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

The ‘Monuments Men’ of World War II Come to Kenmore

Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston, ca. 1765. This portrait has been in the Kenmore Collection for many decades.  It was recently returned to the Drawing Room, where it would have hung when the Lewis family lived in the house 200 years ago. Watch a video of the hanging process here.

Editor’s Note: This Memorial Day, we again remember ‘The Monuments Men’ and their invaluable work to locate and save European art looted by the Nazis during World War II as well as their continued efforts to conserve and preserve art after the war, including art at Historic Kenmore.  This post originally appeared on Lives & Legacies on May 20, 2015.

Recently, while flipping through old files of the Kenmore Association dating back to the 1920s and looking for anything related to our portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston (ca. 1765), I spotted a familiar name: George Stout.  It took me only a moment to realize why the name was familiar.  Those of you who read Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History or saw the movie The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray may also recognize the name.

During World War II, George Stout was a member of the U.S. Army’s  Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, nicknamed the “Monuments Men.”  These soldiers volunteered to leave their jobs as curators, historians and conservators to travel the frontlines in Europe, documenting, cataloging and in some cases saving priceless cultural artifacts in harm’s way.  Along with serving as a Monuments Man, Stout is widely considered the father of modern methods in art conservation in the museum world.  He’s kind of a rock star to all of us who work in museums, as are all of the Monuments Men.  It is not often that curators get to be the hero, but those men were.

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. Born: Winterset, Iowa. A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps. As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend. Dapper and well-mannered, with a fastidiousness and thoroughness that shone in the field, Stout, a veteran of World War I, left behind a wife, Margie, and a young son. His oldest son served in the U.S. Navy. Walter Hanncock Collection, courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. Born: Winterset, Iowa. A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps. As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend. Dapper and well-mannered, with a fastidiousness and thoroughness that shone in the field, Stout, a veteran of World War I, left behind a wife, Margie, and a young son. His oldest son served in the U.S. Navy.  From the Walter Hancock Collection courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

ALTAUSSEE, AUSTRIA – JULY 10, 1945: Removal of priceless works of art from the salt mine at Alt Aussee posed problems for Monuments Man George Stout unlike any ever contemplated. Stout constructed a pulley to lift Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna onto the salt cart to begin its long trip home to Belgium. Visible on the far left is Monuments Man Steve Kovalyak, an expert in packing art, who was a key assistant to Stout. National Gallery of Art photo courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

After the war, many of the Monuments Men returned to their museum jobs where they continued to work together, revolutionizing the care and conservation of artwork and historic objects.  They established standards for conservation practices, ethics for conservators, and tested new scientific methods for preserving all varieties of artwork.  Perhaps their greatest legacy was that many of them established schools for training conservators, ensuring the future of the field.  For the first time, American museums had a cadre of experts to turn to when masterpieces in their collections needed help.

Kenmore’s old files perfectly reveal the post-war story of George Stout and the Monuments Men. It’s a story that also involves numerous other luminaries of the art conservation world such as John Walker, Harold Cross, Sheldon and Caroline Keck, and Russell Quandt.

It all started in 1949, when John Walker, then Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Art, visited Kenmore.  His visit moved him to write a letter to Kenmore’s own Louise DuPont Crowninshield, praising the Kenmore Association for its work in saving the property and for its fine collection, which included the Wollaston portrait of Fielding Lewis.  Mr. Walker felt very strongly that the Wollaston portrait was in need of immediate conservation treatment.  He recommended a young man named Harold Cross, the new restorer at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for the project.

John Walker was not a Monuments Man but he was heavily involved in the complicated and tedious post-war effort to identify artwork looted by the Nazis.  This brought him in close contact with many of the Monuments Men over several decades.  He suggested the Kenmore Association contact George Stout, then at the Worcester Museum of Art, to get a personal testimonial as to Harold Cross’s abilities. Cross apprenticed under George Stout, receiving training in Stout’s scientific methodology.  Mrs. Crowninshield contacted Stout, who highly recommended his former student. Cross performed the first ever restoration of the ca. 1765 Wollaston portrait.  The post-war Monuments Men network had made its first mark at Kenmore by saving our only image of Fielding Lewis.


Lieutenant Sheldon Keck (kneeling), United States Army. Read Keck’s biography here. Courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

The next involvement of the Monuments Men with the Wollaston portrait came in 1952, when the ladies of the Kenmore Association became concerned that the portrait was warping at an alarming rate.  Through personal connections, they learned that Sheldon and Caroline Keck would be visiting Colonial Williamsburg in January.  Sheldon Keck was a former Monuments Man and the chief restorer at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; his wife Caroline was also a restoration specialist at the same museum.  Together, they trained more than 150 conservators before they retired.

Their presence in Virginia was fortuitous, and the decision was made to pack up the Wollaston and have Executive Director Mary Mason take it directly to Williamsburg.  Mr. and Mrs. Keck agreed to take a look at the painting, and apparently performed their treatment of it in their hotel room, “re-keying” the wooden stretcher so as to tighten the canvas and reduce the warp.  The Kecks did not charge for their emergency services “in the field”, rather they indicated that it was their pleasure to assist in the preservation of such an important work.

Finally, in 1957, the Wollaston portrait’s care was passed on to the capable hands of another heir to the Monuments Men legacy.  When new preservation issues surfaced, the Kecks recommended a former student of theirs, Russell Quandt, examine the painting.  Over the next decade, Mr. Quandt would be the primary conservator of the portrait, performing treatments on it both on-site at Kenmore, at his lab at the Corcoran, and eventually at his own private-practice studio.

All told, the Monuments Men were either directly responsible, or had trained those responsible, for the preservation of Kenmore’s Wollaston portrait for almost 20 years.  It can be argued that they continue in that role today, as we hire conservators whose professional training has been a direct result of the methods, systems and institutions established by them.  Many of today’s conservators are still inspired by the wartime service of the Monuments Men.  As Memorial Day approaches, the museum world in both Europe and in this country owes them an immense debt of gratitude.

Visit to learn more about George Stout and Sheldon Keck, their comrades, and their wartime work.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

‘King Lear’ in Washington’s Day: Part 1

The audience enjoys last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn performance of “Macbeth.”

Once again this summer, Historic Kenmore looks forward to its annual Shakespeare on the Lawn performances.  While settings and costumes may change, today’s Shakespeare audiences most usually witness performances that remain true to the artistry of an unchallenged master carefully crafting his words and stories for the Elizabethan age.  Two centuries ago, however, colonial-era theatregoers like George Washington (who loved attending the theater and did so right here in Fredericksburg) and Fielding Lewis often witnessed drastically altered versions of the Bard’s famous works.

Today, William Shakespeare’s King Lear is celebrated as his greatest tragedy; some may even argue one of the greatest theatrical tragedies ever.   This June, Kenmore’s audiences will see Shakespeare’s tragic version, which is far different from the version Washington or Lewis may have witnessed.  Indeed, in times past, Shakespeare’s Lear was not always a tragedy.  In this two-part post, we’ll review the history of the Lear story and discuss how that story changed to please audiences of different eras.

King Lear was not a random literary invention of William Shakespeare. In fact, his Lear was not even the first character of that name to tread the board of an English stage. The name and story of King Lear (or Leir in the earlier iterations) come to us originally from Geoffrey Monmouth’s Latin manuscript Historia Regum Britanniae [“History of the Kings of Britain”] written c. 1136.  Monmouth actually introduces two kings that Shakespeare would dramatize in his writings: Cymbeline and Leir.

Monmouth’s Leir is a king of 8th Century BCE Brittany and is assumed to be more myth than man. Still, the story is a familiar one.  It tells of a king who divides his land between his three daughters.  To decide who gets the largest portion, Leir asks who loves him the most. The two elder daughters, Gonorilla and Ragau, lie and flatter their father but the youngest and only true daughter, Cordeilla, answers humbly. Leir banishes his youngest child.  He is then betrayed, usurped, and banished by Gonorilla and Ragau.  Now united, Cordeilla and Leir rally an army, restore him to the throne, and survive the ordeal.  This is the story known to English history and folklore long before Shakespeare’s time.

But is this the account that inspires Shakespeare?  Honestly, it is difficult to say. In the Elizabethan age, Historia Regum Britanniae had not yet been translated from Latin.  Shakespeare undoubtedly took Latin lessons in his youth and perhaps he was exposed to Monmouth’s stories in these lessons.

There are, however, two other works from Shakespeare’s own time that are more likely to have inspired his classic tragedy: Holinshed’s history book The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and a play called The Chronicle History of King Leir.

Holinshed’s Chronicles is a collection of stories from British history originally published in 1577 and then again in 1587.  It included two stories that Shakespeare dramatized. One was the story of a somewhat forgotten Scottish king named Macbeth while the other was the story of King Leir.

The play The Chronicle History of King Leir about a father and his three daughters clearly took its story of Leir from Holinshed’s Chronicles.  It was performed at the Rose Theatre in 1594.  Shakespeare clearly knew this play since it features similar passages to some of his own scenes. Yet, this earlier play is still missing some of the key elements for which Shakespeare’s is known.  There is no fool, the subplot between Gloucester and his sons is absent, and, most notably, Leir and Cordelia survive. These elements are the inventions of the Bard.  What inspired him to change this tragicomedy into his greatest tragedy?

Title page for M. William Shake-speare, his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters, 1608, by William Shakespeare

Title page for M. William Shake-speare, his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters, 1608, by William Shakespeare

The state of English society and its monarchy when Shakespeare wrote King Lear is key to understanding this shift.  The only known performance of Shakespeare’s version in the Bard’s lifetime was for King James I on St. Stephen’s Day in 1606.  Only three years earlier, James’ accession united England and Scotland into one kingdom. Such a shift in power, even a peaceful one, caused a rise in tension among Britons. These tensions were especially high following the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholics attempted to assassinate the Protestant James by blowing up Parliament the previous year.

Like art from any era, Shakespeare took his cues from the fears of the populous. His play came out in an England nervous about its future. The last monarch died without a direct heir.  Some questioned the current monarch’s claim. Fears of faction and civil war were in abundance.

Shakespeare’s tale about a king who divides his kingdom reflected the fears of the people of England and had a very tangible correlation to their own lives. Shakespeare’s King Lear is a cautionary tale about a divided kingdom; it is an example of everything terrible that can come from a nation dividing itself. This is why Shakespeare allows a fool to cast doubt on the king’s decisions, allows a monarch to go mad, and allows an ending that is full of tragedy without hope.

This Elizabethan version is the King Lear known to most modern theatregoers and it comes right out of Shakespeare’s world. Just as Elizabethan audiences expected the play to reflect their times, however, later 18th century audiences also wanted a King Lear unique to their time and tastes. In part two, we’ll see how the English Civil War and the Restoration changed this story once again as King Lear comes to the America of George Washington and Fielding Lewis.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

See Shakespeare’s King Lear during Historic Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn. For details, check below or visit

King Lear

Coming Soon! William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

King Lear

Shakespeare on the Lawn at Kenmore returns this June with four performances of the popular drama, King Lear, performed by The Fredericksburg Players and directed by Fred Franklin.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most heart-breaking tragedies—the story of a father who puts his faith in his two treacherous, elder daughters while casting out his youngest daughter, the only one that he truly loves. The play features conniving relatives and secret plots. It concludes with the deaths of the King’s advisor, all three of his daughters, and of course, Lear himself.

As Kenmore prepares for another summer of the Bard, Lives & Legacies shares a few posters from past theatrical performances at Kenmore.

Be sure to watch for forthcoming details about more summertime Shakespeare coming in August to Kenmore!

Hanging Portraits in Kenmore’s Drawing Room

The George Washington Foundation’s curators recently oversaw the hanging of portraits in Historic Kenmore’s Drawing Room. Portraits of Fielding and Betty Lewis painted by John Wollaston as well as of John Lewis and Fielding Lewis, Jr. painted by Charles Willson Peale were returned to the room where they hung originally. In this video showing the installation process, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations, also explains the significance of these types of portraits to the Lewis family and the rest of Virginia’s gentry.  You can also read more about the portraits and the installation process on “The Rooms at Kenmore” blog at