We have just finished reading a most interesting collection of anecdotes, proverbs, poetry, and much more—all about cats in the past. It’s called Puss in Print: A Collection from thepetmuseum.com, and it’s all been put together by Andrée Larson, who has pored over various records, many from the nineteenth century (and some earlier), to collect mentions of cats. If you have ever wondered about things like “how kittens often arrived in 1830s India,” this is the book for you.*
Puss in Print is divided into six sections featuring feline anecdotes, myths and legends, proverbs, names, stories, and poetry. The short tale of kittens arriving in India is told in the anecdote section, as is a touching story from 1883, in which a relatively well-fed cat sees to the feeding of a starving one. Also in this section is the tale of a cat named the Zombi who had a habit of screaming rather loudly at night, leading his owner to wonder if the cat had seen, or was trying to raise, the devil.
“The Proverbial Cat” section includes sayings about cats from many different cultures. The numerous variations on “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” are particularly interesting (it seems there are quite a lot of dancing mice in the world). And then there is our new favorite cat proverb:
Tigh gun chat, tigh gun ghean gun ghaire.
Or, in case your Gaelic’s a little rusty:
A house without a cat, a house without cheerfulness or laughter.
I could go on and on about all the fascinating tidbits in Puss in Print, but I need to leave most of them for you to discover for yourself. Even so, I can’t resist mentioning the century-old composition written by a mischievous boy (at least we hope he was mischievous and not just terribly confused). It begins like this:
Cats is an insect what has no wings and has a long tail. It looks like fishworms, only fishworms hasn’t got no hair on it like cats has.
(Note that the composition is not quite scientifically accurate.)
Oh, and there’s the poem “My Carroty Cat,” in which the unknown poet proclaims (at first), “Carroty kittens are quite a mistake!” before reaching a different conclusion in the end.
We read Puss in Print straight through, but we suspect it might be best enjoyed as a book to browse, both for its text and its vintage photographs. And as a resource for these little cat stories, it is invaluable. Really, where else are you going to go if you need a good historical cat name and a Scottish or Tamil proverb about cats?
In all cases, Larson provides the original text rather than a paraphrase or summary, which is particularly exciting for those of us who will certainly be using this book in our research. And even more exciting, she provides sources for everything. (If you have ever tried to track down the ultimate source of some historical cat “fact” on the Internet, you will know how important it is to name your sources.)
* How did kittens sometimes arrive in 1830s India? On camels, of course.
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