Family Portrait with Pets

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This photo struck my fancy the other day. It is the sort of photograph which I liked better and better the longer I looked at it. It is, if you will, the sort of bread and butter photograph Pam’s Pictorama is largely made up of – early 20th century photos of people posing with cats. This one, identified on the back as taken in May (with a ? in place of a day) 1936, with nothing else written on the back. It is a photo postcard, but it is printed on a lesser, lighter stock than they usually are and as a result feels and looks more like just a photo – curling a bit with age. It was never mailed and I don’t know how well it would have stood up to those rigors.

I assume this is a portrait of a family, or at least mostly so. There isn’t a strong resemblance amongst them, but enough to convince me when I look closely, especially around those participants in the center. Only a single man and boy show up in this preponderance of women and girls in mostly spring finery. And of course what sold me was that between the dozen people crammed in here, no less than five of the family pets were scooped up for inclusion. While the three cats and the puppy caught my eye initially, it was the little girl holding the rooster that really made it special. I have debated on the possibility of Mr. Rooster actually being stuffed, but I think he is just standing at attention – there’s something about her hand around him that make me think he is alive. The kitten next to him is taking it pretty well if that is the case, but perhaps they know each other well. In general the cats seem to require a certain two fisted clutch in order to be kept a hold of – the puppy is content with being held, as they often seem to be too. I like the idea that when someone said family photo all these critters were scooped up too.

On this spring morning these folks are presented as a neat and well dressed group, boasting Depression era fashion including sporty berets on three of the girls, the toddler among them. Warm enough day that most of them are in short sleeve dresses, although they range from that to coats. I am somewhat undecided about whether that is some old snow stuck on the fence behind rooster-holding girl, although I land of the side of probably when I blow the photo up. I think you could have that on an early day first warm day in May where spring is just beginning to sort itself out.

When I began Pam’s Pictorama it was for the sole purpose of organizing my photos, mostly those of people posing with Felix, so that they could eventually be published in a book and to entertain myself with this project while recovering from foot surgery. Pictorama took on a life of its own expanding almost immediately and, more than 400 posts later, it has covered a lot more territory than that. Still, when I purchase a photo like this, I mentally file it in a future chapter devoted to photos of people and their pets, and oh what a book it will be.

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Sit Up There Buster

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I have long held the pure fantasy of legions of cats who not only are trained, but also perform with Busby Berkley-like skill and perfection. I am talking about a sort of an all-singing, all-dancing cat review, sort of circa 1933. For a number of years I suggested to Kim that this would be a lovely birthday surprise, and yet Februarys have come and gone and still, no secret cat rehearsals in the hall, and no birthday cat performance. Imagine! And there is no evidence that Cookie and Blackie will be the ones to break into show biz. Out of all of our cats, they are I think the least inclined to attempt miming human activity, although Cookie will engage in a game of fetch and will do cat yoga in tandem with Kim’s daily work out. (It is my belief that Cookie just want to show how much better she is at stretching and exercise than humans are. She is right – and she is doing it as I write this.) Blackie prefers to maintain his own state of cat perfection and disinterest.

Fairness does compel me to point out that while we at Deitch Studio may have fallen short of two-stepping kit extravaganzas for my birthday, Kim has on many occasions drawn such epics for me and in this regard I am, as I so often reflect, a very lucky woman indeed.

The jolly fellow who authored this card looks like he may be training his cat while sporting evening dress, but perhaps it is just the poor lighting of this photo and he isn’t in dinner clothes. I like to imagine he is however – how dashing! The cat is more kitten than cat, good to start training ’em young I guess, and Buster seems mildly game if somewhat disinterested. The training quarters appear to be a porch railing. He should be told that pointing your finger at a cat never works however.

This postcard was mailed from Los Angeles and the postmark does not show the date over the penny stamp, however it is dated in his neat hand, Sept-12-11 and it reads as follows, Dear Friend, I am glad you are having so good a time Fishing and Hunting. I wish I were there too. Will have some fine kittens for you when you get back. Truly Yours Billy Lindsay. It is addressed, Mr. C. P. Sprague, Gardiner, Maine. Mr. Sprague was quite far from home and clearly in a place sufficiently unpopulated that he presumably was able to get this card addressed in this fashion. Meanwhile, Billy may have been trying to create that Hollywood all cat review I am waiting for! Go Billy, go!

I have touched on trained kitties numerous times, first in the early post Peeved Puss Postcard, and also later in Dashington’s and my favorite, Mad Jenny – and probably several times after that I think. It is almost a subgenre for us at Pictorama. What this man needs to know is that cats do not train blithely and a deep reserve of cat treats seems to be necessary. However, starting in early while the feline is still a kitten as he is probably is a good idea.

Meanwhile, although this photo is of more or less epic bad quality I sort of love that about it. In fact, sometimes a photo postcard that is printed this badly charms me with the reminder that this was a very manual process at the time, evidence of the human hand, and that this is indeed likely to be a singular photo. Although I certainly have numerous mass produced photo postcards in my collection, it is these (not infrequently poorly executed) one-of-a-kind ones that hold great romance for me. I took this photo and I decided to make a postcard out of it – and sent it to you! It took some work and some planning, but I did it! In some ways for me the specialness of this is now lost – although I am very charmed by exchanging photos daily with great ease via the internet. It is a lovely few minutes I spend with my Instagram feed a few times a day, seeing what my friends are doing and looking at, not to mention those photos exchanged by text, email, on Twitter and of course on Facebook. We live in a time of visual bonanza. Still, the extreme singularness of the bygone printed photo postcard and the evidence of it is somewhat lost in our time of phone tapping and computer clicking ease.

 

Buddies

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post:  One of the things I love about this photo is how someone has set the cat up on the chair, making the cat, dog and little boy all the same height. The dog looks vaguely protective, the cat wise and knowing. The child connects all three by having his hands on the back of the dog and draped over the cat. If it wasn’t for the old fashioned dress of the child this photo could be from any time, but the white night shirt style shirt and some sort of black stockings put it at the earliest part of the last century. It appears it might be early fall. There seem to be leaves on the ground, but it is warm enough for the little boy to be happily outside without a coat. While it appears to have been posed (the covered chair, comfortable for the kitty) I feel like the natural kinship between the three is shown. The card was never sent and there is nothing written on it to tell us who these three might be.

This photo, a photo postcard, illustrates a philosophy of mine that all children should have a cat and dog when they are small, because they can make the very best friends. They listen to and keep all your secrets, generally have more patience than anyone for your small child games and ramblings. I remember telling ours all sorts of things and having great times with them. As the younger of two children, the dog and the cat were generally willing playmates when no one else was interested in me. Their patience wasn’t infinite, but in retrospect it was fairly extensive. Frankly, I cannot imagine our kitties today, Cookie and Blackie, having nearly that much patience, but perhaps the fact that back then all of us started out little together made the difference. The dog was a puppy and the cat a kitten, when I was still a toddler myself so we grew up together. There are photos of little me carrying our cat Snoppy around, vaguely annoyed, like a rag doll. My mother, who was not always a fan of the dog, knew nevertheless, that she could be depended on to protect us and would also submit willingly to our attentions.

In a fit of enthusiasm, I will occasionally whisk Cookie or, more likely Blackie, up into a stronghold of ear rubs and kisses which they barely permit before squirming away, appalled. I haven’t tried telling them any secrets lately either, but Cookie is very devoted to Kim and frankly I suspect she’d spill the beans. Then again, maybe you have to be a small child to trust cats as well as to have them trust you?

 

 

Esther and Houtas

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: A recent delving into and wading through old cat photos online has produced some unusual purchases in the form of mostly snap shots. I assumed that was what I was purchasing when I acquired this, but much to my surprise, although it had been pasted into an album, the black photo album paper has torn away on the back to reveal that this was indeed a photo postcard. It was never mailed and written in a neat inked hand on the back is, Esther & Houtas sitting on the wood pile. Ground is covered with snow. I went to the trouble of looking up the name Houtas. I do believe that is her name (it is neatly written) and was able to find some nodding acquaintance to it on the internet. I assume it refers to one of these girls – who I further assume are sisters – as opposed to that nice gray kitty one is holding.

This photo has a timeless quality, and it isn’t until we look closely at those wooly tights and button boots that we realize how old it probably is. Those matching, layered wool dresses and heavy tights look a bit itchy when we consider them seriously, but were probably just the thing for that cold day – no need for overcoats. These girls seem a bit mismatched as sisters, but my own sister and I did not look more alike than this – she of very curly hair and I of very straight.

I have no idea where this card is from or where it was taken, but this spare snowy landscape could stand in for my childhood in New Jersey. This big woodpile is more substantial than the one we generally had out back, although during the course of my childhood we always kept a sizable pile of logs. Much of the cord wood was purchased each fall, although some of it came from limbs that had been trimmed off of our own trees, or as the sad result of a tree that had reached the end of its life and had to be cut down. My mother was always very responsible about the trees and their well being. They were tended to by professionals no less than annually. I personally would have been reluctant to play on the woodpile however, as it was the likely home of mice and even the occasional water rat who wanted a pied-à-terre on dry land. Perhaps for that very reason it was something of a favorite spot for the cats. Although as I remember, some form of wild catnip also grew in the gravel driveway near the woodpile and our enormous cat Pumpkin used to go into rolls of ecstasy over it in the spring. That would have added to the appeal.

The house I grew up in had two enormous fireplaces although we generally only used the one downstairs in what we called the family room. If I ever buy a house a working fireplace will be a must. (I have met New Yorkers lucky enough to have functioning fireplaces in their apartments, but I am not the sort of person who lucks into outdoor space, fireplaces or rent controlled New York apartments. It think it is a skill you are born with, like the ability to hold your breath underwater for a long time or whistle well and on key.) I am endlessly fascinated by fireplaces and will do what I can to migrate to them at restaurants or bars this time of the year. I will settle for gas fires, although there’s nothing like real wood, with the smell, popping of sap, steaming of moisture and the sighing and rolling of disintegrating logs. Oh such bad news for the unsuspecting insects and spiders who took up residence in those logs!

My parents recently moved to a much smaller house, on a cute little patch of property one town over from where I grew up. The house does have a small fireplace, which works at least in theory. These days my mom and dad are too elderly to mess with a fire, even with fake, store bought logs. However, I just promised them the Christmas gift of an electric space heater that looks like a fireplace to ease the drafts in their new house. If I like it maybe I will find room for one here in our tiny New York abode as well.

 

Minnesota 1925-31

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: By now frequent readers probably know that there is a period and type of cat photo I am drawn to. I suspect that my aesthetic mystifies some folks, even Kim politely shakes his head over the occasional choice. There is something however, endlessly appealing to me about daily life in the time several decades before I appeared on the scene in the early 1960’s – of course generally around those photos which feature cats. These photos, usually taken in the front or backyard, range from the well-kempt but modest, to rundown and occasionally even well-heeled. Somehow though photos from this period of the early 20th century, though consistently unassuming and by definition amateur, speak of cozy home lives and pets beloved. This yard with this trim little house in the background is no exception. The chimney, coming off the sloping roof, draws our eye upward while the foreground of tamped down soil follows it down. (One suspects that a lawn would have been a luxury that these folks had no intention of indulging in at that time and location.) The back porch boasts something that might be an outdoor icebox (?) and something next to it that I cannot quite figure out, but storage for something perhaps? Everything is very tidy if worn.

These two women, one clearly dressed up in her cloche hat and good coat, while the other is older, in her house apron and looks as if she has just joined us from the kitchen for this quick photo, endeared themselves to me when decided to scoop up these kitties in order to have their picture taken. That good looking dog got in on the action as well, although turned away from the camera, as if he knows he isn’t the primary focus of attention for now but not to be forgotten. The black cat doesn’t even have Blackie’s tiny white star on his or her chest, from what we can see he is indeed coal black, fluffy and with big interested eyes looking out at us. (Sensible people not fearing this black cat.) He seems more patient about being held for this photo than his counterpart, the white and spotted cat, who is conveying some annoyance (and probably dropping white hairs all over that black coat) with the woman asking him to pose. These women could be mother and daughter, but that is not the impression I get. If I was going to venture I would say cousin or niece – perhaps even sisters who have a number of years between them. However, there is a strong resemblance around the nose.

The back of this photo is glued to the old, black paper of a photo album. Someone has written Minnesota 1925-1931 on the back, but that handwriting appears to be contemporary. Although I don’t know, my guess is that it was taken from an album where that information was indicated and the person selling the photos thoughtfully added it. Like several other photos I bought recently, at least one other from the same vendor, a small pile of unrelated photos (presumably from the same album) were included. I am unsure how to shoulder the inadvertent responsibility for these extra unwanted photos which has been visited upon me. The sadness of unclaimed family photos tormenting you is an occupational hazard for those of us who spend our time employed in acquiring old photos. But for the pleasure of being able to spend some time basking in the reflected glow of their long-ago homesteads, I will accept the responsibility to steward all these photos, as best I can during my time with them.