After my previous post on ‘Victorians and their Cats’ I’ve been lucky enough to receive lots of lovely comments from you wonderful people, including one intriguing post by Karl Drobnic asking: “Did Victorians feed their cats kibble? What served for cat-food then?” Well, thinks I, I don’t actually know the answer to this question and as an academic specializing in the nineteenth century THIS MUST NOT STAND!
My initial thinking was that, since the nineteenth century was the first age of mass media, with the rise of serial publication, photography, telegraph, wireless, and – of course – trains to transport newspapers etc across the country, then the best place to pinpoint the advent of kitty food would be in advertisements. However, whilst the Victorians seemed to love to use cats in their adverts for all kinds of products, from soap, to ladies shoes, engine oil, chocolate, cocoa and even shaving cream (!), adverts for pet food seem to be fairly elusive.
And then I came across a GLORIOUS ARTICLE from September 8th 1883 entitled “Cats: Their Humane and Rational Treatment”, published in Chambers’s Journal by William Gordon Stables. Stables was a medical man, a Royal Navy Surgeon and, in his spare time, liked to write articles about how much he loved cats, dogs, and bumbling about the English countryside in his caravan. He gives us some pretty good clues as to how the Victorians might have thought about (and fed) their household moggies:
“ Cats deserve far better treatment than they sometimes receive at the hands of those who own them…Many people have an idea that anything is good enough for a dog; but alas! a cat is supposed to be able to maintain its own existence … Some people look upon poor pussy as simply a kind of clever invention for catching mice, an animated vermin-trap, a creature that never requires any food except that which she herself may capture, and no attention or kindness of any kind.”
Poor Mr Stables is clearly quite cut up by this sad state of feline affairs, so he offers some advice:
“Strange though it may appear to some, she [the cat] requires food every day of her life, and preferably twice a day…Here the mistake usually made is that of supposing that bits thrown to the cat during the family mealtime by those she solicits are quite enough for her. Give her morsels by all means if she begs prettily for them; but immediately after the family have breakfasted or dined, pussy’s dish ought to be well filled with something really edible, something she cares for.”
OK, I’m starting to feel slightly uncomfortable at the nature of Mr Stables’s relationship with his cat, but we’ve come this far so lets continue down this rabbithole. Here’s what he recommends:
“ [Food] may be bread, milk or potatoes mashed up in milk, or preferably in gravy; but meat of some kind she ought to have once a day at least. Cats depend more on meat even than dogs do… Fish is a great treat for a cat; in many cases of illness, they will eat this when they can take nothing else. Horse-flesh, when it can be had, is good occasionally, but it has a laxative tendency…”
OK, we’re going to take a WTF!? break at this point. Ready? OK, lets keep going…
“Nice tripe or cowheel is excellent; but indeed nothing comes amiss that one eats one’s-self, only we must be careful to give bread and vegetables as well as meat.”
And there you have it folks. Victorian cats ate what they could catch or, if they had an owner as unsettlingly attached as Mr Gordon Stables, they feasted on a delicious banquet of bread, milk, mashed potatoes, meat, fish, tripe, cowheel, horsemeat , paused for a bout of explosive diarrhoea, and then finished with some veggies.
Elizabeth Bennett decided that, actually, she’d rather found her own internet startup than get married. Mr Darcy is running at full tilt across the lawn and she’s giving him a ten second head start before setting the dogs on him.