlebenswasser").

  • 3
    Question already quoted wikipedia. It's better if you provide a better source than wikipedia. – Wertilq Feb 22 '13 at 19:13
  • 1
    @Wertilq: I disagree. The German entry is fuller than the English entry. – TonyK Jul 11 '14 at 15:30
  • @TonyK: It may be longer than the English version, but the more important question is "Is it correct?" Like all encyclopedias, Wikipedia is unreliable, and following up the references is a good idea. – Oddthinking Jul 11 '14 at 16:54
  • 1
    @Oddthinking: well, you're actually right. I hope my latest edits put an end to it by quoting a chaplain from the hospice where the St. Bernhard originates and quoting a brochure dedicated to the museum in which the most famous of the breed is exhibited. – 0xC0000022L Jul 11 '14 at 20:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .