My mother was an elementary school cat lady.
No, I’m not joking. Mum grew up in what was then a semi-rural part of the South Hills, about ten miles south of downtown Pittsburgh. She was the youngest of eight, and since my aunt Betty, the only other girl, was not only four years older but blue-eyed and vivacious to the point of silliness, Mum ended up as the family worker bee. This meant that in addition to getting top grades in school, my grandmother made sure that she was trained from a young age to cook, clean, bake, and manage a household. This meant that Mum shouldered more than her share of chores and general management tasks, including feeding what animals they had.
This included the cats.
Now, remember that we are talking the early 1930s in a neighborhood with more than one farm and plenty of open land. The cats were the common domestic house puss, Felis Cattus, not pedigreed Persians or Abyssians or California Spangleds, and boasted plebian names like Timmy, Tammy, and Tommy (all females, and no, I don’t know why two of them had boys’ names. Then again, Betty sometimes called her little sister “John,” for reasons make absolutely no sense…but I digress). These cats, three tabby sisters, were primarily responsible for keeping the barn and the house free of mice, and most of them lived among the hay bales, where mice and other vermin were plentiful and there were plenty of hidey-holes where they could stash their kittens.
For kittens they had, and kittens they kept having, and then there were the tiny squeakies their kittens’ kittens produced in their turn, and eventually the offspring their kittens’ kittens’ kittens produced in due time. My grandmother, who had quite enough to do with six sons, one daughter who did her chores, one daughter who did a dandy imitation of the lilies of the field, and an arthritic husband with rather too much liking for beer, had long since delegated the care and feeding of the cats to Mum and may be excused for not noticing the situation at first. Eventually, though, she took a good long look at the household accounts, and saw a gradual but perpetual rise in the funds expended on food suitable for mewing, shedding, purring animals.
Grandma had no problem with cats. A couple of them did live in the house, after all, most notably Felix, a little black and white fellow who had nearly been killed by a stray tom. He was fine, and so was whichever of the Timmy/Tammy/Tommy triumvirate that stayed indoors instead of the barn. But the day my grandmother saw her seven year old go out into the yard, weighted down by bowls of food, and promptly be swarmed by no fewer than 63 cats of all sizes, shapes, ages, and colors…
That was the day Grandma told Mum she had to find homes for the teeming multitudes.
Mum was not happy. Not at all.
Obviously I have no way of knowing what exactly happened, but evidently Mum was so upset by the prospect of giving away all her pretty kitties that Grandma eventually relented and told her she could keep nine of her favorites, with the proviso that all subsequent kittens had to given away since times were hard and it was tough enough feeding ten humans, let alone over five dozen cats. It was 1933, after all, and the two older boys were already working to help make ends meet. The idea that their hard-earned wages were going to sacks of Meow Mix (or the equivalent) bigger than their cat-crazed little sister was not precisely what they or Grandma had had in mind.
Depression-era America was not a good place for seven year old pet lovers, it seems.
Mum never stopped loving cats, or animals in general, even though she never shared her home with any after she left the farm for Pittsburgh. She owned (or was owned by, I was never sure which) two Cairn terriers, the first of whom (Toto, and just guess who named him?) figured out how to make the bed (don’t ask) and had such finely developed musical taste that the entire neighborhood knew that he preferred Bach to Beethoven when I played the piano. His successor, Skye, obtained a PhD in stealing men’s socks, which may be why my uncle Lou called him “you little bastard” on a regular basis. Both dogs were spoiled rotten by Mum, Dad, and Mum’s brothers Lou and Oscar, to the point that I frequently tell people who grouse about their siblings that it could be worse. At least their rivals were human.
Regardless of my peculiar psychological issues with canines, Mum’s stories about Timmy (or Tammy, or Tommy) convinced me that cats were desirable pets long before I decided to adopt a kitten of my own when I was living in Malden. That they shed, sneeze, upchuck, and claw the sofa to ribbons didn’t really register until I had already committed to owning a couple of the beatsts, which is why I sorta gave up on the idea of having nice furniture a long, long time ago. I’m currently on my fourth, fifth, and sixth cats, the Triple Felinoid, who group-greet me on the stairs when I get home from work, sleep on my bed every night, and drink from the toilet bowl on a regular basis. I love them all to death, and if my house is usually a fur-ridden wreck thanks to them, well, it’s my house, my pets, and my choice.
Also, there are only three, not sixty-three.
Tonight I bring you two questionable books on domestic cats. One is proof that humanity's obsession with cute pictures of kittens did not begin with 4Chan, while the other sparked a brief but memorable 1980s fad....
Cats, Dogs and Other Rabbits: The Extraordinary World of Harry Whittier Frees, by Harry Whittier Frees - we've all seen them, or reposted them, or sneered at them, or possibly even created them. They've even called one of the chief reasons for the Internet itself
after pornography, silly as that sounds...and given how popular these images are, it's easy to see why.
I refer, of course, to lolcats.
Just in case you're one of the six people in the United States with access to a computer who's managed to avoid lolcats, the term refers to those whimsical little macros of grumpy/silly/hyper/extremely young/extremely oddly positioned/homicidally enraged housecats, almost always accompanied by misspelled captions that are theoretically being uttered by the cat. The best known of these is probably the ubiquitous Happy Cat ofI CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER?fame, but there are tens, nay, hundreds of thousands of others. My personal favorite is probably EBAY KITTEH NOT AS DESCRIBED, but I've gotten a good laugh (or a good wince) at plenty of others.
Lolcats have spawned plenty of imitators, from loldogs to lolotters to lolpoliticians to lolsuperheroes, as well as several web sites, lol-fill in the blank generators, and a strange jokey dialect of English that makes pidgin constructions like "mixmaster belonga Jesus" for helicopter look comprehensible. There's even a lolcat version of the Bible that talks of "Ceiling Cat" and "Basement Cat," and if you really expect me to quote this most contemporary and peculiar version of Scripture, well, you can be the one to clean up when poor Dirkster's head explodes. If there's any meme in the short and colorful history of the Internet that seems to fit right in with contemporary America's obsession with pets, it's this one.
A British photographer named Harry Pointer created a series of humorous pictures of cats doing unexpected things like taking photographs...in the 1870s. These little images proved wildly popular, spawning a raft of imitators through the early years of the next century. One of these imitators, amateur taxidermist Walter Potter, became renowned for meticulously detailed creepy dioramas of perfectly stuffed, beautifully clothed, carefully posed kittens, frogs, rats, birds, etc., engaging in human activities like going to school and getting married even though every single one of them was dead. Some of Potter's little prefigurations of Wisconsin Death Trip have been featured in recent exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum, though whether they were most popular with sentimentalists, horror aficionados, or kitsch-lovers is not clear.
These proto-lolcats pale, however, next to the genius of Harry Whittier Frees. Combining the lively poses of Pointer and the perfect costumes and human activities of Potter, Frees became popular for a series of postcards, books, and other ephemera featuring kittens, puppies, and rabbits wearing human clothes, engaging in human activities, and manipulating human props -
And if Frees was telling the truth, every single one of these little darlings was very much alive.
Frees, who owned two of his chief models, Rags and Fluff, said repeatedly that he was able to capture his photos thanks to a combination of gentle training, immense patience, luck, and his innate rapport with his pets. This may all be true, especially since Rags and Fluff appeared repeatedly, in different poses, over a period of several years. One still has to wonder, though, when faced with curiously disturbing images like the following:
Creepy as they seem today, Frees' work became became popular gifts for impressionable children who theoretically would be delighted by the sight of little animals acting like humans while wearing costumes loving sewn by Harry Frees' mother. Some titles were reprinted as late as the 1950s, while second-hand copies can be found for sale at antique shops, vintage doll shows, ephemera stores, and of course on Ebay.
And all the while, Frees swore that somehow, some way, he trained kittens, puppies, and sometimes even piglets (the hardest to work with) to stand still long enough for him to photograph them wearing silly costumes, manipulating props tied to their paws with string, and generally act just like humans.
Gentle readers, it is a matter of record that no complaints were ever brought against Harry Whittier Frees. No humane society ever investigated him, and by all accounts Rags, Fluff, and the other animals he used in his photographs were treated well if one ignores the sheer humiliation factor of being dressed in gingham overalls and poke bonnets. I've yet to find a harrowing memoir about the mental scars resulting from an innocent pre-Great War child being given one of Frees' books and ending up on Skid Row because of horrible nightmares about porcelain dolls doing Double Dutch in front of an audience of applauding Maine Coons....
101 Uses for a Dead Cat, by Simon Bond - there is a long and rich tradition in cartooning for what might be best called "cartoons in questionable taste." Examples range from the deliberately rude caricatures known as "vinegar Valentines" (nasty little insult cards that the Victorians sent to people they didn't like) to the macabre glories of Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson. The late, lamented National Lampoon even printed a collection of "cartoons even we wouldn't print," which is saying something considering their usual product.
Most of these cartoons appeal to only to a limited audience, needless to say. The average American is much more inclined to read the latest collection of Doonesbury or Peanuts or Heart of the City than spend his/her money on something that's deliberately mean, tasteless, or rude. Oh, there are exceptions - God knows there are exceptions! - but few make the bestseller lists or spark a fashion.
And then there are the exceptions.
Back in 1981, British cartoonist Simon Bond published a little collection of drawings. This collection, publicized with the tagline, "Since time immemorial mankind has been plagued by the question, 'What do you do with a dead cat?'" consisted of uncaptioned cartoons of clearly deceased felines being used in unusual ways, such as in lieu of umbrellas, pencil sharpeners, roller skates, and so on. The book, which one reviewer said was so bad that readers should be "prepared to be disgusted or appalled from time to time," was a surprise bestseller both in pet-loving Britain and even more pet-loving America, to the point that spent over six months on the New York Times bestseller list. Bond, an otherwise innocuous man, found himself famous, rich, and the recipient of vast quantities of letters and postcards accusing him of sadism, obscenity, and similarly wonderful character traits.
Bond was not happy about the hate mail, but that didn't stop him from publishing two more collections of ailurophobic cartoons, 101 More Uses of a Dead Cat and Uses of a Dead Cat in History, nor from approving a line of Dead Cat calendars. There was even a 25th anniversary edition of the original 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. And is it any surprise that someone attempting to capitalize on the Dead Cat craze published a forgettable response called The Cat's Revenge - More Than 101 Uses for Dead People?
Given the original's enduring popularity (2 million copies sold in over 20 countries), one might be justified in thinking that this is an unacknowledged comic masterpiece. After all, so many people bought it, read it, gave it to their friends, and presumably enjoyed it that, just as the notoriously gory and sadistic EC Comics of the 1950s are now seen as the wellspring of the horror movie revival of the 1980s, this little book must be a diamond in the furball? It's perfectly possible to write a funny book about pet torture, so surely this must a gem among rude cartoons?
Gentle reader, I am a cat owner. This could potentially affect my opinion of these cartoons. So tonight I will let you judge for yourself with selection of Simon Bond's cartoons showing some of his proposed uses for dead cats:
Need I say more?
So, my friends, both those who love and loath cats - what say you? Do you have a favorite disturbing book about cats? Do you make lolpictures in your copious free time? We won't spill your little secret, so confess away....
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