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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Letting the Cat out of the Archives

October, according to National Today, is a month with not one, not two, but four cat-related holidays! There was both Global Cat Day and National Feral Cat Day on October 16, National Black Cat Day on October 27, and National Cat Day on the day that this is scheduled to be posted, October 29. Therefore, it seems only logical that I write a post fit for the occasion.

I simply needed to search “cats” on SOVA – the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives – to find a veritable plethora of cat-related content, containing everything from family photos to paper dolls. The largest clowder of cats appeared to be in the “Warshaw Collection of Business Americana: Animals Series,” so that’s where I started. I looked through a few folders until I came across one which contained two old books with intriguing titles and covers: The Cat Doctor, by Dr. A.C. Daniels (date unknown) and Christopher Cricket on Cats, by Anthony Euwer (1909). The former is an old cat-care guide with a deceptively cute cover – causing me to initially assume it was a children’s story about a cat with a medical degree. The book contains fascinating advertisements for such items as “Cat Crumbs” and “Dog Bread,” as well as some rather… unusual advice for cat-owners. It is definitely worth looking through, but for the sake of not writing a ten-page blog post, I’ll be sticking with the latter.

AC0060-0005049-01. Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Above: the spooky cover of Christopher Cricket on Cats, depicting the nine lives of a cat who has just died:  Anthony Henderson Euwer, with Introduction by Wallace Irwin. Christopher Cricket on Cats: with Observations and Deductions for the Enlightenment of the Human Race from Infancy to Maturity and Even Old Age. 2nd ed., the Little Book Concern, 1909.

AC0060-0005049-02. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Above: a portrait of the fictional narrator, Christopher Cricket, also surrounded by nine cats in various positions.

Christopher Cricket on Cats is a book of “observations and deductions for the enlightenment of the human race from infancy to maturity and even old age.” What this means is that it is a wonderfully strange book. For those familiar with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot – from which we have the musical, and soon-to-be movie, Cats – this book is comparable and was published thirty years earlier. Written from the point of view of a child, but intended most likely for an adult audience, Euwer’s book contains poems, limericks, “observations,” and a lovely selection of his illustrations – varying from highly realistic to truly cartoonish.

Part of the humor of his writings is in the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and obvious misinterpretations of common words and phrases that are attributed to the author’s age and meant to be charmingly incorrect. For example, the worship of “Sack-red” cats by ancient Egyptians, the use of nine-tailed cats as weapons against transgressors, or the assumption that when it rained cats and dogs, “they wuz only ghosts,” since no animals could be found once the rain had cleared.

AC0060-0005049-03. Archives Center, National Museum of American History
 Above: a rather exhausting number of puns on the left, and one of the most disturbing illustrations of a cat on the right with the caption, “Cataleapsy.”

These mistakes often rely on one literary device which fully saturates every page of this book: the pun. From the list of “Principle Dizeezes” and products above, to the explanations of the names of “Different Breeds” below, there is no escaping the cat-related puns. Any chance that Euwer had to add in a “cat”-anything, he used it. The owner of this book seems to have appreciated these puns, since they tried their own hand at punning on the very last page of the book: “A cat had a fit and it died – another cat had a fit and it lived [Result:] Survival of the fittest.” However, for those – like myself – who start to go a bit crazy at hearing too many of the same type of pun, there are plenty of other acceptable jokes:

“Some comes and rubs against you which, / Means you will scratch them where they itch, – / While others is so mean all through / They like lots better scratchin you.”
– “Cats and Humans – All the Same”
“Cats has been known to save hundreds of dollars’ worth of things frum bein robbed, by lettin Burglars stumble over them in the dark and wakin up the house-hold.”
– “Uses of Cats”
“Cats dont bark cause they’re afraid they might be taken for Dogs,– which would be very humiliatin.”
– “Reasons for Different Things”

It’s basically the original book of cat memes.

AC0060-0005049-04. Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Above: more puns, with the names of cat breeds transformed into illustrations of “The Angorrie Cat,” “The Magnifie Cat,” and “The Maltease Cat” on the left, and a cat on the right with the caption, “Cats with deep feelins is called Feline Cats.” Underneath this “Feline Cat,” an amusing observation on the “Uses of Cats.”

Much like the creators of cat memes, Anthony Euwer may have made all these jokes about cats, but he clearly loved and admired them. Even the fact that he capitalizes the “C” in every variation on “Cat” implies a deep respect for these feline companions. In the very same section as the first quote of the previous paragraph, Christopher Cricket lists many positive qualities to balance and even outweigh the negative, the entire time showing that “Cats and Humans [are] all the same.” Later on, in a story about the “Cumpuss Cat,” he praises cats’ ability to always land on their feet. More touching, however, is his last sentence of this section. Speaking about cats who run away, Christopher says, “Bet I’d never come back if I wuz some Cats that live some places I know, but Cats is wonderful good-hearted that way and dont seem to mind nothin.” However, you don’t even need to read this far into the book to sense Euwer’s affection for cats; simply open the book and read his “Deadication”:

To all the Cats that ever meowed
On this or any other sphere,–
From the beginning of all time
Unto this present year;

To all the Cats that’s still to come
And to all those that lives,
And to their ghosts,– each countin nine,
And to their relatives;

And to each one who likes some sort
Of Cat, no matter what,–
I deadicat this little book
With kind and lovin thought.

AC0060-0005049-05. Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Above: an illustration of a more scruffy-looking cat with the contemplative and uncharacteristically solemn short poem/caption, “Oh what’s the use of anything / In this life anyhow – / Won’t nothin matter much I guess / A hundred years from now.”

Contrary to what the caption on the image above states, over one hundred years after Christopher Cricket on Cats was published, I at least can still benefit from Euwer’s humor! However, if I had not looked through the collection myself, I would never have known that this book existed. When I first searched for cats, it simply never showed up. The SOVA entry – at the time that I am writing this – moves straight from folder 5 to folders 8-13 in box 5, completely skipping folder 7 in which these items are contained. The Warshaw Collection is vast, and so it only makes sense that the online finding aid would need continual addition, and that even when complete not every item would be listed. So, there’s a moral to this story: don’t be shy, and don’t be lazy; look through the archive collections for yourself!

Even if it’s a small collection that you’re interested in, with every single item listed and categorized online – a somewhat rare occurrence – you cannot possibly obtain the same feel, smell, and sight of the object from a screen alone. Even if there are images online, you could miss a scrawled note, a fingerprint, or even a hair (not always pleasant, but still). The only way to truly explore the archives is to find a collection, make an appointment, and come in ready to soak up information through all your senses. After all, why else would we be keeping all this stuff?

AC0060-0005049-06. Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Above: on the left, several witches ride cats above the caption, “The Whitches they used to beat em with the broom switches that they had.” On the right, a single witch and cat above the caption, “With great big eyes like fire in the dark.”

Side note: there are a handful of witches in this book, so it’s entirely appropriate for Hallowe'en!

To learn more about the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, or view any number of our collections yourself, please visit our website and make an appointment today!

Kira Leinwand
Intern, Fall 2019
Archives Center
National Museum of American History

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