Poor Mr. Canary!


Pam’s Pictorama: The parade of Victorian advertising continues with this card from the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. – a company which seems to have embraced cat card with great enthusiasm. I wrote about a rather famous series of advertising cards portraying a brief cat tale of love lost and found in my post of the same name. Leaving the topic of the efficacy of cats in advertising, instead I am taking a peek at the history of the smug expression of cats that inspired this popular phrase.

The phrase, cat that ate the canary (the Australian or UK version is evidently the cat that ate the cream) and usually used as smiling like the cat that ate the canary refers to a pleased, smug, self-satisfied and perhaps a tad guilty expression – like this fellow on the card and his toothy grin. Interestingly enough the phrase seems to have just emerged at about the time this card would probably have been issued, in the late 1880’s or early 1890’s when trade card advertising would be at its peak. In 1891 and 1892 several newspapers in the United States, UK and Australia published the same joke which appears to be the first reference:

Father:  That cat made an awful noise in the back garden last night.
Son:  Yes, sir.  I guess that since he ate the canary, he thinks he can sing.

In researching this phrase my favorite reference was a fellow blogger and their post can be found at Cat That Ate the Canary. My favorite part is their reference to a story of a cat in New Hampshire that ate five canaries, published in the Victoria Advocate in 1952. He was accidentally locked in a department store overnight in Keene, New Hampshire. Oh my. I show him below, he really does have a bit of a criminal look about him.


Cat that ate five canaries photo, Keene New Hampshire, 1952


As some of you know, I come from a lineage that not only loves cats, but also birds. My mother is extremely active in preserving water fowl and rescued and rehabilitated them for years as well. The cat eats bird thing has always been a sore point and luckily Cookie and Blackie do not have an opportunity to put their bird largess (or lack thereof) to the test. Still, those Sylvester and Tweety cartoons always nag at me a bit. Poor Sylvester, forever trying to get a meal out of that one, lousy, annoying little bird!

And for or those of you who need a refresher, this is the first appearance of Sylvester and Tweety together!



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