To celebrate National Cat Day, I’ve got a delicious smattering of articles featuring cats in history!
And don’t miss Marginal Cats
Cats in the Law
For a start, a cat was one of the necessary components required to make up a community. It was written that a lawful hamlet consisted of nine buildings, one kiln, one plough, one cock, one bull, one horse, and one cat. (Notice the omission of dogs and horses).
Old English common law states that cats and dogs are:“Not property, being base by nature.” This seems a wise ruling, since in medieval England theft was punishable by hanging; given that cats are apt to wander and chose their own home, if cats are perceived as property householders could easily find themselves on the scaffold through no fault of their own.
The 1777 edition of the London Magazine includes an interesting letter to the editor in which a gentleman—who signs himself as ‘A Friend to the Community’—has appended a proposed bill to levy a tax of ‘6d. in the pound’ on old maids. He claims that this tax will generate revenues of nearly £300,000 per annum, a sum which could then be used to help fund the British war against the American colonies.
Do you own a cat – or rather, does your cat own you?
The legal status of cats is an interesting one, not least because it is in a cat’s nature to roam and the law acknowledges this, giving our feline friends special dispensation to be “a law unto themselves”. This week, I glimpse into the law as it pertained to cats in the 19th century onwards.
“It is a very unfortunate thing for a man to meet…an ill-favoured woman, a rough-footed hen, a shag-haired dog, or a black cat.” 1620 Anon
In the UK the image of a black cat is commonly used as a notation for good luck, but this hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, whether a cat brings good fortune or bad depends on location, historical period, and the circumstances.
It is only relatively recently that cats have shed their sinister associations to become a much loved, benign pet and family member. In previous centuries the cat was viewed with suspicion or even regarded as the Devil’s agent.
IN THE 1800S, PEOPLE WERE just as crazed about cats as we are today. But instead of memes, Instagram posts, and viral videos, the Victorians had satirical comics and chronicles.
English cartoonist, and evident cat fanatic, Charles Henry Ross wrote an epic encyclopedic book detailing the intricacies and culture of cats. In The Book of Cats. A Chit-Chat Chronicle of Feline Facts and Fancies, Legendary, Lyrical, Medical, Mirthful and Miscellaneous, Ross makes an argument in support of the animal. Published in 1868, Ross read over 300 books, browsed newspapers, drew 20 illustrations, and gathered a mass of anecdotes about the fondness and repulsion towards cats.
Canned, Kibble or Fresh Meat: Cat Food History
I came across a GLORIOUS ARTICLE from September 8th 1883 entitled “Cats: Their Humane and Rational Treatment”, published in Chambers’s Journalby William Gordon Stables. Stables was a medical man, a Royal Navy Surgeon and, in his spare time, liked to write articles about how much he loved cats, dogs, and bumbling about the English countryside in his caravan. He gives us some pretty good clues as to how the Victorians might have thought about (and fed) their household moggies:
Harriet Hardiman was ‘a cat’s meat man.’ That is, she went out most days with a handcart full of chopped meat on skewers to sell to cat owners. So, just to emphasize, meat for cats, not of cats. Specifically, horsemeat—gnarly leftovers collected from nearby slaughterhouses. In Victorian-era London, there were hundreds of cat’s meat men (and women and, sometimes, kids), with beats in poor neighborhoods as well as posh ones. Hardiman would have had regular routes, regular customers, as well as regular cats padding behind her as she made her rounds, attracted by the scent of her cart.
The cat’s meat man used to be a common sight in London and other large towns between the mid 1800s and the 1930s. Let me clear up one misconception first – this trader sold meat FOR cats, not meat from cats! During that period, most towns had their own abattoirs and horse slaughterers (knackers) and ineveitably there was meat unfit for human consumption, though it has to be said that the definition of “fit for human consumption” was probably wider than it is today. Horsemeat, along with meats that were “on the turn”, fly-blown or showing signs of disease could be purchased by traders who hawked their wares in the street. To prevent unscrupulous traders from re-selling the meat as fit for human consumption or using it in pies, it became the practice to dye the meat blue or green. Whether the dyes were toxic to cats is not mentioned, though a good many Victorian and Edwardian dyes turned out to be noxious to humans and animals alike.
When reading last week about 18th c. milk-maids, I wandered off into London’s street vendors in general, many selling wares that no longer have a market. Curds and whey, anyone? To my horror, one of these was the cats’ meat man. Now I’m that stereotypical writer with a pair of thoroughly spoiled cats, and though I knew Georgian England was a rough-and-tumble place, I didn’t want to imagine my kits on Samuel Johnson’s dinner menu. Fortunately, my first reading of this trade was wrong: the cats’ meat in question was food for the little darlings, not food made from them.
Feline Health and Welfare
Does your cat get the royal treatment in your home? Your cat may have the Victorian Era to thank for their lavish lifestyle. Though humans and cats have had a love affair for thousands of years (and were worshiped in Ancient Egypt), it wasn’t until the 1800’s that they began to be viewed as pets or members of the family. They were previously seen as “useful animals” that were excellent at rodent control. Queen Victoria of England, her friends, and family had a huge impact on animal rights and pet culture.
In the late 19th century, Victorian families embarking on their summer holidays often chose to leave their pet cat behind unattended. This decision—likely motivated by the belief that, when left to their own devices, all cats will hunt for their supper—resulted in a profusion of half-starved cats wandering the streets in search of a handout. The sight of so many cats in distress compelled some to take drastic action. One lady in the west of England even went so far as to offer a holiday feline euthanasia service.
Victorian (male-dominated) society regarded cats as the embodiment of femininity – and this wasn’t meant as a compliment. Cats were seen as promiscuous, innately sexual, and too independent for their own good and only made good pets if they were less…well…cat-like.
In the 19th century men expected their wives to be obedient, chaste, and biddable. The message was clear: women needed firmly keeping in line, or much like any untrustworthy creature their morals might degenerate to those of an alley cat.
During the early 19th century, it was not uncommon for the mortal remains of a beloved pet cat to be buried in the family garden. By the Victorian era, however, the formality of cat funerals had increased substantially. Bereaved pet owners commissioned undertakers to build elaborate cat caskets. Clergymen performed cat burial services. And stone masons chiseled cat names on cat headstones. Many in society viewed these types of ceremonies as no more than an amusing eccentricity of the wealthy or as yet another odd quirk of the elderly spinster. Others were deeply offended that an animal of any kind should receive a Christian burial.
Fontenu’s experiment involved a large, castrated cat he had on hand. He began to slowly reduce the amount of water the cat drank until at last, the cat completely abstained from water. However, Fontenu did feed the cat its usual fare, boiled meat. After the cat had not drank water for seven months, Fontenu communicated his observations to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris.