That Abe Lincoln? He could make a cat laugh…

From William Eleazar Barton’s The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (NY: George H. Doran, 1920).

Lincoln’s cat, Tabby (the generic name for brindled lady kitties in the 19c), was the first cat to live in the White House. 

Apparently, his wife Mary was also cat-like—and canine-like—in her own (horrible, horrible) way. Controlling and quick-tempered, she was described as a “tigress,” a “female wild cat,” a “Hell-Cat,” and a “she-wolf.” She was even compared to Satan. Of course, I consider these to all be slanders against the cat and wolf! Whether it was also slander against Mary—would she have been called such things if she were a white man?—I don’t know.

I haven’t, after all, seen the movie.  

From Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Johns Hopkins Press, 2008).

Take the Turkey Bus

Illustration from Peter Parley’s Picture Book (NY: Samuel Colman, 1834). It’s an amusing image on first sight, and on deeper reflection downright puzzling. The coach riders appear to also be birds, too—though I can’t tell if they are turkeys, the two streetside birds do seem to have turkey tails. So are these (fancy) turkeys being towed by other (lower class) turkeys? Do these (lower class) turkeys work at the command of that menacingly long whip?

I immediately thought of Hello Kitty and her odd choice of pet: a cat. Charmmy Kitty, according to Sanrio’s website, “is a white persian cat that Papa gave to Hello Kitty as a gift.” Unlike Hello Kitty, who walks on two legs and wears clothes, Charmmy walks on four legs and is in her birth fursuit.

I assume that Papa is a human, not HK’s Papa, given the syntax here. Which means that a human (Papa) gave a humanized cat (HK) a pet cat-like cat (CK)? Fascinating!


If we replaced the turkeys with humans and horses in their “normal” places, would all be right in the world? Is interspecies slavery not slavery?  

…. And now, here is your “moment of zen”:



Cats vs. Birds (you must choose one)

When is your cat a “bird murderer”? This 1911 piece summarizes a Cat Journal article defending his cat’s occasional predation.

The author’s main arguments are:

  1. When rowdy birds rustle around the ground, a cat can hardly help itself. (“[The birds] continually war with each other and often fall to the earth in fierce combat which is very tempting to the cats.”)
  2. Men and boys kill way more birds than a cat does, either for sport or via agricultural practices (“More birds die by the 22-caliber rifle during cherry season in California than by all the cats during all the seasons of the year. And what a multitude of our winged friends are poisoned by grain and grass seed charged with vitriol or strychnine and sown in the fields for their destruction!”)
  3. A good cat can be trained not to hunt birds; a “renegade” cat is just hungry. (“Only the untrained, unfed, homeless cats kill birds, and they do so only when they want something to eat. Is this worse than the sportsman shooting birds just for the sport?”

I find this piece very relevant to the current debates over in New Zealand about whether to ban the keeping of cats for the sake of the birds. And who didn’t receive, either in their e-mail inboxes or their social media newsfeeds, a link to the New York Times article about how murderous cats can be? In fact, my partner paraded around the apartment showing our three cats the article and calling them murderers. (Note: My cats do not go outside unleashed.)

Underlying everything, as I hinted at earlier, is the fact that us humans—it seems we get to choose, cats or birds?, because we think and act like we own the world. 

Source: Our Dumb Animals 44.1 (June 1911).

Feline Studmuffins: Or, How to tell if your cat is H-O-T

This “studbook” from 1906 illustrates the focus on pedigrees and breeding that was extended, eventually, to cats—some years after the dog received such dubious attentions (Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate is the classic starting point for this conversation).  The Tariff Law of 1897 “excluded the better class of cats from the United States” (quoting the studbook) in protection of home-grown felines by demanding a 20% customs tax on live animals “unless pure bred and imported for breeding purposes.” Produced as a countermeasure to this tax, the book compiles a thorough register of such feline studs so that any such cat could cross the border tax-free.

This is a photo of the first kitty to have that honor:


The book’s dedication suggests an interest in advancing the “ultimate superiority” of the American domestic cat, which seems to contradict the preface’s discussion of why this domestic cat is not, ultimately, claimed as American. While the dedication is warmly patriotic,


the preface goes to some lengths to justify why the short-haired domestic cat (felis domestica) is referred to only as “the Shorthaired Cat,” with no regional or national identification: “while every cat must of necessity be born somewhere, no breed of cat is today distinctly native anywhere; because no domestic cat existed in America until comparatively recent times and no one can state whether the first introduced were long- or short-haired, no particular breed can be authoritatively claimed to have ever been native to the United States; because nativity alone can not constitute breed….”

One could only guess at the heated debates that took place. It must have been galling to have one’s cats be classified as unfortunately derivative—no “pure” American, nothing more than “alley” or “stray” or “common” as a designation for the cat one could have claimed as one’s own. Yet this book’s project—to facilitate the importation of fancy cats from foreign parts, to be bred here—was in itself a project of American-identity making (via American-cat making) by calculated breeding (eugenics): an embrace of the sad fact that American(-cat) identity was, in itself, non-existent (it would, of course, be of little benefit to the American of European-ancestry to seek to establish the Native American as inherently more American than himself). 

Seems only fair to pair my previous post with a poem dedicated to the family cat (this one from The Animals’ Friend (London, 1896-7 issue).

Selfish Brutes

Many have expressed reasons to envy animals; my cats, for one, seem to sleep while I work all day. 

“The life of the brute has commonly one immense compensation in its favour,” that is, “the perfection of the individual existence is so rarely sacrificed to the prosperity of the race.” In his Chapters on Animals, Philip G. Hamerton (Boston, 1877) seems to focus on the notion that one animal’s benefit need not hinge on another’s “enduring misery”: “There is much slaughter…but…little slavery,” and the killing is practically a mercy that spares the animal’s descent into sad “infirmity and age.”

It doesn’t take a lot of Discovery Channel to know that Hamerton was wrong in so many ways, but I’m particularly interested in his premise that animals are somehow deeply independent, outside of the cycles of nature, alienated even from members of their own species. In this, he suggests a more profound reason for envying the animal: their alleged selfishness. The uber-individualist animal that Hamerton proposes might not exist, but the fact that he envies this figment of his imagination is pretty telling.

Animals as effigies

When we regard a certain animal as an embodiment of some value (lion for courage, donkey for pessimism, bull for stubborn), we participate in the creation of an effigy. The animal becomes a something that we can castigate in place of, or alongside, the “real thing.”

Cats, for example, have been cast infamously in the role of witches’ familiars—as embodiments of supernatural evil—for which they have been condemned alongside their mistresses. “Women were frequently drowned…especially adulteresses and witches,” records C.V. Roman, a doctor in Philadelphia writing in 1916 about the 16th century, “being generally put in a bag along with a cat or a snake, and cast into a pond.” In Chambers’s Encyclopedia of 1870, it is recorded that in Saxony, “a woman convicted of child-murder, was sewn up in a sack, along with a cat, a dog, and a snake, and thus drowned, in 1734.” This is probably an illustration of the kind of practice that The Atheneum (in 1829) described as drowning “unfortunate persons…in a sack with obscene animals.”

What makes an animal obscene? Or, rather, why do we make certain animals obscene?  

More on Skinning Cats….

I am sad to report that I now know more about the nineteenth-century practice of skinning cats alive (the practice that I presume to be the source of the common phrase, “more than one way to skin a cat”). What follow are minutes of evidence from the English House of Commons, published on Aug. 1, 1831, reporting on their meeting on the 1832 anti-cruelty legislation they were deliberating. Apparently, these poor animals were skinned so their hides could be sold to furriers—so again I ask, why wouldn’t they be stunned or killed first? For what convenience were they skinned alive, crying out in horror?


The witness also reports that dogs were likewise treated, most of these animals presumably stolen from their owners. 

Reading this is not for the faint of heart. It makes me angry.

Yes, you can haz LOLZcats from 1911!

I’ve been swamped with revising my dissertation into a book, but I just had to share this. Possibly the best thing ever: LOLZcats from 1911. (I know it’s one of many examples of the trend of taking funny animal pictures with captions, already existing since the late 19th, but these particular pictures I think I’ve never seen.) Eulalie Osgood Grover’s Kittens and Cats: A Book of Tales is full of good images, but here are my personal favorites. Enjoy!