Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Mystery Cat Celebrity: Kitty Burnham

Kitty Burnham

Kitty Burnham and Family, Second Edition. Photograph by Thomas Rice Burnham, early 1860s. Published by the New York Photo. Co., 454 Broadway, N.Y.

Who was Kitty Burnham? And why did she and her kittens get their own collectible photograph?  This little “carte de visite” (“CDV” for short) photograph was offered in at least two editions.  It dates from the mid-1860s (I know of one example with a Civil War tax stamp (1864-1866).  Another “second edition”  of the photograph credits T. R. (Thomas Rice) Burnham, 247 Washington Street, Boston, as the photographer.

 Kitty Burnham apparently belonged to Burnham, a New England commercial photographer whose portraits can be found in many collections.  He was, according to his colleagues, “a very unique character” and some of his doings, including experiments with very large glass plate negatives, were reported in the era’s photography club magazines.  Burnham began his career in Portland, Maine and spent some time in New York, but by the early 1860s had moved to Boston, where he had a series of studios up and down Washington Street until the early 1880s. Burnham  made his living from commercial portraiture, especially CDVs, which were made using glass plate negatives.  This meant that, for the first time, customers could order as many copies as they could afford. Burnham may have sold this edition of “Kitty Burnham and Family” to the New York Photo. Co., but whether he took the portrait in New York or Boston is also unknown.

CDVs ushered in the era of the photograph album. People collected not only images of friends and relatives but also photographs of celebrities, popular prints and paintings and promotional images that were sold cheaply or, perhaps, given away by photographers anxious to attract business in what was often a crowded professional field.  There are many CDVs of popular lithographs depicting cats and dogs.  My guess is that Kitty Burnham’s picture was at first a promotion and then became a collectible card.  The trimmed corners of my copy, which has faded over time,  suggest that it was indeed inserted into an album.

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Kitty Burnham? (“Tiger Tail”). Carte-des-visite by Thomas Rice Burnham, 90 Middle Street, Portland, Maine, early 1860s.

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Back of the portrait of Kitty Burnham (“Tiger Tail”).

This may not have been the first time T. R. Burnham published a photograph of Kitty Burnham. I found this carte-des-visite, published by Burnham in Maine before his move to Boston, and the nonchalant expression, spots on the head and tiger tail of this cat look like Kitty Burnham to me.  The back of this card has a pencil inscription — “Tiger Tail” — but its author and date are unknown.  This was another album filler and publicity card for Burnham, but when you put the two cards together, they suggest a long and affectionate relationship between T.R. Burnham and Kitty.

If you know something more about Kitty Burnham, I hope that you’ll share your information with me and the readers of this blog.

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July 30, 2014 · 1:30 am

And Here’s Someone Who Really Wanted His Picture Taken…..

child in carriage with dog Seymour photog Jackson MI

Unidentified baby and dog, ca. 1900. Cabinet card photograph, 6 1/2 inches by 4 1/4 inches. H. A. Seymour, Jackson, Michigan, photographer.

A few posts ago, I published a carte-de-visite of three little girls and a dog who was not enthusiastic about visiting the photographer’s studio and could be seen lurking under the studio chair.  This is clearly not the case here!  This is a cabinet card photo from around 1900, taken by H. A. Seymour of Jackson, Michigan.  I surmise that the dog was supposed to sit beside the  push carriage and decided to walk toward the camera. (This is something that my cats and dogs do all the time when I am trying to photograph them.)  Or perhaps the dog was the photographer’s and simply popped into the frame just as the shutter was released.  Note that he is looking directly into the camera.

The fact that this image was printed and survived at all is amazing to me.  We can’t know whether the parent of this baby thought that this picture was funny, but someone clearly did!


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More on Courting Cats


Cartoon from “Chip” (pseud. F. P. Bellew), “Chip’s” Dogs: A Collection of Humorous Drawing. R. H. Russell & Son, 1895.

The trade-card saga of courting cats got me thinking about other images I might have that help tell the story of cat life in the days before spaying, neutering and all-indoor cats.  This is a cartoon from a wonderful late-nineteenth century cartoonist named F. P. Bellew, who drew under the pseudonym of “Chip.” The dog, watching backyard courtship underway, says: “Say, you Venus and Psyche, if only I could get up there, I’d know the stuffin’ out of that living picture.”  The dog is referring to their silhouettes in front of the full moon, suggesting that they look like a much-satirized parlor entertainment of the time.  He’s also got his classical allusions mixed up:  the courting couple should be Cupid and Psyche.  But he’s a mutt — his classical education was probably neglected!

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Filed under anthropomorphism, cats, pets

A Gentleman Pug

Something fun for a hot summer day.  This is one of my favorite dog portraits, a handsome and well-fed fellow sitting on one hip on what was called a “posing chair.”  It was taken sometime around 1890. This pug looks a little different from the breed today.  His nose is less squashed in and he can probably breathe a little better than than can pugs of today;  his eyes are less bulgy, too.  Since this photo is only 120 years old, you can see how quickly people have changed the breed through their selective breeding practices.

But what I love about this photo is this dog’s serious gaze, despite the indignity of his belled collar.  He’s a solid bourgeois citizen who happened to born in a dog suit, and he’s making the best of the circumstances.

Portrait of an unidentified gentleman pug.  Cabinet card, ca. 1890. Edgecomb photography studio, Stoneham, Massachusetts.

Portrait of an unidentified gentleman pug. Cabinet card, ca. 1890. Edgecomb photography studio, Stoneham, Massachusetts.

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Feline Courtship, Victorian Style

Charles & Co. Grocers

“I Hear His Footfalls Music.” Trade card, A.B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography. Overprinted with advertising for Charles & Co, Grocers.

Pressed Cigarettes

“Ha! Tis He The Maltese Me Rival.” Advertising Trade Card, A. B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography. Overprinted with advertising for “Our Little Beauties” Pressed Cigarettes.

Our topic today is love — feline love as these comic trade cards present it.  This is a series copyrighted in 1881 by a printer named A. B. Seeley.  For those of you unfamiliar with advertising trade cards, these small images (about 2 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches in size)  became popular as a novel form of advertising in the 1870s.  Local businesses often bought printed trade cards and had their names and other information added on the back side and front. Three different businesses are represented in this assembled set.  Advertising trade cards were advertisements, but they were also intended to be collected and saved.  Tens of thousands of them survive because people did just that, often pasting them into albums as a pastime.

Charles & Co.- Before Cat Fight

“Well Sir, What Are You Going to Do About It?” Advertising Trade Card, A.B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography. Overprinted with advertisement for Geo. E. Charles & Co. Grocers.

This set of comic trade cards survives in numbers enough to suggest that it appealed to both business owners and collectors.  It tells the story of a love triangle: the protagonists are a female house cat (wearing a red bow), a male house cat (blue bow) and a dark brown striped tabby who, it is implied, is an alley cat.  The set is full of comic references that would have been clear to many people at the time, and I’ll discuss a few that I have figured out below. First, however, let’s talk about cats in love.

At the time this set was published, almost all pet cats spent at least part of their lives out-of-doors.  The reasons for this blend custom and practicality (this is a world without cat litter, after all).  In the countryside and the city, many cats were not pets at all;  they worked for their livings controlling rodents in barns, livery stables, warehouses, and the garbage-stewn alleys of urban neighborhoods.  Not only that, but all cats, even the most beloved pets, were sexually intact.  Fighting tomcats, females in heat and subsequent litters of kittens were all part of neighborhood life.

Charles & Co.- Cat Fight

“For Pity Sake Gentlemen Be Calm.” Advertising Trade Card, A. B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography.

Charles & Co.- Not Dead But Weary

“Not Dead But Weary.” Advertising Trade Card, A. B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography.

Two of the cats are identified as house cats by the ribbons around their necks. The female is ready for courting — that is, mating.  In this story, the tough alley tomcat is outfought by his house-pet rival although he insists that he got the better in the fight.  But while the cards tell a likely story about cat behavior, the cats also have human characteristics — and this is what makes the card humorous. The story is a double story, of cats and of people. too.  This is an example of what scholars call “anthropomorphism,” where human characteristics are attributed to animals. Aesop’s fable rely on anthropomorphism to teach a moral lesson;  here it is used to deepen the humor of the story.

Charles & Co.- The Winner

“Did You See Me Get the Best of Him?” Advertising Trade Card, A. B. Seeley, American, 1881. Chromolithography.

We can “get” the basics of the humor in the story, even from a distance of 130-plus years.  But there are other elements that at least adult viewers at the time would have appreciated.  In the first card, the girl-cat thinks, “I Hear His Footfalls (sic) Music.”  This is a quotation from a popular sentimental poem and song titled “Waiting.”  The words are by Ellen H. Flagg, who enjoyed considerable popularity after the Civil War for a poem about dying soldiers titled “The Blue and the Gray.”  The caption of the second card, when the striped tomcat notes the appearance of “me rival,” suggests that he is an Irish street tough.  He’s an interloper, too;  the girl-cat is clearly waiting for her social equal.  The street tom is thrashed by the upper-class house cat, who still retains his spiffy blue ribbon as he and his lady love leave the scene. I am still working out the source of “Not Dead but Weary,” the caption on the fifth image. My sense at this point is that it is baed on a biblical reference or a hymn.  The concept of weariness was often used to describe a mental state at the end of life.  The final image, where the defeated tom insists that he won the fight, is a cat version of a type of comic image associated with both street fighting and boxing.

I’ll keep working on parsing out the meanings of the captions, and I’ll report on what I find.  In the meantime, I think I can say that what made this set of images so popular is their double meanings, a report on feline love and a genre story about a cross-class rivalry for the hand of a pretty girl that includes a satire on sentimental culture.


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July 6, 2014 · 2:02 pm