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.

 

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Kitten Class

Pam’s Pictorama: Okay, admittedly, I have proven that I have a soft spot for this kind of advertising cards. I recently wrote about advertising from another thread company, J&P Coats, in my post By a Thread. (This company, Clark’s Mile-End Spool Cotton predates J&P Coats by a bit.) That one examined the early thread industry a bit, as well as bemoaning the lack of notion stores today. The card featured in that post featured a cheeky bunch of kits teasing an angry dog, held by thread.

This card takes the Louis Wain-esque approach to advertising with these rambunctious kittens being taught a somewhat mysterious lesson in rats and threads – which the kittens seem to enjoy. (I like the way the trousers were drawn to allow for fluffy cat tails to hang out.) These fellows, and they are all boy kitties, are ready to go after those rats! Are they going to use thread to do it? The rats jumped over the thread on the moon and the little dog laughed? I’m not sure. If it did have a meaning it is lost on me – love the image though.

Evidently from the heyday of Victorian trade cards, this card would actually predate Wain’s success (his first drawings were published in 1886), or at best overlap with his first years of publication – therefore perhaps it is this tradition he came out of rather than the other way around and someone riffing on him. Cats having long provided fodder for the trade card business. By way of reminder and comparison, I stole this great Wain image below off the internet – I have not entered into the high flying world of Louis Wain cards – yet!

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Louis Wain Postcard, not in my collection

 

September 1889

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Pam’s Pictorama: By some luck of the draw, I purchased this card about a month shy of its 127th anniversary, advertising the Hancock County Fair in Britt, Iowa which that year was featured on September 17, 18 and 19. Although I thought it might have been a weekend, as it is this year, it was instead Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It is too late to attend this year, the fair was held on September 2-4, but yes, I am pleased to report that it is still around after all these years.

Somehow this wacky bubble-blowing cat is a fitting image for a fair reminder. I’m not sure about the I’ll Blow it Bigger or Bust tag line, but he is a great crossed eyed feline using a very old-fashioned method of blowing bubbles from a clay pipe and mug. I like the way he has it clutched in his kitty paws.

My own childhood held two annual fairs, bookending either side of the summer. A local church, St. Georges, had a splendid fair which kicked off the summer in late May. It was more of the jumble sale variety, with some small, easy games and all the carnival food and local baked goods you could want. It was within walking distance of where we lived and it heralded the start of the summer season each year. However, end of August or early September, where our town melded into the next, the Firemen’s Fair was held. Although on a small plot, in front of the firehouse and large enough for the trucks to line up there when necessary, it was chock-a-block full of rides and carnival amusements. There was a ferris wheel, cotton candy and candy apples (I have an admitted weakness for both) as well as games of skill and goldfish to be won.(Sadly, none of those goldfish enjoyed much longevity. Cannot even blame the kitties, although our cat Zipper had his way with a few fish in his time, but that is another story.)

Of course when we were little, we insisted on at least one night at the fair and reveled in its glory. As we got older, it was the place where you went with your summer boyfriend/girlfriend in tow and showed off your summer tan as you reacquainted yourself with people you had not seen over the summer. It may be a false memory, but I think there were years in college I was able to go before heading back to school. I have a fiendish love of candied apples and cotton candy.

I checked up on the fair online and it turns out that ours is one of the largest fireman’s fairs in the state of New Jersey and the last time I was in town in July there were already signs up, announcing the dates for the last weekend of August where it merged into September this year. As you read this, I am likely in the South of France dining on good cheese and wine so no complaints, but my mouth is watering a bit for a candied apple, freshly made with the first apples of the season.

 

By a Thread

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: That thread sure can hold! Man, I would sew my coat buttons on with that stuff. I’m nuts for the teasing kitties – especially the one hiding behind his friend, but egging him on. The cool character leaning on a giant spool isn’t taking any chances. He will cheer and jeer, but make a quick getaway if needed – we all know bums like that.

Our friends at J&P Coats thread are still in business and have been for more than 250 years, according to an anniversary website of their history. I learned that the company was founded by James Coats who opened his first factory near his home in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826, known as Ferguslie Mill. His was the second mill in the area, the first belonging to someone named Clark. By the time Coats opens his mill there were at least 15 in the area.

Two other facts stood out about J&P Coats thread. First, they evidently founded the practice of making decorative wooden cases for their threads which were used to display and hold them in shops. They made these cases from the wood leftover from the making of thread spools which was a thrifty business move and great advertising. These are cunning and collectible and I would certainly grab one up given the opportunity. The other story is that Thomas Edison evident used carbonized Coats thread in his early experiments for electricity – No. 9 ordinary Coats Co. cord No. 29 to be specific. Not surprisingly, they were also deep in the Victorian trade and advertising card fad and produced calendars that are reproduced and said to be sought after as well.

As for cats teasing dogs, it is an old, old story. Given the opportunity, what cat worth its salt wouldn’t temp a tied up or similarly disadvantaged pooch? My sister had a cat, named Milkbone, who used to tease their massive pitbull mastiff mix, but was smart enough to know where in the house she would lead the dog so she could leap up or run under something and the dog Ron couldn’t get her. I always told my sister, if you’re going to be a cat named Milkbone and live with a dog, you had better be a smart kitty.

 

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.

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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!

 

 

Tommy Dodd

Pam’s Pictorama: The trade card bonanza continues with this card, which does not appear to actually advertise anything. The back is blank and looks like it spent some time glued onto an album page. This fellow, sporting his medal and with his somewhat human expression, would be a tad creepy if he showed up looking just like this at your house one day – and I like cats as you know. His origins are a bit obscure, although I guess a picture does form, so read on.

First, there is a tweet from the San Francisco public library of this card with the following post about the image on this card:  Tommy Dodd sends his #caturday greetings! This adorable cat won first prize at the International Cat Show, and then was featured on a trade card for a shoe store specializing in children’s shoes, on Stockton Street. In the San Francisco History Center’s trade card collection. Mine shows no evidence of San Francisco or children’s shoes, however these cards were clearly purchased by companies which printed their own message on the back or bottom. Still, um, somehow I doubt this was a real cat who one a prize at an international cat show – just a guess.

Researching the slang phrase Tommy Dodd turned up many meanings, some related and some clearly not. I list them here for your consideration in no particular order: odd or peculiar; a cemetery may be known as Tommy Dodd’s garden; thank Tommy Dodd for this or that; a phrase related to coin tossing (mid 19th century) as in tossing odds; penis; sodomite; a style of hat; a glass of beer or a walking stick. (The last three were from Australia.)

The coin tossing allusion is the one most frequently sited and referred to. It appears that there were numerous beer hall songs devoted to Tommy Dodd and below is the chorus to one I was able to find, as well as a link to the lyrics of the full song:

I’m always safe when I begin. Tommy Dodd, Tommy Dodd I Glasses round, cigars as well. Tommy Dodd. Tommy Dodd I Now, my boys, let’s all go in, Tommy Dodd, Tommy Doddl Head or tail, I’m safe to win, Hurrah for Tommy Dodd! (Lyrics for Tommy Dodd)

As is the case with many of these cards, there was a series that would have been collected – a nascent form of comics? I also turned up another in the series, as well as some companion dog cards shown below:

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Other cards from the same series.

 

Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.

 

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.

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