In the last couple of decades, cats have reigned supreme as the royalty of the internet. But cats have been American favorites long before they entertained us on YouTube! Just take a look at these seven amazing cats we found in our Museum and Library collections. (For the record, there are way more cats in our collection! These are just a small handful of items that stood out as truly unique and rich with history.)
1. The Black Cat Fortune-Telling Game by Parker Brothers from 1897
The late 19th century saw an explosion in board game development and availability as chromolithography, a form of color printing, improved in the 1870s. New-York Historical is the proud home of the Liman Collection of golden-age board and table games. This collection includes games made between 1840 and the 1920s. New York-based McLoughlin Brothers dominated the board game industry at the time but the Salem, Massachusetts-based Parker Brothers offered stiff competition. (How fitting that this supernatural board game be made in a town famous for its witch trials!)
American board games from the late 19th century can tell us a lot about peoples’ values and customs at that time. We can tell that people were looking for structured amusements, and they were also obsessed with the occult. Fortune-telling games like this one abounded. The box cover features a collared, spooky black cat, signaling mystery and magic within. Since the Middle Ages, black cats have been associated with witches. It was once thought that witches could transform themselves into black cats—and that cats of all kinds could be a witch’s “familiar,” or devilish spirit that aided a witch in carrying out magic. Cats do have a certain otherworldly mystique, do they not? This game also states, in its instructions, that the game is best played on Halloween. (Check out our post on Halloween fortune-telling games to learn why!)
So how do you play? It’s actually an elaborate card game, and cards are divided into six sets: The Past, The Present, The Future, Love Matters, General Advice, and Danger. Players select and lay out the cards in a particular way, then flip them over and read the lines on the back of each card to tell one another’s’ fortunes. There are no winners or losers in this game—only those with good or bad fortunes! Notice how the cards also have the suits of a typical 52-card deck. Fortune-telling cards, like tarot, evolved from playing cards to fortune-telling tools.
2. Black cat (name unknown!) owned by Ann Haviland, the “Poetess of Perfume”
Speaking of black cats, you might think you’re looking at a photo of real, live witch, brewing potions in her lair with a familiar in her lap. In fact, this is a photograph of a forgotten celebrity, Anne Haviland—dubbed the “Poetess of Perfume” by famous silent film actress Theda Bara—in her lab mixing scents. We don’t know much about Haviland’s feline friend, but we do know a bit about her.
Haviland trained in Paris at the turn of the 20th century when French perfumes ruled the luxury market in the United States. But Haviland had a nose for both perfume and business—she pioneered the concept of the “signature scent,” a perfume tailored to an individual woman’s looks, habits, and personality. Haviland created exclusive perfumes for New York City’s elite, wrote scent-related advice articles in women’s magazines, and was even known to create scents for theater productions and the homes of robber barons. She was actually the first person to conceive of a room scent! Eventually, her name was attached to mass market perfumes in the 1940s, and they were discontinued in the 1970s. From this photo, though, we can tell she had a fondness not just for parfumes but for pussycats, too!
3. Reddy and Peaches, the beloved cats of photographer William Davis Hassler
William Hassler was a photographer who documented New York City buildings, people, and streets largely between 1910 and 1921. Though most of the 5,100 glass negatives in Hassler’s photographic archives housed in our Library relate to his commercial work, Hassler also took a lot of photos of his nearest and dearest—including two cats named Reddy (a presumed-by-me ginger cat) and Peaches. Peaches is a favorite among researchers of our digital collections. Can you find him amidst the cornucopia of corn and tomatoes in the photo below? I think we all know kitties who would snuggle up in such a spot.
There are so many images of Reddy that it was almost impossible to decide! But we particularly enjoy these two, where Reddy is hanging out with some guinea pig friends, and a human friend, William Gray Hassler, the photographer’s son. Knowing that Hassler did a lot of work for companies, I wonder if the later photograph is a study for a Quaker advertisement? A virtual handshake to any sleuths who find an ad from circa 1912 that looks like this!
4. Tippoo the Cat
Have you ever named a cat after someone famous? Young James Fulton Pringle named his cat Tippoo after Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Indian Kingdom of Mysore who died defending his land against British invaders. Except Pringle’s cat is only indirectly named for the Sultan. More likely, Pringle named his kitten after an amazing artifact that the British stole from Tipu’s palace after his defeat, which came to be known as Tipu’s (or Tippoo’s) Tiger.
This incredible work of art and machinery—now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England—is a wooden semi-automaton figure of a tiger attacking a white European man lying on his back. The Tiger was a symbol of Tipu Sultan’s reign. This tiger figure contains an organ carved into its side. When played, the man lifts his arm up and down, and the organ makes sounds like dying moans. Pringle may have seen this artifact in England or in a printed image, as it was immediately a hit attraction once in London. The Pringle family hailed from England but lived for a while in the United States.
James Fulton Pringle was a mere 13 years old when he painted this image of his cat. He trained as an artist under his father, also named James Pringle. In 1815, James Fulton Pringle painted his self-portrait, also part of our Museum collection. In his adult life, Pringle Junior took the middle name Fulton after the inventor of the steamship. As a professional artist he went on to paint—you guessed it—ships.
Though not a widely known artist, his teenage portrait of his fearsome feline shows a lot of promise, we think! Note the tassel on the left, which Tippoo probably loved to play with. How would you depict your cat in a portrait?
5. World War I soldier Salvator Cillis’s cat, to which he said a (temporary) goodbye
The letters of Salvator Cillis, an Italian-born American soldier who fought in World War I, are a highlight of our wartime Library collections. Cillis was a trained sign painter, and he used his skills in his letters home to his former colleagues at the Levy Co. on Wooster Street in Lower Manhattan. You can read a great overview of Cillis’s letters on our Library blog, From the Stacks. You can also see Cillis’s digitized letters here.
Check out Cillis’s very first letter home, in which he describes what it was like saying goodbye “left and right to anything and everything including my cat…” which he also illustrated here. You’ll be happy to know that this goodbye was only temporary: Cillis survived the war.
6. Social justice panthers fighting age discrimination on a pin
Do panthers count as cats? Not domesticated ones, but the illustration on this pin certainly feels friendly. This pinback was created by the Gray Panthers, a social justice group founded in the 1970s by Maggie Kuhn that was organized to fight age discrimination. Kuhn first started organizing to challenge laws that mandated retirement at age 65, which was based on the faulty notion that older people aren’t useful to society. Kuhn liked the militancy of the Black Panthers, and so she played off their name and reputation. The Gray Panthers’ slogan of “Age and Youth in Action” reflects an important part of the group’s activism: Although they are primarily about advocating for elder rights, then and now they have courted young people and have fought for intersectional causes, such as LGBTQ rights. The Gray Panthers are still active today! You can read more about them on their website.
7. Two allegorical cats from the Civil War
Finally, see if you can make out the image of two upside-down cats fighting on this “cover” or envelope from the Civil War era. Covers like this were produced during the war as propaganda on both sides of battle lines. Envelopes were a relatively new product in the 1860s. In 1851, the postal service introduced a flat rate of 3 cents on mail under a certain weight travelling fewer than 3,000 miles. This meant people would no longer be charged by the page, so companies started producing “covers” for peoples’ precious mailings. Before this, folks wrote on one sheet of paper, folded it, sealed it, and mailed it unprotected to save money. Letters to and from the war and home fronts were worth protecting, and companies started producing letter covers with pro-Union or pro-Confederacy images.
This letter cover shows two fighting cats whose tails are tied together, hanging upside down over a tree branch. The cats are respectively labeled South Carolina and Massachusetts. The cover was produced sometime between 1861 and 1865. South Carolina’s cat is white and Massachusetts’ cat is black. In some places, this cover is dated to January of 1863. If that’s the case, the “set-to” or squabble mentioned on the cover may refer to the Battle at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry fought bravely during a 63-day battle that ended in a Confederate victory. Though the Union lost that battle, the 54th Infantry’s crucial role clearly confirmed the value of enlisting black men in the Union Army, and is a story of true courage. In fact, you may even recognized it—it was memorialized in the film Glory.
Letter covers like these were sold in cheap bundles and many were never used, which is why they often survive in family scrapbooks or on their own, with no mailing information on them.
We hope you’ve enjoyed these symbolic, real, adorable, illustrated, and unknown cats from our Museum and Library collections. If you ask us, no day is complete without a visit to the New-York Historical Society, where you will definitely see some cats on view! And since you’ve read this far, check out a BONUS KITTY on our Tumblr page, The Hyphen.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum