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!
Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is the only Victorian trade card I own of this variety. It is a bit hard to see, but the top says, Ha! Tis Me. The Maltese Me Rival. I do not claim to understand it – I just liked the image of this great frowning striped kitty forced into this very flat perspective – look at his claw paws and an angry puffy tail! On the back, in tiny type, is an exhaustive list of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.’s Branch Houses in the U.S. – with almost a third of them in New York City – and a notation at the bottom that the Principal Warehouse, 35 and 37 Vesey Street, N.Y. P.O. Box 4233. It is a tiny card, about the size of a playing card.
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, founded in 1859 as The Great American Tea Company selling tea and spices at discounted prices in New York City, changed its name in 1869 to commemorate the first transcontinental railroad. Much to my surprise, the company morphed first into the A&P tea company and ultimately A&P supermarkets of today. (Kim seems to have known this all along – fascinating man my husband.) All I can say is, they sure would get more of my business if they had kept this ad campaign. They were generous in their distribution of Victorian trade cards and there seem to be more than you could imagine once you go looking. Scores for sale on eBay at any time – their survival rate a reflection of their popularity during their heyday.
Our friend the Internet supplies us with much information on the specifics of the cards and story. The folks over at http://www.thepethistorian.com have a nice little essay on the subject. The cards were printed by A.B. Seeley, copyrighted 1881. This one appears to be the second in a group of six and represents the story of a girl cat, romanced by the street cat, but who waits for an upperclass Tom to come along instead. He beats up poor Mr. Street kitty – who ends the series bloody, but not bowed and trying to convince us that he won this fight. (I am snatching just that final image for your entertainment below – wouldn’t mind adding that one to my collection.) The language on the cards seem to be references to poems and other things that would have been recognized by people of the day – but overall it is a recognizable cat tale of love and love lost that is pretty easy to follow and appreciate.