Sunday, 5 July 2015

18th Century Propaganda Linked Old Maids to Cats

I dedicate this post to Charlotte – a loyal follower of “Fall in Love with History”. 
Widget - looking utterly adorable
Regular readers of "Fall in Love with History" (like Charlotte!) will have twigged the two things that interest me most are history and cats; so it’s high time for another post melding both together. As part of my ongoing research into all things feline, let's look at how cats were perceived in the past.

Old Maid

No I’m not talking about myself, (my ambition is to become a mad-cat-lady in later life, rather than an old maid). But when it comes to cat ownership in the 18th century, the image consistently linked to cat ownership is the older single woman, usually portrayed with warts and a burgeoning moustache i.e. the “old maid”.
Old Maids Attend a Cat's Funeral.
Courtesy of Wellcome Images
Face Value?
This is why history is so fascinating, because you can take things at face value: ugly older women kept cats…although this seems rather harsh. But in reality, this stereotype was another example of how the ruling male class kept women in check.

In the 18th century, success to a woman wasn’t about a career, but marrying well, being a good wife, and raising children. Anything that detracted from a woman devoting her life to making men happy was perceived as a threat to the very fabric of society.

Society Crumbles
Where might it end, if women no longer looked to their husband’s for affection, but sought comfort from pets instead? This bowel-churning prospect for the Georgian male was something that needed stamping out – and what better way to do this than ridicule. Or rather, by making a connection between ugliness and pet cats, by linking loneliness and isolation to pet keeping, so that the young and beautiful were not be tempted to follow the same path.
[The eagle eyed will spot the pet clutched to the lady's breast
is a small dog, not a cat.]
Bad Press
At this time cats had a bad press anyway, after previous links to witchcraft and devil worship (largely a result of manipulation of feline reputation by the Catholic Church). Cats were considered a pet of the poor, rather than a luxury. Indeed, their very character was portrayed as treacherous, self-interested, and vicious – not something any young lady in search of a husband wanted to be linked with.  The subliminal message was that spending your affection unwisely, i.e. not dedicated to men, led to a lonely, unfulfilled life.

All in all, if you were an older woman in the 18th century who loved cats, society was going to take the mickey. Not enough time had passed from cat’s being vilified as the devil’s familiar, and the prevailing view that woman were there to serve men could not cope with a women spending her affection elsewhere.

Just as well I’m a 21st century gal ….


  1. Wow, who knew? A friend of mine in Spain, another 21st century gal who is happily married, happens to have 13 feral cats she's befriended. Three centuries ago she probably would have been burned at the stake. Meanwhile, what about all those old paintings of squires and such with their faithful dogs at the fireside hearth. Why did they get to have pets? Hmmm. Double standard here.

  2. It's amazing how this mythology persists! And how men who love cats are not seen as masculine, even today. I have to tell you, though, there is nothing more fierce than a lovely housecat who feel threatened! They are also very protective of us.

    Here, in California, people dress up their dogs, carry them in purses, parade them around in strollers, and sit with them in their laps at restaurants. I have yet to meet a cat owner who is that crazy!

    This is really interesting and I'd love to read more about how the Catholic Church vilified cats...


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