Sealed with a Kitten: Turn-of-the-Century Cat Postcards

Curator's Note

Long before Tumblr users cheered f-yeah cats, before YouTube cornered the market on kitty videos, and before lolcats craved cheezburger, cat caricatures flourished on postcards. For a penny apiece friends could share chuckles over felines imitating humans at their most playful, mischievous, tender, and flawed. Chief among their illustrators was Louis Wain (1860 - 1939), who transformed a modest hobby into a signature style featuring cats walking upright, sporting fine clothing and expressive eyes. Wain’s simple concept offered limitless permutations and inspired imitators. Some senders mailed these postcards with only the barest of inscriptions. The images required little context, as is the case with much of the cat-centric media circulating today.

Let’s consider the late-19th- and early-20th-century craze for anthropomorphized cats as a predecessor to the digital phenomena this week’s curators examine. They stemmed from a common impulse: to imbue cats with humanlike qualities. Internet users interpreting Grumpy Cat’s facial features as a furrowed brow and Ron Swanson-esque scowl produce memes unanimously assigning her a curmudgeonly personality. Will Braden renders Henri, le Chat Noir as bored, self-centered, and sullen—human qualities viewers may infer via the videos’ French narration and English subtitles. In addition to depicting humanity reflected in nature, Wain’s postcard images jarred viewers unaccustomed to seeing cats piloting automobiles. Moreover, portraying human activities with cats allowed Wain and his ilk to represent violence and chaos as humorous, precious, or mildly irreverent. For example, W. Riess’s Return from a Picnic in the Catskills shows one cat beating another with an umbrella, a scene made more palatable with fuzzy critters than with men. 

Imagine such postcards causing giggles at the mailbox. Now behold the modern tendency to consume videos of other people’s cats so voraciously that they enter the cultural vernacular as humanoid celebrities with singular personalities. If they can prompt a festival, is there a place in art museums for Wain? Do today’s producers and consumers of cat culture see themselves in YouTube clips the way people did with his postcards? And where is the line separating extraordinary videos from those simply riding the wave? (That reminds me—have you seen the video with the cat on the surfboard?)



Yes, I have seen the cat making his escape on the surfboard - a scenario that could have gone so horribly wrong for him. I find those kinds of videos interesting in that people seem fascinated seeing cats (and others) do 'people' things - ride surfboards, paw at the computer keyboard, watch tv, etc. It seems like cats doing people things help us look at ourselves in a nonthreatening way, often seemingly free of class, race, gender and other human politics that we would see in the same clip if performed by a human. My favourite among the postcards is the one depicting cats having a joy ride in an automobile. Reminds me of a postcard I once got from a friend who was visiting London. There she found a museum that housed old taxidermied kittens and cats from the Victorian era, and the post card pictured a number of these kitty creations staring out at the viewer with their glass eyes and their faces misshapen from the passing of the years. They were arranged wearing doll's clothing to depict human-style vignettes. What a strange place Victorian Britain must have been!" Of course, we are just as strange I think. I wonder, 150 years from now, what will people make of the cat on the surfboard?

Thanks for your response. We're rarely happier than when we're comparing our cats to other species (e.g., "My cat thinks he's a dog," or, "Watch my cat speak/sing/smile/stand/surf..."). I wonder if it has something to do with attempting to abolish the stereotype of boring, standoffish cats in favor of cats with extraordinary personalities. You're right. Where many viral videos' humor is rooted in gender, race, and class (I'm thinking about the wife in hysterics and Auto-Tuned news interviews with Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson), cats are neutral ground. Questions of privilege are less likely to influence our response to them. And when we laugh at cats, we're not laughing at someone else's expense... except maybe the poor dog abandoned by the pool.

I'm baffled by the postcard (17 in the slide show) where the cats are in the foreground, consoling each other, while chimpanzees are seen in the background, playing cards. Are the cats supposed to be the neglected wives of the gambling chimps? It's bizarre and delightful all at once.

Thanks for sharing this terrific collection with us Lauren. Do you know if there's a parallel history of dog postcards (or similar ephemera)? I'm fascinated by the ways dogs and cats are played against each other on the Internet, and I wonder if there are historical parallels?

Dogs have a longer history as respectable human companions than cats have enjoyed. I haven't seen many early examples of anthropomorphized dogs, short of C. M. Coolidge's Dogs Playing Poker (ca. 1903) and Disney's Goofy (1932). Most dog postcards in The Strong's collection are straightforward photos or illustrations of dogs being loyal, sporting, or just plain handsome. Swiss artist Eugen Hartung designed postcards for Max Kunzli and the Alfred Mainzer Company around the same time as Louis Wain. Though they depicted mostly anthropomorphized cats, I have seen dogs and mice represented in examples online. Unfortunately I've never seen any in person. Domesticated dogs assimilate with the "packs" of people who care for them, then experience psychological and emotional responses familiar to humans (at least from our point of view): loyalty, protectiveness, affection, separation anxiety, etc. Seems like when we represent our cats as humanlike, it's in jest, but when we treat our dogs as people, we mean it. For a deeper historical perspective, it would be interesting to study how Aesop anthropomorphized various animals.

I like see cartoon films very much and particularly Tom & Jerry. I love this cartoon because of the Cat Tom particularly. I love Pussy Cat a lot. I have a Pet Cat and I am very careful about her. Last time I was very tensed for her health and she was not taking anything those days. She was even not taking food for some days and I met a animal doctor for her. Now she is quite well and behaving normally. Love to see her back to her normal life. So, Pet care certainly makes you happy like you're serving your children.

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