Monthly Archives: April 2016

“Fatherless;” or, Dead Cats and Urban Trash

Here’s a sad tale of city cat life, published as a comic trade card. “Father” is deceased and has been unceremoniously dumped into the trash barrel, along with a broken broom and some other odds and ends, waiting for pickup by the urban scrap collector.  I know that the bodies of larger dead animals were “recycled” in a variety of ways, their hides salvaged for leather, their bodies used for fertilizer and their bones used for a variety of purposes, including brush handles.  But I don’t know what happened to dead cats!  I guess that, unless a city cat owner had a bit of land to bury pets, even a beloved pet cat wound up in the trash.  This fellow, however, may be a neighborhood alley cat.  I’m inclined to think that Mama cat is also living by her wits. For one thing, she has all five of her kittens; it was common for nineteenth-century cat owners to euthanize all but one kitten, typically by drowning the rest soon after they were born.  It’s interesting that the strategy for presenting these cats anthromorphizes them — but only up to a point.  Mama and her kittens are walking on their hind legs and weeping, but they are not wearing clothing or supported by other props that make them more “human.”

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Huckleberry Finn is introduced dragging around a dead cat, which he obtained from another boy.  He plans to use it for a charm to get rid of warts.  He is also an object of admiration for his ability to trade in the currency-less world of small boys.  If you have other examples of uses for dead cats, I’d be pleased to learn them.

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“Fatherless.”  Advertising trade card for H. O’Neill & Co. dry  and fancy goods store, New York City, ca. 1880.  Lithograph by E. Wells Sackett & Bro., New York.

This is another one of those images of animals that calls on another area of popular culture for its humor.  In 1870, A. W. Havens published a tearjerker of a song titled “Fatherless”:  “Father is dead, gone from us now.  No one to care for us here.”  The humor here is uncomfortable to my sensibilities, however.  It’s important to remember that what people think is funny changes over time, and that humor often has a cruel edge.  Trade cards were often collected by children for scrapbooks, and I don’t think that we’d approve of a child having an image like this today. Children are shielded from this kind of offhand depiction of dead animals.

 

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A trip to the Milk-Bone Factory, 1938

Corporate magazines can be useful sources for historians interested in business and American consumer society.  Of course, the obvious interest of public relations departments in presenting firms in the best light possible has to be taken into account.  Even so, they often contain information and pictures that can’t be found anywhere else.

Studying the history of companies that made pet food has lots of obstacles; the absence of business archives from the many small firms operating in the first half of the 20th century is a big one.  I was lucky to find this issue of the National Biscuit Company’s corporate magazine from 1938.  The cover story was about Milk-Bone dog biscuits   Taking readers “behind the scenes,” the article stresses the modern, clean, mechanized facility, providing “good, wholesome nourishment, made with such scrupulous care.”  I especially like the last photo and caption, introducing the group of women who handled requests for free samples of Milk Bone and a booklet on dog care, received through mail-in coupons published in magazine advertisements.  “These girls keep busy….”

Remember that this dog-biscuit factory was in successful operation during the Great Depression.  My research on the history of dog food has suggested that the 1930s were actually a break-through decade for the use of commercial dog food, especially among urban and suburban households.  My post on the Canine Catering Company and its sales giveaway, the Puppy Puddle, discusses another Depression-era dog food business, one focused on a very well-to-do clientele in the greater Philadelphia area.

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Filed under dog food, dogs, material culture, pet food, pet stores, pet supplies and equipment, pets