Monthly Archives: June 2014

The “Largest Domestic Cat” of 1907

While I work on some longer posts, allow me to share a favorite postcard from the collection.  Meet McKinley of Farmingdale, Maine, who tipped the scale at 35 pounds.  I assume that he was named after President William McKinley (1897-1901), who weighed in at about 235 pounds.  Perhaps McKinley the cat should have been named Taft; that president was much heavier (over 300 pounds).  His name may have been inspired by President McKinley’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin.

The town of Farmingdale, Maine, was known for its ice industry in the late 19th century.  Growing large cats seems to have been an unheralded sideline to the local economy.  I’d love to know the back story of McKinley’s portrait; how did anyone know that this very handsome fellow was the largest domestic cat?  Perhaps there was a competition of some sort. (Pause to imagine this event in the context of other civic booster activities in the early 20th century — delicious!)  If you come across any information on this feline McKinley and the competition for largest cat in the U.S. (or the world for that matter), please share it with us all!

Largest Domestic Cat copy

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A Formal Postcard Portrait of a Little Old Dog

Blog scans When I bought this postcard, I had recently lost my beloved terrier mix Patti to congestive heart failure. (You can see a photo of Patti and me together under the heading “My Pets.”)  I recognized that whoever brought this little old dog into a photographer’s studio felt the way I did about Patti.  And I can see why:  this dog, who is probably looking intently at his owner, has a wise and patient expression.  This is a portrait of a true friend.

Judging from the collar with license tag, the table and shaded background and the card itself (which was never sent and does not name the dog), I think that this photo was taken in the 1920s or 1930s.  It’s a little hard to tell, but I think the dog is male;  if it’s female, it never had puppies because I don’t see extended nipples.  And this little fellow was well-fed!  Other evidence of how the unidentified owner felt about the dog is in the use of a small padlock on the collar so that it could not be removed  from the dog.  This is a practice that dates from at least the 18th century, when dog theft was a real problem.

Professional photographers often produced photo postcards for their clients through the 1930s.  Except for using the table as a platform to get the little dog off the ground and closer to the camera lens, the approach of this photograph mirrors formal portraits of people in the use of a “three-quarter” view.

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Postcards of Pets

Baby with Cat

Unidentified baby and tiger cat. Snapshot postcard, ca.1910. Photographer unknown.

Until amateur photography became both easier and relatively inexpensive in the 1880s, candid photos of animals doing “animal stuff” – eating, drinking, rolling, playing, sitting on laps — were uncommon.  In this post, I’ll offer a short history of photograph postcards and share a few of my favorites.

Little Boy Playing with Dog

“Elmo and Snookums,” snapshot postcard, 1920s. Photographer unknown.

Between 1900 and 1930, home photographers had a lot of fun creating photographic postcards that could be mailed to friends and family.  Postcards first appeared in 1898, the same year that Congress authorized Rural Free Delivery, where folks in small towns and the countryside began to receive mail directly to their addresses. Beginning in 1902, camera shops began to offer “postcard format” cameras and developing paper that was sensitized on one side and had printed spaces for addresses and messages on the other.

The breakthrough for ordinary folks was the 1907 3A Folding Pocket Kodak, which cost $10 to $12.00. Kodak stopped making postcard format cameras in 1941, but the era of home postcard photography had really ended at least a decade earlier, replaced by smaller-format snapshots.

I like snapshot postcards; even the blurry ones have a nice quality, which I guess is associated with the fact that they were contact sheets rather than enlargements. But what I especially like is the idea of them, that people sent pictures of themselves on postcards through the mails doing ordinary stuff. And as a historian, I especially like when the postcards were sent through the mails and contain information on the animals depicted.

Boy with Dog

Unidentified boy and his dog. Snapshot postcard, 1920s. Photographer unknown.

These are three photo postcards that I bought early in my research for my book Pets in America – they are still some of my favorites.  These three postcards were never sent.  Only one has any information on it, the brief instruction “Elmo and Snookums,” But all three pictures tell us a lot.  I love that Elmo is “beeping” the nose of Snookums.  (I suppose that the names could be the other way around….)  The pleased expression of the toddler with the big cat on her lap and the calm expression of the cat reach across a hundred years.  The lanky boy, in his outgrown play clothes, with his lanky dog  pictures a long lost moment in the history of boyhood.

If you are interested in learning more, there are a number of guides to what collectors call “real photo postcards.”  They’re especially helpful for dating examples when postcards lack inscriptions or postmarks.




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Someone Didn’t Want His Picture Taken

Blog scans_0004Blog scans_0004 detail  Sometimes I see evidence that not all dogs and cats brought into the photographer’s studio for a family portrait were happy about the prospect.  The most common hint is an iron grip; look closely and you’ll see the sitter’s hands are holding the animal tightly or using the collar to restrain it.  Sometimes the pet is out of focus from wiggling.  I have even seen images where someone is hiding behind the chair, reaching a hand around to hold a dog still.

But this little carte-des-visite shows something I have never seen before. Dating from the late 1870s or 1880s, the photograph by Will W. Hall of Northwood, Iowa, depicts a family of three little girls — and a small dog sitting under the chair. I’ve provided a detail so that you can see him.  I surmise that he thought the entire process was for the birds and took refuge under the long fringe of the chair’s slipcover.

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Visiting the Photographer, 1860-1880

Boy with Dog on Pillow

Unidentified young woman with spaniel. Tintype, 1860s. Photographer unknown. This tintype is missing its paper mat, and the rough edges of the metal show. Yes, her cheeks are tinted pink! This was common through the 1860s.

Until amateur photography became easy and inexpensive enough that people were able to buy the camera and supplies, pet owners who wanted photographs of their animals had to bring them into photographers’ studios.


Unidentified boy with black-and-tan terrier. Carte-des-visite, 1862-64. Photographer unknown.

It’s astonishing just how many daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes-des-visite of pet animals are out there, both in original family collections and in archives and private collections.   There clearly was unmet demand for pet portraits: as soon as daguerreotype studios opened, people began to bring in their dogs.  I don’t own any of these one-of-a-kind images, which cost too much for a collector with a limited budget like mine.  I discuss a couple of wonderful examples in Pets in America, including one where the owner had to tie his dog in a chair to get the pose he wanted.

Girl Seated Beside Dog

Unidentified girl and spaniel-type dog. Carte-des-visite, 1870s.

With the exception of the tintype, these little photographs are all cartes-de-visite(2 1/2 by 4 1/2  inchese in size),  the first widely available form of photography printed on sensitized paper.  Introduced in 1854, the camera used in this process could take eight exposures from one sitting, and an infinite number of finely detailed contact images could be printed on sensitized paper, then pasted onto cards. The little boy with his small terrier was taken during the Civil War; I know this because it has a tax stamp on the back.  The subjects of these photos are unidentified, but the composition of the images tells us something about the relationships of the subjects.

In this relatively late cdv, the round-faced little girl with striped stockings is sitting on a box, while her dog has the chair! One thing that I always pay attention to when I look at photographs of people interacting with animals is proximity, especially the presence of touch, how close together the faces of the people and the animals are, and where they are looking.  I’ll talk more about this in subsequent posts.  In the meantime, how do you interpret the relationship in this photograph?

As exposure times decreased, people started to bring cats into photography studios.  Given how my cats feel about being carried to strange places, this required a particularly calm and confident feline subject.    Dick, “Warren’s cat,” is posed on top of a box.  I wish that I knew the context for the joke!9VCxg2RaqduyHc2uJlTxriciN2Ehe2xj4tPpfCScHcc


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