America's First Great Cat Show

by Ida M. Mellen

published in Cats Magazine January 1958

Cat shows appear to have made a modest start in America with Maine exhibits of the Angora cat, but the world's first great cat show ws inaugurated in London in 1871 at the Crystal Palace, by Harrison W. Weir. A great cat lover, Weir later wrote a book, Our Cats and All About Them, a confident title in 1889, before students of cats learned that no one knows all about cats without actually being a cat. After the notable success of Weir's cat show in London, small shows continued to be held in the eastern United States, and finally the First Annual Exhibition of Cats took place at Madison Square Garden in New York during four days in May, 1895. The temperature was so high that some of the exhibits died from the heat. Weather Bureau records show that on the third day it reached 83° and on the fourth day 86°

The program of that first New York cat show announces classes for Short-Haired and Long-Haired "He-Cats" and "She-Cats" and Kittens, Short-Haired and Long-Haired "Gelded Cats", Ocelots, Wildcats, Civet Cats and Lynxes. Two ocelots, two wildcats, and three civet Cats were exhibited, but no lynxes. In all 176 animals were shown. Silver medals, collars, ribbons and cash prizes were awarded, including $10 in gold for the homeliest cat in the show, which was required to be "healthy and sound", notwithstanding. Three cats were adudged worthy of this award, Topsy, Outcast, and ironically enough, Venus de Milo.

Two Angora Tabbies won each a silver medal and silver collar for Best Long-Haired Cat in the Show. The sere a "Gelded black and gray Tabby" named Cosey and owned by Mrs. Frederick Brown, and Coonie, a "He-Cat" owned by Mrs. Albert Legg. The catalog solemnly assures us that Coonie was "supposed to be half Wildcat and Coon." He was valued at $200 and came under the general classification of "Brown, Dark Gray or Red tabby."

Two of the cats in the show were priced at $1'000. One was Mr. B. B. Hughe's Nicodemus, a short-haired male Tabby described as a "Dublin Brindle." He was classed as a "Brown, Dark Gray or Red Tabby

The Best Cat in the Exhibition was awarded $10 in gold and a silver medal. He was a short-haired gelded cat named Tommy, owned by Mrs. C. H. Mackin and coming under the classification of "Any color but Tabby, White, Black, or Black and White". Seven years old, Tomy was seven-toed and weighed sixteen pounds

The highest award, however, went to the "Heaviest Maltese Cat in the Show", a $25 gold medal, which was won by Grover B., seven years old and owned by Mr. and Mrs. W. P. Buchanan. He was in the same class with Tommy, and priced at $1'000.

Angoras were the favorite long-haired cats and an advertisement in the show catalog states that the advertiser, Walnut Ridge Farms of Boston, had "sold over 1'000 Angoras last season". A white Persian seven years old and costing $500 had been imported six years previously and no one could foresee that Persians would eventually outstrip Angoras, which no longer have a show standing, though full-blooded specimens may still be found in Maine and Massachusetts. The show maintained a veterinary inspector, ust as the shows do today

The names given some of the cats carry us back to the close of the nineteenth century: Paderewski, Tommy Atkins, Charles Dickens, Grover Cleveland, Frances Cleveland, Ben Bolt, Little Billie, Trilby, Sweet Marie, Blizzard, Ellen Terry, Razzle and Dazzle, and Scheherazade.

We know what ocelots and lynxes are. Some of our friends have kept them as pets; but what ws meant in the catalog by civet cats and wildcats, we have no idea, since, in the latitude of New York, a wildcat would be a lynx, and lynxes were classed separately. Civet cats are natives of Africa. The Texas, Western, and Nevada Cacomistle, sometimes kept as a pet, is wrongly called civet and ring-tailed cat, but it is not a civet or a cat, and more nearly related to a raccoon. Jaguarundis wander north into our southern states and are wild felines, but they can hardly have been meant, few New Yorkers at that time having ever seen or even heard of them. A man in New York, Harlan Major, in recent years kept a pet jaguarundi, which the present writer visited. It was handsomely formed, after the feline pattern of litheness and grace, was in its gray phase (in its red phase it is called the eyra), slightly longer than a domestic cat and distinctly a one-man animal, as wildcats are apt to be. It did not appear to see anyone in the room but its aster. He could handle it freely, but no one else would have ventured to touch it. It whistled like a man but did not mew, and if its master left the house, it watched at the window, whistling until he returned.

The 1896 Exhibition took place in Madison Square Garden during five days in March, was provided with an Orchestra night and day, and the catalog states that "Madame Elvira Sansoni, the Only Lady Cat Trainer in the World, will give exhibitions of her wonderful Trained Cats every afternoon and evening during the week of the show".

Fashions change. How we should like to look in at those early shows and see how the domestic short-hairs and Angoras carried off the prizes which today go chieefly to Blue Persians and Siamese, and which tomorrow may be awarded to other, entirely different breeds!