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

A Proposed 18th Century Tax Bill Targets 27-Year-Old Spinsters…And Their Cats!

‘As the supply alluded to is to be levied upon all old maids, beyond a certain age, and intitled to certain yearly or other income; I make no doubt but both Houses of Parliament will speedily manifest their hearty concurrence thereto.’
The London Magazine, 1777.

A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium)

A Visit to Grandmother by John Raphael Smith after Thomas James Northcote, 1785.
(Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium)

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. The proposed bill begins by stating: 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

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

Sporting Cats in the 19th Century

The Shooting Party by William Powell Frith, (1819-1909).

When one thinks of a 19th century shooting party, one usually imagines well-to-do sportsmen in plus-fours and tweed caps, accompanied by their loaders, their beaters, and—of course—their sporting dogs.  However, according to an article in the October 29, 1880 edition of the Portsmouth Evening News, even the best spaniels and retrievers could not compete with the “great skill” of a sporting cat.  As the article explains: Continue reading

Classical Cats: The Feline Muses of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel

The Piano Lesson by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip, 1897.

The Piano Lesson by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip, 1897.

One does not have to be a fan of classical music to be familiar with the works of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.  The two rivals were part of the Impressionism movement in classical music, a movement inspired by Impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, and Renoir and poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire.  They were also renowned cat lovers who famously allowed their feline muses to prowl at liberty amongst their papers while composing such masterpieces as Clair de Lune and BoléroContinue reading

An Unlikely Friendship: The Cat and Mouse of Lord Lucan’s Bailiff

Playing Cat and Mouse by John Henry Dolph (1835-1903).

In the early 19th century, at the Earl of Lucan’s residence at Laleham, there was a very singular cat.  She belonged to Lord Lucan’s bailiff, Mr. Smith, and had the “constant habit” of curling up on the rug before the parlor fire.  According to a story related in multiple 19th century British newspapers, as well as in author Edward Jesse’s 1834 book, Gleanings in Natural History, after the death of her recent litter of kittens, this particular cat struck up a very close friendship with a mouse.  Continue reading

Cat Funerals in the Victorian Era

Inconsolable Grief by Ivan Kramskoi, 1884.

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.  Continue reading

A Bizarre Tale of Electric Streetcars and 19th Century Cats

A Horsecar and an Electric Streetcar, New York.

A Horsecar and an Electric Streetcar, New York.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a time when electric streetcars shared the road with mounted riders, horse-drawn carriages, and streetcars pulled by teams of horses.  Many interesting animal stories have come out of this brief period of crossover between horsepower and the rise of the modern machine.  Naturally, the bulk of these stories feature horses, but one of the most bizarre accounts I have found involves not equines, but felines.  According to the September 6, 1893 edition of the Edinburgh Evening News, 19th century cats in the city of San Francisco had “grown so big and so numerous as to constitute a nuisance and a menace.”  The cause of their enormous size?  The introduction of electric streetcars! Continue reading

Black Tom, the Captain’s Imp: A 19th Century Seafaring Cat

A depiction of Mowler, a black cat, a pet and mascot of HMS Manica, standing on a flat surface amongst the rope attachments of the ship's balloon, 1915.(Image via The Imperial War Museum.)

A depiction of a black cat, pet and mascot of HMS Manica, 1915.
(Imperial War Museum.)

For a brief time at the end of the 19th century, Her Majesty’s gunboat “Tickler” was the home of a mysterious cat by the name of Black Tom.  According to the ship’s doctor, Gordon Stables, many on board suspected that Tom was a demon or an imp.  No one knew where he had come from, how he had managed to get on board, or who had brought him there.  He simply appeared one windy, treacherous evening when the sea was rough as the Tickler was crossing the Bay of Biscay.  At eleven at night, while smoking on the quarter-deck, Stables saw something as “black as Erebus” whisk past his legs.  When he inquired of the old sailor at the wheel what the dark shadow could possibly have been, the sailor replied with the utmost solemnity:

“That’s the devil, sir.”

Continue reading