Cats in the 19th Century (Part 1 – Background)

The gradual shift towards the humane treatment of animals that had started in the 17th   and 18th centuries among the upper and middle classes became even more widespread in the 19th century. Urban planners concerned with the issues of cleanliness and sanitation, now in the 19th century, outwardly proclaimed the cat as their primary mascot for their advertising campaigns.   Advertisements for soap with neatly dressed little girls and boys accompanied by a cute kitty became the most frequently seen.


cats in ads, cats in history

Cats in ads, cats in history


cats in advertisements, cats in 19th century history



Cats in advertisements cats in history



cats in advertisements, cats in 19th century history


cats in ads, cats in 19th century


Cats in the 19th century finally prized for their cleanliness and neatness were also honored for their godly past. Napoleon’s scientific expedition to Egypt 1798-1801, and the eventual publication of the monumental 23 volume series, Le Description de L’Égypte, from 1809-1828, opened up the world of Egyptian magic and mysticism, and at last documented the cat’s past as the cat goddess, Bastet. 

cats in history   

With the beginning of the Victorian era, cats and animals in general gained even more popularity and status in society.  The Victorian home would not be complete without plants, animals, and eventually even fish.  Pet keeping became a symbol of the modern household, and represented the ability to control what seemed uncontrollable.  Compensating for their inability to control the dangerous lower working classes, the upper and middle classes asserted their power over nature and domestic pets.  In an effort to establish and perpetuate their own values, they projected them onto pets so that “….cleanliness, order and rationality marked bourgeoisie pet keeping.” (Kete, 1994, p 138)    


As a result of this new found acceptance of pets, there came a movement to establish their rights as living, feeling beings.   In 1850, The Grammon Law prohibited the public abuse of all animals in France.  Even so, the private abuse of vivisection for supposed medical advancement continued unabated.  An unnecessary process that tortured primarily dogs because of their docility and ability to be easily caught, luckily enough, did not often affect cats because of their aloofness and feral viciousness.  Artists and writers such as Victor Hugo (1802-1885), spoke out against vivisection as a malevolent treatment of animals calling it  “…..a crime.”( Ibid)  However, it was the women of the age that took the lead in setting up sanctuaries for these maltreated animals.  “The ladies occupied themselves with rescuing dogs and cats, spending all their small resources on the creation of animal shelters.”  (Besse, 1895, pp 239-256)

The bond between women and cats became even more pronounced during the 19th century.  Many attributed the new found care that women lavished upon needy animals, in particular cats, as a refuge from  “…the brutality they endured from men.” (Zeldin, 1981, p.156) But many men saw the situation differently and equated women with cats in a profoundly negative manner, often referring to the two as having the disposition of prostitutes.  Alphonse Toussenel wrote in Zoologies Passionelle (1855), “An animal so keen on maintaining her appearance, so silky, so tiny, so eager for caresses, so ardent and responsive, so graceful and supple….; an animal that makes the night her day, and who shocks decent people with the noise of her orgies, can have only one single analogy in this world, and that analogy is of the feminine kind.”  He went on to add, “Lazy and frivolous and spending entire days in contemplation and sleep, while pretending to be hunting mice….incapable of the least effort when it comes to anything repugnant, but indefatigable when it is a matter of pleasure, of play, of sex, love of the night.  Of whom are we writing, of the (female) cat or of the other?”  (Kete, 1994, p.120) The other here of course is woman.  Continuing Toussenel wrote, “The female cat attaches herself to the dwelling and not to the people who live there, proof of her ingratitude and aridity of her heart.” (Ibid, p.127)  Negative views similar to this can be traced all the way back to Aristotle.

victorian cat, cat in history



Besse, Jules. (1895). “L’Assistance publique des bêtes: les chats et les chiens de Paris.” LaVie Contemporaine et Revue Parisienne reunites (Nov. 1895: 239-256).

Kete, Kathleen. (1994). Beast in the boudoir. University of California Press.

Zeldin, Theodore. (1981). France 1848-1945: anxiety and hypocrisy. Oxford University Press. (5:156)



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  1. Great article! We have come a long way in the treatment of animals. I love those soap ads! The art in old posters is so creative.

    • Thanks! After the cat’s low point in the Middle Ages, it has been a pleasure to be able to document its rise to a cherished and respected pet.