From Practical Kennel Management (1877):
There are three different breeds usually named: 1, the Black Flat-coated Retriever; 2, the Black Curly Retriever; and 3, the Red Retriever.
1. The Black Flat-coated Retriever. — Head: a good long head, with a capacious mouth and good teeth; eye large, bright, and extremely intelligent; ears not too large, low-placed, and set to the head, short feather on upper part, and bare towards the tips; nose ought to be large, showing great development of nasal sinuses; shoulders deep and obliquely placed; loins and back, wide and strong; thighs strong and muscular; limbs as strong as a lion’s, and straight as an arrow; feet round and compact, and toes well arched. The head should appear almost human, in its amount of sagaciousness and character. The head is covered with fine, very short hair. Colour a raven black; coat very thick and warm, very straight and glossy—satiny, in fact; stern well feathered, and carried straight. These dogs in disposition appear timid, but they are very courageous in a fight.
2. The Black Curly Retriever.—In general formation, both this dog and the Red Retriever ought to be the same; but his coat is one mass of short, multitudinous, crisp curls. There ought to be no feather on the legs below the hocks, and no flag on the tail— nothing but the short, crisp, curls from the occiput to the point of the tail. The curly-coated dog is more leggy than the flat-coated. This breed is apt to be harder in the mouth, and not so easily taught.
3. The Red Retriever.—Same points as last, and the same sort of coat, only the colour is a liver-red. There is also a breed of White Curly Retrievers coming into fashion. The size I like in a Retriever is about 25 in. at the shoulder.
The description of the flat-coated retriever is fairly typical for texts of the time period. The only unusual part of the description of them being great fighters. This breed is predominant ancestor of the modern flat-coat and golden retrievers. Having seen a tiff between a female golden retriever and her half boxer daughter, I can say that the golden wasn’t really the best at canine combat. They are lovers, not fighters.
But the description of the curly-coated retriever is of much greater interest.
The implication that the liver curly was an entirely separate variety that was on the same “taxonomic level” as the split between flat-coats and curly-coats of the day is also of interest. This suggests that there was a move to make the liver curly a separate breed or that it originated from different water spaniel and St. John’s water dog crosses.
Or it may have been nothing more than the curly-coated retriever fanciers preferred the black dogs over any other color, and those who wanted to show the odd liver had to create their own variety.
Being raised to the variety status could have led to a breed split, as it did with the yellow flat-coat variety in the first decade of the twentieth century. That variety of yellow flat-coat is now called the golden retriever.
It would be interesting to figure out why the “red retriever” never became a distinct breed. Perhaps it may have something to do with the fashion of breeding liver curlies to black ones to reduce “dinginess” in the coats of the black dogs.
But I’m sure the most interesting discussion is of the “white” curly-coated retriever strain. My guess is that these “whites” were actually pale yellows, for the yellow coloration has popped up in virtually every breed of retriever at one point. And two breeds of retriever have only yellows– the golden and the Nova Scotia duck-toller.
The yellow color likely was a recessive that sometimes popped up in the St. John’s water dog, but with the British retrievers, another source for the yellow color could be the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog.
I would love to see a depiction of a white or yellow curly. These dogs must not have been too numerous, for they have entirely disappeared from the curly-coated retriever bloodlines.