Waxing and Wain-ing, Part 1

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have been working up to a big Louis Wain post for a few weeks since my trip to London. I alluded briefly to my Wain purchases in my posts London Fog, Chapter 1 and London Fog: Chapter 2, a trip that was toy poor but provided other buying opportunities, it also most notably broke a long held prejudice I secretly harbored against acquiring Louis Wain associated artifacts.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Mr. Wain (1860-1939) is attributed with single-handedly introducing comic, anthropomorphic cat drawings into world-wide post-Victorian popularity. Started as a drawings and sketches of their cat to entertain his ailing wife, who it seems was dying of breast cancer, these drawings quickly captured public imagination and catapulted him into a career that was almost exclusively devoted to cats. Over time the cats became more pop-eyed and decidedly more human, the humor more pointed, occasionally a bit dark. I have, in prior posts (most specifically Kitten Class), referred to some Victorian cats advertising that likely pre-dates and may have even informed him, but it would seem that it took Mr. Wain to launch the cat as comic subject into popular conscience. One article I read said that there was a time in Great Britain when virtually every home had a Louis Wain print – not unlike the prints of dogs playing poker of a later, American era.

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Louis Wain painting not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection, card playing cats just for fun!

 

Wain was hugely prolific – the same article claims that at the height of his career he was probably churning out more than 1,500 cat drawings annually. Given this, there certainly isn’t a dearth of Louis Wain art available today. Still, despite the vast number of prints, postcards, books, drawings and even sculptures, his work in every and any form fetches a huge premium, which explains one of the reasons I have been reticent to join the fray on the collecting front. However, I too have of course, always been entertained by them and have been tempted over time.

Also famously, Louis Wain eventually descends into insanity, but continues drawing, and his cats get quirkier and more abstract until they become a color psychedelic almost unidentifiable design. He is eventually institutionalized, but keeps producing drawings although I am unclear on the dissemination and publication of these.

I begin my Louis Wain odyssey with the purchase of this early print illustration I am sharing today. I purchased it on that dreadful snowy Friday morning I was spending near Leicester Square in a romantic mews I have always enjoyed. I was already realizing that the extreme weather was going to have a seriously negative impact on my limited free time in London however. I had a few hours before an afternoon meeting and I started with a print store I have spent many hours in over the years. My memory was that at one time, in contrast to the nice and pricey matted objects in trays upstairs, that there used to be boxes with scraps of old prints and even the occasional book, in the basement. If it was that store, or a similar one nearby that has gone out of business I am unsure. Regardless, the proprietor had made his way to work that morning, and when I discovered this item in the basement (sans boxes of lower end items) I decided to break the self-imposed Wain ban and reward the seller for his efforts to open his shop by purchasing this item.

This clipping, a page from a large publication, is identified as Christmas Number of the Sporting and Dramatic News, December 3, 1892. I am told that his break through illustration was sold as a Christmas drawing in 1884 and that it was two more years after that before he illustrated his first children’s book. This would put this illustration eight years after that first illustration sold, but before he achieves his later best known, more broadly comic style.

With the title, What’s This? and identified as L. Wain he perfectly captures the curiosity of these kitties eyeing this insect. He has signed the image itself and there is another mark I cannot make out which I assume is the engraver’s. I like the limited use of color which gives this a bit of warm and brings out the image. However, most of all, I like the little claws emerging on each of the kits! Cats #3 and #4 (in line, left to right) are emerging toward full blown Louis Wain style. All eyes are on that bug which is slated to be a snack for one of these fellers if he doesn’t skitter fast! For comparison, below is a later painting of a similar theme I snatched off the internet. Cats and bugs have legs as a subject.

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Louis Wain painting, not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection, spiders remained a theme!

 

The tale of my purchases, more about my antipathy toward buying Louis Wain memorabilia and other strange tributaries of this story to be continued in subsequent installments. Pictorama readers take note!

 

 

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Rough on Rats

Pam’s Pictorama Post:  Might seem hard to believe, but I have been hunting the purchase of this card diligently for several years. It is more popular than it is especially rare, and on the occasions it came up for auction it sold high. I decided to wait it out and see if I could acquire it for a reasonable price. Last week I must have caught most of the rest of the cat advertising collectors napping and scored it at long last. The image will not be new to any of you who have poked around in the area of Victorian advertising cards, however I don’t think anyone can blame me for feeling that it is a high water mark of sorts for its type.

Ephraim S. Wells, a Jersey City resident, invented said rat poison in 1872, and his wife jokingly called it Rough on Rats and the name stuck. (This story may be apocryphal, but we at Pictorama never underestimate the influence of clever wives on the endeavors of their husbands.)  The E. S. Wells story is a good one. He started with a patent medicine business out of a storefront. It did poorly and in those early years he was generally always barely one step away from financial ruin. The rat poison in question was developed and used first, with great success, in his own rat-ridden shop. He took advantage of the new federal trademark law and cleverly patented the Rough on Rats name – as well as multiple variations. He eventually abandoned the retail business and put serious money on the line for advertising the mail order business.  (Please note that for this background I have made use of a great online source by Loren Gatch and for those of you who want the whole story I suggest having at look at E. S. Wells was Rough on Rats.)

Wells had a good eye for copy and imagery and he made a fortune. The general theme of the advertising played along the lines of cats plunged into unemployment by the brilliant rat ridding product, and also of rats trying to educate their offspring in offensive maneuvers to avoid it. There was evidently even a song Wells produced, which included the dubious lyrics, R-A-T-S, Rats, Rats, Rough on Rats/Hang your dog and drown your cats! Please know that we at Pictorama cannot endorse such tunes. I am sorry, however, that I was unable to locate the sheet music illustration which is probably a pip.

On my card we see these shocked pusses, posed in front of the now useless rat traps hung up on the walls, above the caption Our occupation gone “Rough on Rats Did it. I am greatly enamored of these multicolored cats (a blue one front and center) who are giving this container of rat poison a wide-eyed and mostly open-mouthed, toothy frowns. Tails are neatly curled around cat feet in what is mostly a repetitive cat design formula. They are a great and colorful group.

Here are my other two favorite examples from the more rat-centric versions of the advertising. I especially like the line at the bottom of the top version, This is what killed your poor father. Shun it! Avoid anything containing it throughout your future useful careers. We older heads object to its especial roughness

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Rough on Rats Lecture, not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

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Rough on Rats card, not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

The back of my card, shown below, features some of the other products offered by Mr. Wells which include, perhaps a bit terrifying Mother Swan’s Worm Syrup which states if worms not expelled by it you may depend they do not exist. Never does harm. Always does good…It is sweet and nice. Taking into consideration that it was ultimately confirmed that Rough on Rats was nothing more than largely unadulterated arsenic, the thought of his patent medicines may take on a darker perspective. Nonetheless, Wells died a wealthy man in 1913 and the company continued with popularity through the 1940’s; it was subsequently sold in 1950, and later went out of business.

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Back of Rough on Rats card, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

 

In conclusion, having explored the darker side, I offer you a Van Buren cartoon I stumbled across as I did my research. It provided me with a splendid giggle this morning and I hope you will enjoy it as my parting offering as well. It can be found on Youtube here as Rough on Rats.

 

Three White Kittens

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is another item dug out of the Pictorama archive. As you can see, it is quite fragile and frankly even the amount of scanning we did, as feared, seems to have injured it further. I do not have a clear memory of how I acquired it. At first I thought I bought it at a flea market, but no, it was a birthday gift from my friend Eileen shortly after I met her. It is odd in that the pages are not printed on both sides, so you have spreads of blank pages between those that are printed. Therefore it was unclear if it was complete with all its pages – in addition they are not numbered – however some quick research found a copy on Abe’s Books (you can own your own in significantly better condition for $75 at the time of writing this) and my copy does appear to be complete.

Three White Kittens was published in 1880 by McLoughlin Bros. Publishers, New York. McLoughlin was a publishing company founded in 1858 based on the new color printing methods for children’s books. They also produced board games and were eventually purchased and made a division of the Milton Bradley Company in 1920. Their game production ceased, but they continued to produce children’s books, paper dolls, linen books and the like for several more decades. A quick search on images shows a vast amount of this colorful material surviving in collections and archives today. The kitten theme was popular with the company and I supply another cover below. (I find it an interesting coincidence that both this one and my copy have handwritten notes at the top of the cover. This one a gift, and mine indicating ownership.)

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3 Little Kittens, not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection.

The writing, however, is quite not aimed at children. As Wikipedia expresses it, these are slightly bowdlerized or retold versions of children’s tales for a more adult audience. As a result, these kitten stories, told in rhyme, are of kits trying to eat someone’s bird, or gold fish. They have titles such as The Greedy KittenThe Cross Kitten, and The Disappointed Kitten. By way of example I offer a verse from The Disappointed Kitten below:

I flew to save my darling,
The dreaded foe in view, –
Oh! never fear, my birdie dear,
No kitten shall dine upon you!

Alas, for those of us who worship at the alter of the fluffy and adorable kitten perhaps not the feline attributes we most prefer to be reminded of. For the record, the kittens appear to be named, Tit, Tiny and Tittens, which appears at the top of each page of verse. Below are some of the illustrations from inside the book, a slightly different look, highlighting the hijinks of those naughty white kitties.

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The Greedy Kitten (?) Pams-Pictorama.com collection

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The Foolish Kitten, Pams-Pictorama.com collection

Finally, this is clearly a deep area of collecting and I offer a few highlights of other covers and games, pulled off the internet and into a slideshow below.

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