How the Enlightenment Transformed Cats into Pets

We look at our cats today as the furriest, purriest companions known to humankind. But most cats in colonial America worked for their status as the designated house cat.  It wasn’t all lazy days trying to squeeze into the smallest box possible or snoozing in that tiny sliver of sunlight on the living room floor. I’m a proud companion of a seven year-old fat cat named Jeffrey, who spends much of his time doing these very things.

Jeffery 1

Jeffrey in his favorite spot- the fruit bowl on the kitchen table.

Jeffery probably would not have enjoyed being a working cat in the past.  Don’t get me wrong, according to archaeologists; many civilizations have treated cats as companions for at least 8,000 years! But cats were often expected to serve a practical purpose, too. Along with companionship, cats were expected to work at jobs like pest control and to even serve as weapons.  This extreme version of work was proposed in an early German explosives and artillery manual that depicts a weaponized cat and bird set loose into an enemy town.

Weaponized Animals

From a “Treatise on munitions and explosive devices, with many illustrations of the various devices and their uses” by Franz Helm (1584). Credit: Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 109.

I expect neither pest control nor explosive assaults from Jeffrey, however. The only thing he “attacks” is the lawn and, more often than not, cardboard boxes.

Jeffery 3   Jeffery 2

Cats as Work Animals
For thousands of years, cats accompanied sailors to sea, including European sailors travelling to the colonies. Rats carrying fleas and disease are common stowaways on ships. As a result, cats were — and still are — used as pest control during sea travel.  Even today, sailors have “ship’s cats” to control vermin onboard their vessels. Not only do they prevent disease and destruction of foodstuffs but they keep vermin from damaging ropes and electrical wiring, which could prove CATastrophic (heh heh heh) if not for ship’s cats.

Winston and Blackie

Prime Minister Winston Churchill stops ‘Blackie’, ship’s cat of the HMS Prince of Wales, from crossing over to an American destroyer during the Atlantic Conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Similarly, when Europeans first established their colonies, survival rates were much lower in the beginning due to famine and disease, so pest control was important on land as well as at sea.   Settlers often kept pragmatic, but friendly relationships with cats in order to keep vermin at bay.

Two Cats by Jean-Baptiste Oudry

“Two Cats” by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (18th century) depicts cats doing what they were expected to do, which was to kill disease carriers and some birds, like rats, carried disease vectors or could endanger crops. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.

The Enlightenment
We humans of course established bonds with our friendly working critters and some cats were adopted as what we now call “pets”. The 18th century was a transformative time in pet ownership as we have shown with dogs in another blog post. It had not always been acceptable to keep a pet in European countries. The luxuries that our pets enjoy today would be inconceivable to a person before the Age of Enlightenment. Outfits, daycare, even hotels are now available to our furry friends.  In earlier times, pets were deemed wasteful because keeping them devoted resources to an animal that was neither food nor used for its labor. It was even considered sinful to squander resources on non-working animals. Pets were a luxury saved for the bourgeoisie.

During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of their own sensibilities and opened up to a range of new philosophical ideas. There was a shift from the church being the main authority to the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge was reason.  People who were newly questioning authority also undoubtedly questioned why they could not devote resources and attention to an animal for no other reason than enjoyment and companionship.  With this attitude change, animals became viewed more as a non-human member of the household and were eventually valued in their own right. Cats became pets.

We can see the growing prominence of cats as pets in 18th century poetry, paintings, and songs.

One such poem by Thomas Gray published in 1748 was called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The next-to-last stanza describes the tragic moment.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!

When Gray called the ill-fated cat “a Favourite,” he used an earlier term for “pet”.

European and American portraiture repeatedly depicted people with their pets and cats were common subjects both alone and with their human counterparts. Below, you can see two 18th century portraits of people interacting with their favorite cats.

“Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight” by Joseph Wright (c.1768) Credit: ©English Heritage, Kenwood.

As seen above, Joseph Wright took time to depict two small girls dressing up a kitten.  In children especially, the joy a companion animal brings was irresistible. This critter was undoubtedly a favorite and probably wasn’t expected to do much in the way of work.

Tea-totalism by Edward Bird

“Tea-totalism” by Edward Bird (1795). Credit: ©WAVE,

Above Edward Bird shows a woman enjoying her tea with her companion cat by her side. She even seems to allow the cat onto the table, which many people won’t allow their pets to do even today.

Finally, an 18th century Polish folk song called  “Wlazł kotek na płotek” or “The Kitten Climbed the Fence” was a very popular lullaby, describing a child and grandmother treating the kitten as a favorite by giving it milk when it climbs the fence into their yard.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, according to the Humane Society of the United States, over 97% of cat owners today consider their cats to be a family member or companion. In a way, nearly all domestic cats in America today are “favorites” rather than sources of labor.  The nature in which Americans treat their pets, whether cats, dogs, chickens, or goldfish, reflects the progression of change from the time of the Enlightenment and into present day. While academic research on such an abstract subject is difficult, it is easy to understand how cats progressed from worker and protector to best friend.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

George’s Hometown: Masonic Lodge

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

In 1753, 21-year-old George Washington became a Master Mason having joined the Masonic Lodge in Fredericksburg the year prior.  In his encyclopedia on all things George, Frank Grizzard concluded that “For Washington, joining the Masons was a rite of passage, a formal entry into respectable and genteel if not elite society.”  The boy who arrived at Ferry Farm at the age of 6 was now an upper class Virginia gentleman.

George's Hometown 4

The Masonic Lodge of Fredericksburg at the intersection of Princess Ann and Hanover Streets.

The Fredericksburg lodge formed in 1753, the year Washington joined.  Its current building (pictured) was built in 1816.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

PLEASE NOTE: PARKING for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.

Photos: The Fourth of July at Ferry Farm 2017

Scenes from last week’s Independence Day celebration at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!

Top 5 “Lives & Legacies” Posts of 2015

This December marks the one-year anniversary of Lives & Legacies: Stories from George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore. As we bring the blog’s first year to a close, we thought it might be worthwhile to share once again several of our most read entries from 2015. We hope you enjoy reading them for the first time or reading them again as we move into 2016 and year two of Lives & Legacies.

Here are our Top 5 Most Read Posts of 2015:

#5… Nancy Hallam: America’s First Celebrity Actress tells the story of the the earliest known acting troupe in the colonies and that troupe’s close connection to Virginia.  At the center of this story was a young actress named Nancy Hallam, whose talent was greatly praised at the time and who probably performed for Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Her renown was such that she was even painted by Charles Willson Peale.

#4… What is this Artifact? is one of many entries during the year focused on one particular artifact recovered by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  As is often the case with archaeology, the artifact presented a mystery to solve.  A variety of alterations to an 18th century leaded glass base from a cup or mug raised the possibility that the resulting glass disc may have been a homemade toy top.

#3… George Toasts George? investigates the political meanings found in Westerwald stoneware recovered at Ferry Farm.   The presence of these artifacts celebrating the British Crown at George Washington’s boyhood home show that until the Revolution the Washington family, like most Americans, viewed themselves as loyal subjects of the king.  It is indeed intriguing to picture a young George Washington drinking heartily from a ‘G.R.’ mug and toasting a king against whom he would lead a revolution.

#2… After Digging: What Happens in the Archaeology Lab?  reveals that archaeology is far more than just digging for artifacts. In fact, generally, archaeologists spend 3 days in the lab cleaning, cataloging, labeling, and analyzing objects discovered for every 1 day spent digging them up. This post explains the process artifacts go through in the lab after being excavated from an archaeological site.

#1… Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s begins with the fact that archaeologists at Ferry Farm have recovered a variety of hair care artifacts, including over 200 wig hair curlers.  These baked clay curlers were used exclusively to curl wigs, or ‘perukes’, and formed part of the Washington family’s regimen of wig maintenance.  The regimen included wearing wigs made from human hair, styling those wigs using pomades made from animal fats, and powdering them with flour or clay.  The post also discusses why powdered wigs were highly fashionable among gentlemen of the 1700s.

A Secret Society and a Historical Mystery

Occasionally, archaeologists uncover an artifact which raises more questions than it answers.  Recent re-examination of artifacts recovered from Historic Kenmore revealed a number of ceramic sherds with an elaborate but unidentified crest. Determining the ware and vessel type was a snap, it was clearly a creamware pitcher with olive over-the-glaze printing.  The glaze may have originally been black but, because it was not glazed over, the decoration degraded after burial.

Mystery Sherds

The perplexing ceramic fragments recovered during archaeological excavations at Historic Kenmore.

But what of the mysterious crest?  Did it belong to a family or a specific city?  Thankfully, it was a fairly distinctive crest with a multitude of phrases written on it including “Industry Produceth Wealth”, “We Obey”, “Be Merry And Wise”, “Freedom With Innocence” and “Unanimity Is The Strength Of Society”.  In archaeology terms we would call it ‘talky’.  Unfortunately, nowhere on the pitcher did it state a family’s name, a city’s name, or clearly indicate the identity of the crest in any other way. Talk about frustrating!

One of the problems lay in the popularity of drinking vessels emblazoned with similar motifs during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.   Ceramic vessels such as punch bowls, mugs, and pitchers printed with scenes or crests proclaiming the political views, the patriotism, or the private affiliations of the owner were quite common.  After many hours of pouring over books and the Internet later, we discovered the identity of the mysterious crest.  It belonged to an organization called The Most Ancient and Honourable Society of Bucks.

Crest 01

The crest of The Most Ancient and Honourable Society of Bucks as it would have appeared on the complete pitcher.

The Society of Bucks was a somewhat obscure secret fraternal organization (sort of like the Masons) that claimed it descended from Nimrod, a Mesopotamian king figuring in several Biblical stories.  Despite these allegedly lofty origins, in reality, the society was more of a gentlemen’s drinking club known for its rowdy parties.  A member of the society in the 1770s – a man known to history only as “Hurle” – left the group after becoming disgusted with their behavior. In 1781, he founded another fraternal order known as the Ancient Order of Druids, which forbade its members from using profanity or discussing politics.  Apparently, the Society of Bucks had quite a reputation.

Joseph Highmore's A Club of Gentlemen

“A Club of Gentlemen” by Joseph Highmore, circa 1730. Public domain.

The Society existed in Britain from the 1720s through the 1820s.  It’s heyday seems to have been in the 1760s and 1770s.  The fragments found at Kenmore showing the Bucks crest indicate the vessel dates to sometime after 1757.  The Society’s crest had a different appearance before that year, when John Sadler published a print of a new version of the crest.

While these fragments indicate the presence of a very specific piece that we can now set about acquiring for display in Kenmore, they have also opened a window on a completely new possibility in our knowledge of Fielding Lewis’s life.

Fielding was a Mason, having joined the Fredericksburg Lodge in 1754, but his level of involvement in the organization has always been unknown.  Masonry at the time was as much about secret vows and handshakes as it was about social status and business connections.  It also had a heavy political component, as many of the leaders of the colonial revolutionary movement were Masons.  It is unknown which aspect appealed most to young Fielding.  As with most things in his life, we are left with very few clues as to his thoughts and motivations, especially from his own hand.

One fact that we thought we had firmly nailed down was the surprising notion that he had never been to England, or even left Virginia.  For a man of his status, and of his family’s status during his childhood, it is rather unusual that Fielding had never visited England, whether for business or education.  But no historical document makes mention of such a trip, and in the timeline of his life it is hard to find a window in which such a lengthy voyage could have taken place.  The discovery of the Society of Bucks fragments at Kenmore raises some intriguing possibilities.

First, the society originated in Liverpool, the city in which most of Fielding’s trade relationships existed.  It apparently never made the leap across the Atlantic to the New World, as no indications of the Society of Bucks being present in the colonies has ever been found.  If Fielding could never have encountered the Society of Bucks in Virginia, and he never travelled to the city with which he did so much business, how did he come to own these vessels? Is it possible that he did in fact visit Liverpool at some point? While there, did he perhaps join the local fraternal society as a way to network with local businessmen, much as he did with the Masons in Fredericksburg? Were these vessels perhaps a gift from members of the Society? Whatever the case, the archaeological fragments found at Kenmore continue to call into question some long-held beliefs about Fielding Lewis’s life and remind us again that history is a dynamic and ever-changing story.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist