Sunday, 13 March 2016

Cat-egorizing Cats 19th Century Style

How do you organize cats?

Last week in How the Victorians went Wild for Cat Shows we looked at the popular 19th century pastime of visiting dog or cat shows. However, the organizers of cat shows had a problem that dog show organizers did not have, which was how to group the entries. With dogs it was relatively easy because they came in so many varied sizes and shapes or breeds. Cats – not so much.
A tortoiseshell and white cat by Louis Wain
Cat fancier Harrison Weir, arranged the very first cat show, which took place at Crystal Palace, July 16, 1871. His stated aim as organizer in “a labor of love to the feline race,” was to draw attention and therefore favor to: “The different breeds, colors, markings.”

However, Weir had a problem because the existing description of cat breeds tended to dwell on distinctions that highlighted their weaknesses. One obvious solution was to arrange the cat classes by color. Gordon Stables, a man who was active in both the dog and cat show worlds, suggested categorizing cats into 13 groups.
A tabby cat by Henriette Ronner Knip
These colors were:
Tortoiseshell, tortoiseshell-and-white,
Brow, blue, and silver tabby
Red, red-and-white, tabby
Spotted tabby
Black-and-white, black, white,
Unusual color and any other variety.

Stables asserted that color was actually key to the cats’ character, and that certain colors were more likely to have certain character traits. In effect he was trying to justify the color-grouped categories as being more significant than they really were.

He argued: “Properly speaking color is often the key to [the cats] characters…temper…and qualities as a hunter…and its power of endurance.”
A black and white kitten by Henriette Ronner Knip
This is an interesting observation, because coat color does carry some associations in the modern age. For example, tortoiseshell cats are often described as “naughty torties” within vet clinics, because they have  reputation for misbehaving.

According to Stables:
Tortoiseshells were “Good mothers and game as bull terriers”
Black cats were “Noble and gentlemanly”
White cats were “Far from brave…fond of society…gentle, and often delicate”
And black-and-whites “Sometimes…did not trouble himself too much about his duties as a house-cat.”

Stables categories didn’t last long and soon went out of fashion. In the 1880s and 1890s Weir replaced them with not dissimilar groupings but broke them down into yet more colors, also long-haired or short-haired, age, and gender. However, he added one final category that was a bit of a showstopper. This was “Cats belonging to Working Men.” 
A blue Persian - in black and white
The latter category was put in place out of the notion that animal social standing mirrored that of humans, and it wouldn’t do to have working men getting ideas above their station. Incredibly, everyone seemed to go along with it, and in 1889, out of 511 entries, 102 were in the category Cats of Working Men.

As the years passed, a greater study was made of the science of cat-breeding and specialist breed cat clubs sprang, such as the Siamese or the Abyssinian cat clubs, the Silver and Smoke Persian cat club or the Tortoiseshell society. However, rather than breeding to improve the cats, the main criteria for selecting animals to breed seemed to be rarity, with a cat with unusual colored eyes or a particularly striking coat commanding the most money.

But that was reckoning without the character of cats, which were perfectly capable of escaping and finding their own mate, much to the consternation of their own.

What are your experiences of different coat colors? Have you noticed distinctive personalities based on color or is it a load of bunkum? 


  1. I've had more experience with breeds such as the Siamese and barn cat. Both IMHO tended to be very independent.

  2. I have had as many as 14 cats at a time -- ( fortunately had a large house at that time).
    We had Siamese, Angoras, Maine Coon cats and , of course, cats of many colors. Only had two white cats and they were very different in temperament and attitude as they were from the black cats. How big and how furry a cat was seemed to influence activity more than color. We had a striped cat who oversaw every bit of repair work. A couple of cats of different colors who would greet us at the door.Siamese cats seemed to talk a great deal and the Maine Coon and the Angora were equally as laid back . One black cat hated to be confined in a box-- he was a Ripper and Roarer in any container. Another black cat slept the whole time in a carrier and would even go in one for a nap.


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