To Let the Cat out of the Bag: Cat Showing as Sport and Social Reform

In July 1871, upper-class Londoners were introduced to a new sport: domestic cat showing. Wire cages lined the interior of the Crystal Palace, a cast iron and glass structure built in Hyde Park for the Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Cats of all shapes and sizes reclined “on crimson cushions, making no sound save now and then a homely purring, as from time to time they lapped the nice new milk provided for them.” After paying an entrance fees, enthralled ladies and gentlemen walked among the cages, peering in to see “short-haired tortoiseshell cats,” “blue and silver tabbies,” “long-haired Angoras,” and “Abyssinian” felines.[1]

View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851.

Monetary prizes, provided by the directors of the Crystal Palace Company and the National History Department, were awarded to the best in show. After careful consideration, the judges selected six cats: the Siamese, the French-African Cat, “a Persian direct from Persia,” “an enormous English cat, weighing 21 pounds, the biggest in the show,” “a native of the Isle of Man, with the usual Manx absence of tail,” and “a British wild-cat exhibited by the Duke of Sutherland.” This last cat was a notable rarity. According to Harper’s Weekly, “This cat is very scarce—indeed, almost extinct in the British Islands. His color is sandy brown, and the form of the end of the nose and tail peculiar . . . He behaves like a mad devil, and ten men could not get him into a wire cage [and] out of the box in which he was sent.” [2]

The prize winning cats. Harper’s Weekly (August 19, 1871), 772.

Nine-year-old Rosa Crawley was one of many who visited the exhibition. During her visit, the “royal cat of the King of Siam” lounged upon his back “yawning” while kittens played in nearby cages. The “working men’s cats,” in particular, fascinated the young girl. “Such big fellows!—with gay ribbons round their necks, looking so sleek and solemn, with their broad noses,” she remarked. “I could not have lifted some of them, I am sure, they must be so heavy.”[3]

“At the Cat Show,” Chatterbox, No. 49 (November 2, 1872): 386.

The novel notion of showing cats originated with Mr. Harrison Weir. “Among animals possibly the most perfect, and certainly the most domestic, is the Cat,” he declared. Pontificating at length about the superiority of the Felis catus, Weir continued, “it is a veritable part of our household, and is both useful, quiet, affectionate, and ornamental. The small or large dog may be regarded and petted, but is generally useless; the Cat, a pet or not, is of service. Were it not for our Cats, rats and mice would overrun our houses, buildings, cultivated and other lands. If there were not millions of Cats, there would be billions of vermin.”[4]

Cats, he reasoned, were intelligent and loving creatures, too often the subject of abuse and neglect. As part of a broader nineteenth-century movement, Weir intended to bring attention to the maltreatment of domestic felines. The United Kingdom had a long history of animal welfare reform; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824, years before the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals organized in New York City in 1866. Social reform movements, for the protection of both people and pets, grew in popularity during the nineteenth-century. Typically aimed at minorities, immigrants, and members of the working class, upper and middle-class reformers (often white women) crusaded for diverse causes—abolition, child labor, and temperance—and advocated for legal, social, cultural, and economic change. In this case: special prizes were given to working men’s cats “to encourage the poor to be kind to them and feed them well.”[5]

In July 1872, Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes both praised and critiqued the Cat Show: “It is said that we are indebted to Mr. Harrison Weir, the eminent artist, for the notion and arrangement of the cat show. All honour to him for the suggestion, but let us hope that the hideous cat’s head on the flaming yellow placard, which annually announces the coming cat carnival and frightens small boys at the railway stations, is not a design from the pencil of the great artist.” Harrison Weir, Our Cats and All about Them: Their Varieties, Habits, and Management, and for Show, the Standard of Excellence and Beauty (Turnbridge Wells: R. Clements and Company, 1889), 1; Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, Vol. 22 (July 1872): 80.

The venture was so ‘purfectly’ successful that a “Second Cat Show” occurred in December 1871. The Spirit of the Times chronicled these unique cats for their readers. A “cosey black she cat” had been “in Paris during the whole of the late siege, sitting at the widow, watching the barricades.” An Abyssinian cat, owned by Miss Bramie Harris Zeyla, “was taken in the late war by an officer in the 102d Fusilier, and carried to India, and 20 months ago was brought to England. This gentle-looking pet will take up a tumbler or cup, and drink from it like a child.” Not to be outdone, the Zoological Society “sent a pair of wild cats.”[6]

While paging through the Spirit of the Times, I discovered this article: “Cat Show at the Crystal Palace.” My curiosity was piqued. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but, in my case, it resulted in a blog post. “Cat Show at the Crystal Palace,” Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage (December 30, 1871).

Subsequently, the Crystal Palace hosted dog shows and game bird shows. Although never as popular as dog shows, Great Britain and United States still have several feline fanciers’ associations and organizations. Today, the Cat Fanciers’ Association awards ribbons to cats judged “Best Champion” and “Premier of Breed.” And, while most of us are not showing our housecats, we do tend to view them as ‘family’ members. According to a 2007 Harris Poll, 95% percent of pet owner viewed their cat or dog as part of the family. In humanizing our pets, we have accomplished—to a point considered inconceivable to most in the nineteenth-century—Harrison Weir’s mission: we learned to love our cats.[7]

Cat showing, I must admit, is not the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Yet the research process is full of serendipitous discoveries—some more niche or esoteric than others. This was just one the unusual topics that I encountered while browsing the Spirit of the Times, a weekly periodical published in nineteenth-century New York City. An eclectic magazine with sections on literature, humor, theatre, riding, shooting, and sport, this publication—one of the many periodicals housed at the National Sporting Library & Museum—offers a wealth of material for researchers.


Author Biography: Tracy L. Barnett is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Georgia. Rifles—their meaning to men and their availability in nineteenth-century America—are at the center of her research. Her dissertation, “Men and Their Guns: The Culture of Self-Deputized Manhood in the South, 1850–1877,” analyzes the historic origins of America’s gun culture. She holds a John H. Daniels Fellowship at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Indeed, “I’m not a cat.”


Citations

[1] Harrison Weir, Our Cats and All about Them: Their Varieties, Habits, and Management, and for Show, the Standard of Excellence and Beauty (Turnbridge Wells: R. Clements and Company, 1889), 4.

[2]Harper’s Weekly (August 19, 1871), 772.

[3] “At the Cat Show,” Chatterbox, No. 49 (November 2, 1872): 386. < https://www.google.com/books/edition/Chatterbox/p8YPAQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=cat+show+at+the+crystal+palace&pg=PA386&printsec=frontcover>

[4] Emphasis in the original. Harrison Weir, Our Cats and All about Them: Their Varieties, Habits, and Management, and for Show, the Standard of Excellence and Beauty (Turnbridge Wells: R. Clements and Company, 1889), iii.

[5] Weir, Our Cats and All about Them, 2; “At the Cat Show,” Chatterbox, No. 49 (November 2, 1872): 386.

[6] “Cat Show at the Crystal Palace,” Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage (December 30, 1871).

[7] Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, Vol. 22 (July 1872): 80; The Cat Fanciers’ Association <https://cfa.org>; “Report: 95% say pets are part of the family,” PetFoodIndustry.com (March 9, 2016) <https://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/5695-report—say-pets-are-part-of-the-family>   

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