Perhaps no creature in the animal kingdom has inspired such extreme emotions as the cat. Throughout history, they’ve been intensely loved and even worshipped, and just as passionately reviled and hunted. They’ve represented both life and death, the sun and moon, fertility and barrenness, healers and poison. Perhaps this is because cats seem to embody a range of human qualities. They can be aloof, arrogant, willful, independent, curious, affectionate, needy, honorable, self-indulgent, and mysterious. Nocturnal animals, they are stealthy and intent when stalking their prey, a contrast to the playful furry cuteness they convey to their owners.
Cat antiques come in every form imaginable: Porcelain and pottery figurines, salt-and-pepper shakers, paintings, advertising trade cards, children’s books, doorstops, bronze statuettes, tin toys, lithographs, product tins and boxes, and jade figurines. They have been drawn by great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Theophile Steinlen and painted by Renoir and Albrecht Dürer.
In art, cats have been depicted as the companions of Muhammad, St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Lincoln, and Roosevelt, but they’ve also been shown at feet of Judas in at least three artworks portraying the Last Supper. They were granted protection by Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XII and have been the subjects of great literary works by T.S. Eliot, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Henry James.
The first record of a domesticated cat is documented in 1900 B.C. Egypt. These mammals proved tremendously valuable, as they protected grains and other food supplies from snakes and rodents. So it’s not surprising that when Egyptian god Osiris and his goddess wife Isis made a baby, she was born with a lion’s head. The goddess Bastet (also known as Bast or Pasht) eventually was also represented with a cat’s head and sometimes a cat’s body. While her father was the sun, nocturnal shape-shifting Bastet was the moon and the inspiration for a sacred cat cult that lasted 2,000 years.
How much did the Egyptians love their cats? If trading Phoenicians smuggled cats out of the country, Egyptians would hunt them down. Cats had to be rescued from a burning building, and killing a cat resulted in the death penalty. Families who lost their cats would mourn by shaving off their eyebrows, and the dead cat’s body was mummified and buried in an elaborate gold or bronze coffin. Warring Persian soldiers would defend themselves against Egyptians by holding a cat in one hand and a weapon in the other.
By 1500 B.C., domesticated cats had spread to Greece. Grecian writers Aesop, Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Aristotle wrote famous cat tales. In general, for ancient Greeks and Romans, mousers were more utilitarian than sacred, but they still appeared on some Greek and Roman coins.
In China, cats were not fully domesticated until 400 B.C. Chinese legend says the cat was the love child of a lion and a monkey, possessing the former’s dignity and the latter’s ...
In the Far East, people seemed more wary of cats than the ancient Egyptians. As mysterious night stalkers, they were associated with the moon or the “yin,” the shadowy side of human nature. Appropriately, one of the most common materials for Asian cat figurines is jade, a stone associated with the mystic powers of the moon. Jade cats are often carved reclining, playing, and nursing. Cats were also depicted on scrolls, vases, and bowls, and as netsuke and statuettes in materials like bronze, ivory, and china.
Over in Europe, though, suspicions about cats, which arrived during the Roman Empire, bloomed into full-on terror during the medieval period. By the 13th century, cats became the scapegoats for all of the fear and frustration of the Dark Ages. Cults like the Luciferans, who claimed the devil was unfairly driven out of Heaven, were said to worship the black cat at midnight gatherings.
A German cult worshipping the Pagan goddess Freya, who was said to ride a chariot driven by two large cats, ratcheted up the anti-cat fervor. Women members of the cult would gather up stray cats and make them a part of their ceremonies and rituals. Rumors swirled that these witches fed cats their own blood with milk. From then on, cats were thought of as “witches’ familiars,” sent to deliver bad news or carry out evil deeds. Some people went so far as to suggest the Freya devotees could turn themselves into cats.
The irony, of course, was that people still used cats to catch rodents, but no cats appear in 15th or 16th century literature or art. It was believed that cats brought the destruction of crops, infertility, and death. Their breath could cause illness, their teeth contained venom, and their skin was poisonous. They could carry out revenge and raise the dead, and they were said to have the evil eye.
For these reasons, cats were used as target practice for hunters and were ceremonially burned at major Christian festivals. Cats were even set on fire at the 17th-century coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. The ashes of cats were often taken home as good-luck charms. This fear of cats, too, transferred to the American colonies, which had their own anti-witch hysteria.
The anti-cat paranoia peaked in the 18th century, and then puttered out. Perhaps this is because of the French, who started to embrace the idea of the cat as a simply cuddly and curious house pet. Cardinal Richelieu left an endowment for the cats he kept at his court, and French courtesans began to favor feline companions. It was in France that the old Italian fairy tale about a charming and clever aristocratic feline first appeared in 1697 as “Puss ‘N Boots” by Charles Perrault.
This laid-back approach to cats took hold all over Europe in time for the Victorian Era, when the appeal of furry cuteness came into vogue. People began to pose with cats for their portraits, painted by traveling artists in the middle of the 18th century. In England, as families started to adopt kittens, cats emerged in ceramics and other decorative objects.
Potteries in England started to produce a fine series of cats in sitting, reclining, or standing poses. Inspired by the porcelain animals imported from the Kang-H’si period potters in China, in the late 17th century, Lambeth produced Delftware owls and cats. Staffordshire followed with redware dog and cat figures, as well as a vase in the shape of a cat. These early Staffordshire animals were straited with different colored slips to give them the effect of natural wood.
In 1700s Germany, J.J. Kändler produced a particularly fine series of Meissen cat figurines, which most often came in pairs. Naturally, English potteries like Chelsea started to copy them, making popular cat candlesticks. English cats were produced in slipware, Prattware, Delft, salt glaze, Whieldon, and Jackfield styles, often in the shape of milk pitchers.
Feline forms also began to appear in folk art, in the forms of boot scrapes, doorstops, andirons, and an object known as a bird scarer—this scary metal black cat face, with glass eyes to reflect the sun, would be hung on a pole in the garden to swing in the breeze and frighten pesky birds.
In the middle of the 19th century, the cloying adorableness of cats and kittens turned into a surefire marketing scheme. Put a cat on it, and it sold. If it was a black cat, even better. As factories started to pump out every product under the sun, cat images were printed on soap, thread boxes, games, hosiery, stove cleaner, shoe polish, rat poison, and cigar boxes. Cats and kittens appeared all over advertisements and novelty products like trade cards, paper fans, matchbooks, calendars, trays, pinbacks, bookmarks, and mirrors.
Tobacco companies even put out cat-brand cigars like Me-ow Label, Tabby Cigars, Old Tom, White Cat, and Pussy. Kellogg’s cereal used an advertisement featuring a girl holding a kitten, with the slogan, “For Kiddies, Not Kitties,” and even offered a cloth-doll cat named Crinkle as a premium. Chesapeake and Ohio Railways marketed their railroad with a cat named Chessie and the slogan “Sleep like a kitten,” which appeared on matchbook covers, playing cards, key rings, and buttons.
The adventures of cats were also illustrated in children’s books and postcards by the likes of Raphael Tuck, Ellen Clapsaddle, and Kewpie-creator Rose O’Neill. Louis Wain produced a plethora of cat illustrations; one particularly popular set shows cats as all the characters of nursery rhymes. Printmakers Currier and Ives made 38 lithographs featuring kitties, including their “Puss 'n Boots” and “Three Little White Kittens” series. Cats also appeared all over holiday cards for Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and Easter, particularly in the chromolithographic greeting cards of Louis Prang and Company.
Besides “Puss ‘n Boots,” another fairy tale that appeared often in Victorian cat lithographs and children’s books was “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” the rags-to-riches tale of the man who was believed to be the most charitable soul in English history and his feline friend. Sheet music celebrated cats in song, with titles like, "Wamus Rag," "Pussy Cat Rag," "The Cat's Pajamas," "Felix the Cat," the "Pussyfoot Fox Trot," and the "Tabby Polka."
And while the folks at home were singing their cat tunes, women were crafting cat quilts, cat dolls, cat embroidery, and cat rugs. By the 20th century, cats were incorporated into clothing, fine and costume jewelry, and other accessories like handbags.
In late 1800s Paris, Swiss artist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen went to Montmarte to join Art Nouveau artists and illustrators like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. There, Steinlen managed to find work at two places named for cats: He did illustrations for a newspaper called “Le Chat Noir” and he made posters for a music hall of the same monniker.
It’s a good thing, too, because Steinlen was obsessed. He was constantly drawing, painting, or sculpting studies of cats. In his early years, he exchanged these drawings for food. Later, cats would appear in nearly every drawing, magazine illustration, lithograph, or poster he created, almost as a signature.
Around the same time in Japan, the Ukiyo-e golden age of woodblock prints was reaching its height. Esteemed “floating world” woodblock artists like Gekko, Toshikata, and Toyakuni III (also called Kunisada) depicted sweet scenes of women alone with their pet cats, or more disturbing images of half-cat, half-human “Cat Witches.”
Cats were so popular in the Western world that potteries continued to churn out ceramic cat figurines. In the U.S. they were made by the likes of Tucker China Factory of Philadephia and Fulper Pottery in New Jersey. In Hungary, Herend Pottery introduced its well-loved animal figurines with its distinct lacy “fishnet” pattern. By the turn of the 20th century, Doulton, Wedgwood, Rosenthal, and Haviland were all putting out their own cat wares.
Since Victorians who couldn’t afford real porcelain wanted cat figurines, too, a market opened up for chalkware, or cat figurines molded out of plaster of Paris. Much of this ware was made in the mid-1800s in Pennsylvania or New Jersey for as little as 15 cents apiece.
The popular Asian souvenir known as the Lucky Cat was first produced in 1800s Japan. This Maneki Neko (“Beckoning Cat”) figure, also called Welcoming Cat, Lucky Cat, Cat Swipe, Money Cat, or Fortune Cat, has its right or left paw raised (and sometimes both), and usually wears a collar, bell, and decorative bib, which would have been the typical outfit for a cat in an aristocratic Edo Period household.
They’re often shown holding a gold coin called a koban and made of ceramic, although they’ve been made of plastic, wood, papier mâché, jade, and gold. These figures are thought to bring good luck, wealth, and protection, and so are likely to be seen in Japanese and Chinese business establishments. These cats exploded in popularity at the turn of the century.
There are two basic legends as to the origin of the Maneki Neko: One is that a woman’s cat went crazy and started clawing at her, causing a friend or family member to behead it. The cat’s head then flew off, and landed in mid-bite on a venomous snake lurking nearby. The other version is that an aristocrat saw a cat beckoning him and went to it; by doing so, he was spared a misfortune like a trap set on the road or lightning striking the tree he'd been sitting beneath.
In the 19th century, cats were also cast in metals like bronze, iron, pewter, silver plate, and composition metals like Britanniaware for things like doorstops, andirons, door knockers, inkwells, napkin holders, pin cushions, and salt-and-pepper shakers. Hubley, Tufts, and William Rogers were the top makers of metal cats.
Cats on glass likely appeared around the late 1800s, at first done in milk glass by companies like McKee Brothers, United States Glass Company, and the Central Glass Company. Pressed and patterned glass with cat themes were used for toothpick holders, candy dishes, plates, mugs, and children’s plates. The Westmoreland Glass Company came up with the “Three Kitten Plate,” which is one of the most copied plates in history.
But it wasn’t until the 1920s that Lalique turned clear crystal glass cats into an art form, when the company began to produce sleek, noble cats in their large menagerie. Murano glassblowers, too, produced a wide range of stylized animal figurines in colored glass, including cats. In contrast, Fenton Glass Company didn't enter the world of cat figurines until 1970, putting out a series of cute, kitschy, and almost cartoonish kitties.
Since kittens and cats obviously appealed to children, they were common subjects of toys of every type—tin, wood, papier mâché, plastic, and plush—starting in Victorian times. Squeak or “bellow” cat toys were made of papier mâché, wood, or plaster of Paris and hand-painted. Penny wind-up toys often showed cats and dogs fighting. Around 1910, Steiff produced its first plush cat, a six-way jointed Puss 'n Boots. In the 1950s, it made a rare cat pull-toy called Running Kitty.
In 1917, Pat Sullivan created a lonely and good-natured character named Felix the Cat, who seemed to have the ability to overcome any evil or misfortune that came his way. Sullivan’s Felix comic strip was picked up by King Features Syndicate in 1923, and the cat became an overnight sensation. He spawned more than 100 cartoons, and the first one to appear on television. Felix toys include tea sets, Schoenhut wooden Felixes, tin Felixes, rubber Felixes, and Felixes in roadsters.
A similar character called Kit-Cat started as a wall clock in the 1930s. The quirky Kit-Cat Clock had the clock face for a belly, and eyes that moved in time with its pendulum tail. Kit-Cat went on to be featured in cartoons, books, and clothing. A little later, in 1941, a new Chicago pottery called Lefton China began selling its cutesy animal ceramics. In the 1950s, its Miss Priss cat character became tremendously popular for kitchenware like cookie jars and creamers.
Disney films exhibited the full spectrum of cat clichés: Si and Am, the haughty Siamese cats in “The Lady and The Tramp” were bent on getting the dogs in trouble; in “Cinderella,” the evil stepmother has a “familiar” named Lucifer. The Cheshire Cat of “Alice in Wonderland” is a magical creature with a lingering, knowing smile who lets Alice walk right into the Queen’s death trap. The “Aristo-Cats” had a wide range of human characteristics, while Geppeto’s cat Figaro in “Pinocchio” is all cuddly goodness. All these critters have appeared as toys, books, and games for children.
Other cartoon cats made into toys include Looney Tunes’ Sylvester J. Pussycat Sr. (1945) and Pepe Le Pew’s obsession, Penelope Pussycat (1945); Hanna-Barbera’s Tom of Tom & Jerry (1940), Mr. Jinks (1958), and Top Cat (1960s); and The Pink Panther, born in the credits of the 1964 spy film.
In a 1957 children’s book, Dr. Seuss introduced his iconic “Cat in the Hat” character, a god-like trickster in a striped top hat, who creates trouble, and then has to undo it. Two years later, in adult-oriented underground comix, Robert Crumb debuted Fritz the Cat, a vulgar, sarcastic, hedonistic, and self-centered creature that got into all sorts of things most parents wouldn’t want their children to know anything about.
The first fat, lazy, and sarcastic orange cat appeared in the funny pages in 1973. His name was Heathcliff, who, ironically, was often labeled a ripoff of Garfield. But that fat, lazy, smart-mouthed orange cat didn’t appear in a comic strip until 1978. Garfield, with his distain for Mondays and love of lasagna, became the most well-loved cartoon cat of the 1980s, with an endless number of products featuring his image.
The 1970s also brought about "Playboy" illustrator B. Kliban’s iconic “Cats” book and the much sweeter and mouthless kitten known in the U.S. as Hello Kitty. Created by Sanrio in Japan in 1974, this waving cat seems to be the modern update of Maneki Neko.