Cat memes, pictures of cats with funny captions may seem like a recent trend. However, a 1911 book titled “Kittens and Cats: A First Reader,” is a child’s storybook with what seem to be early examples of them. Here are anthropomorphized cats with captions from 110 years ago. At the time, most photography was still black and white.
Since the internet was officially born in 1983, these cats with captions predate the internet by over 70 years.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the world without cat memes because they’re everywhere online. For us, they often provide a lighthearted moment, a momentary escape from an often stressful world.
Now, it looks like similar cat content served much the same purpose long ago.
Kittens and Cats: A First Reader
At the Public Domain Review, they recently shared the story of the 1911 book, Kittens and Cats: A First Reader. The author, Eulalie Osgood Grover, hailed from Winter Park, Florida. Famously, she was also the author of Mother Goose and The Sunbonnet Babies.
Here’s how the review described her book:
“If this delightful, yet also slightly creepy, book is anything to go by then taking photos of cats and brandishing them with an amusing caption was far from being a phenomenon born with the internet,” the site states.
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Early Cat Photography
Almost certainly, the photographs are by Pennsylvanian Harry Whittier Frees. Notably, he was the staff animal photographer for the Rotograph Company, cited as providing the images. It’s unclear if he suggested the captions for what would become early cat memes.
The Many Challenges of Making Early Cat Memes
Since shutter speeds were very slow compared to today, the review wonders if the photographer used taxidermied animals, but Frees denied doing so in later works. Often interviewed by reporters, he said “patience was the main ingredient” to his pictures.
“The feature which sets [these photos] apart from all others…is the nature of the pictures, which represent an almost inconceivable amount of patience, care, and kind attention, as well as a very large number of spoiled films,” Frees told Life magazine in 1937.
Similarly, it appears that author Eulalie Osgood Grover expected her readers to have patience as well. For a child’s first book, Kittens and Cats: A First Reader is surprisingly long at 104 pages. However, those early cat memes fill most of the pages. Clearly, Frees was very busy herding cats!
Below, you can see some of the slightly creepy but interesting illustrations from the book. It’s a look back over a century ago when photographs of cats with captions were seen on popular postcards and then in books like this one.
The Long History of Cat Memes
To find the earliest cat memes, we’d have to go back into ancient history. For example, cats with captions appeared in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Similarly, this ancient cat worshipping culture created some of the first emoji-like symbols.
Today, ancient Egyptian cat memes like the one below are getting likes and shares on social media.
Has it All Led to Cole and Marmalade?
At least 20 years ago, cats began their internet takeover, possibly beginning in online chatrooms. There, people began using “Meowspeak,” a “baby dialect to impersonate their cats,” reports Wired.
From there, Cheezburger.com, LOLcats, and eventually Grumpy Cat took over the world. Now we think the reign of Cole and Marmalade has begun.
Since the beginning, cats get lots of viral attention online, even though they make us a small percentage of online content. One theory by Cheezburger’s Emily Huh is cat lovers need a shared space. Thus, they go to a “virtual cat park” as she called it.
“In regards to why cats are more popular than dogs on the Internet, I think it’s because cat owners don’t have a cat park or a place where they can congregate in person to talk about their cats like how dog owners have a dog park to talk about their dogs,” wrote Huh. “The Internet has provided a place for cat owners and fans of cats to talk about their own cats, comment on how hilarious, cute, or evil their cat is and swap stories, pictures, and videos.”
Thus, when you go online, you’re joining one big virtual cat park. We have to say; we don’t mind thinking so.