Katrina: A Victorian Ballet of Cats

Katti Lanner, lithograph by Adolf Dauthage, 1861.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical Cats was not the first production to feature a cast of dancers dressed in cat costumes.  Nearly one hundred years earlier, a ballet called Katrina made its debut at the Empire Theatre in London.  Arranged by choreographer Kattie Lanner and set to music by composer Leopold Wenzel, it featured two intertwined stories.  The first concerned the love affairs of a young student. The second—and far more interesting—took place in the Kingdom of Cats.  Continue reading

Never Bring a Dog into a Drawing Room: The Etiquette of Paying Calls with Pets

“Favorite dogs are never welcome visitors in a drawing-room.”
Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, 1866.

Lady and a Greyhound by Václav Brožík, 1896-97.(National Gallery, Prague Castle)

Lady and a Greyhound by Václav Brožík, 1896-97.
(National Gallery, Prague Castle)

In the Victorian era, etiquette books offered very specific advice on how to conduct oneself when paying a social call. In some cases, this advice differed from book to book and decade to decade, but in one respect all the etiquette manuals throughout the Victorian era seem to agree. When paying a call on a friend or acquaintance, one should never bring along one’s dog. As the 1840 book Etiquette for Ladies states: Continue reading

Charles Dickens and Timber Doodle, the Flea-Ridden Dog

Dog of the Havana Breed by Jean Jacques Bachelier, (1724–1806).(Bowes Museum)

Dog of the Havana Breed by Jean Jacques Bachelier, (1724–1806).
(Bowes Museum)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Dickens had a small, shaggy Havana spaniel named Timber Doodle. Dickens had acquired Timber during a visit to America and the little dog soon became his constant companion, even accompanying him on his travels. It was during one of these foreign excursions that Timber suffered from a very severe infestation of fleas. The solution was extreme. As Dickens relates in an 1844 letter: Continue reading

A Scientific Justification for Spinsters: Old Maids and Cats in the Victorian Era

‘Old maids and cats have long been proverbially associated together, and rightly or wrongly these creatures have been looked upon with a certain degree of suspicion and aversion by a large proportion of the human race.’
Dundee Courier, 5 October 1880.

Portrait of a Lady with a White Cat by Anonymous Artist, 19th Century.

Portrait of a Lady with a White Cat by Anonymous Artist, 19th Century.

Spinsters have long been associated with cats.  This was especially true in the Victorian era when the stereotype of the old maid and her feline dependents was so pervasive that an 1880 edition of the Dundee Courier not only declared that “the old maid would not be typical of her class without the cat,” but that “one cannot exist without the other.”  Like cats (who were generally viewed as being sly and self-serving), old maids faced their fair share of societal persecution.  Doomed to live in a state of “single blessedness,” they were often seen as being eccentric or as having been soured by their “blighted hopes.”  Continue reading

The Dog on the Train: A Victorian Fox Terrier at King’s Cross Station

My Best Friend by Robert Douglas Fry, (1872–1911).

My Best Friend by Robert Douglas Fry, (1872–1911).

An 1879 edition of the Huddersfield Chronicle reports the story of a little fox terrier named Wasp and his owner who, at the time, was a student at a college in London.  Wasp was devoted to his master and would follow him wherever he went—including on the train to school each morning.  While his master attended classes, Wasp would remain in the courtyard of the college, dozing in a patch of sun and “to all appearances asleep.”  Despite appearances, however, Wasp was always watching anxiously for his master’s return and those passing through the courtyard would often observe “one watchful eye unclose gently to spy if his master were soon coming.” Continue reading

Emblems of the Soul: Butterflies in Victorian Fashion and Folklore

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, (1823-1903)

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things
by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, (1823-1903).

Victorians had a fascination with natural history.  This manifested itself in various ways, not the least of which was in fashionable clothing and décor.  A Victorian parlour, for example, might feature a scientific display of pinned butterflies.  While insects, such as butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and grasshoppers, were often depicted in Victorian jewellery, with some insect brooches and hairpins set en tremblant (on a spring) so that the jewelled insect would tremble and shake as if it were actually alive. Continue reading

Boarding Houses for Victorian Cats: Holiday Care for the Family Feline

“It is during the summer months, when house holders leave town for their holidays, that poor pussy is forsaken and forgotten, and no provision being made for her, she is forced to take to the streets, where she seeks in vain to stalk the wily London sparrow or pick up any scraps from the gutter.”  The Book of the Cat, 1903.

Smoke and Orange Persians, Book of the Cat, 1903.

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.  As a June 24, 1889 edition of the Gloucester Citizen reports: Continue reading

Canines and Crinolines: Victorian Dogs Captured by Fashion

Portrait of Princess Dagmar of Denmark with her Dog, 1860s.

Portrait of Princess Dagmar of Denmark with her Dog, 1860s.

In January of 1865, a young charwoman appeared at the Lambeth Police Court in London seeking assistance from the magistrate after having been attacked by her employer’s favorite dog.  A January 7th edition of the Kentish Independent reports that her employer’s name was Miss Mary Baker, “a maiden lady of over 70 years of age.”  Two years prior, Miss Baker had inherited a substantial fortune, the bulk of which she now expended on “feeding and keeping” a large pack of dogs inside of her house.  As the article relates: Continue reading

A Brief History of Victorian Goldfish Globes and Goldfish-Hawkers

The Goldfish Bowl by Charles Edward Perugini, 1870.

The Goldfish Bowl by Charles Edward Perugini, 1870.

Among fashionable Victorians, there was no parlor ornament so elegant—nor so diverting—as a clear glass globe filled with glittering goldfish.  It was considered to be educational for children who, according to author Charles Nash Page in his 1898 book Aquaria, could learn more in a few hours of observing the goldfish than in “many days spent with books.”  It was also believed to be beneficial for invalids since watching the goldfish swim was “health restoring” and “restful to the mind.”  By the middle of the 19th century, goldfish globes had become so popular that an entire class of street-sellers had risen up to fill the demand.  Operating in both London and the English countryside, these “goldfish-hawkers” were a common sight—especially in the vicinity of the homes of the wealthy and the well-to-do, where they preferred to ply their trade.

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Tommie, the Beloved Scotch Terrier of 19th Century Author Wilkie Collins

“…there are periods in a man’s life when he finds the society that walks on four feet a welcome relief from the society that walks on two.” The Fallen Leaves, 1879.

Vixen, a Thoroughbred Scotch Terrier, by Edwin Landseer, engraved by Thomas Landseer, 1853.

Vixen, a Thoroughbred Scotch Terrier, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1853.

Victorian author Wilkie Collins is often referred to as the father of the detective story.  His novels, such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone, are counted among the first mystery novels ever written and are still some of the finest examples of mystery fiction you can read today.  In addition to being a fantastically talented writer, Collins was also a great lover of animals.  His favorite pet was his dog, a Scotch terrier named Tommie.  Tommie featured prominently in many letters that Collins wrote to his friends.  He was also depicted in Collins’ 1879 book, My Lady’s Money, wherein one character explains the unique spelling of the little dog’s name:

“His name is Tommie.  We are obliged to call him by it, because he won’t answer to any other than the name he had when my Lady bought him.  But we spell it with an i e at the end, which makes it less vulgar than Tommy with a y.”  

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