Cats. They put the “purr” in “personality.” There are frisky cats. Halloween cats. Curious, talkative, and regal, ask-my-permission-before-you-pet-me cats. Try telling a cat owner that “they all look alike to me.” The invariable response will be a pitying smile. All look alike? Well, you just haven’t met the right cat.
Much of what’s collected figural-cat-wise in the United States dates from the mid-twentieth century. During the uncertain years of World War II, “keeping the home fires burning” became an even cozier prospect when there was a cat dozing by the fireside.
Plenty of cats meant plenty of cat-lovers, eager to be reminded on a regular basis of their feline favorites. That fact wasn’t lost on the makers of decorative giftware. Across the country, from the 1930s onward, never-ending litters of cat figurines scampered forth from factories. Ceramic cats. Glass cats. Chalk, tin, wood, papier-maché, and cloth cats. The medium didn’t much matter. As long as it was three-dimensional, buyers were primed to pounce.
The most prevalent mid-century cat figurines are those fashioned from ceramic. Hand-carved molds allowed for realistic, cat-like body curvature, and the smooth consistency of ceramic lent itself well to colorful glazes and detailed surface decoration. Few ceramic firms could resist adding to the menagerie. Madison’s Ceramic Arts Studio even used Betty Harrington’s kitten design, “Bright Eyes,” as a test piece for would-be CAS decorators. If they could successfully give “Bright Eyes” her signature inquisitive gaze and colorful neck bow, the job was theirs.
Ceramist Howard Pierce went for the abstract: the eyes and ears of his creations were exaggeratedly catlike; the rest was left to the viewer’s imagination. Cats by Haeger Potteries, drenched in multi-hued drip glazes, were reminiscent of Egyptian temple guardians. Roselane’s “Sparklers,” their rhinestone eyes glittering forth from bisque faces, took cat depictions to a new, and somewhat unsettling, level.
Most unique were ceramic cats championed by short-lived manufacturer Elzac. Luridly-colored, in shades ranging from Pepto-Bismol pink to fluorescent blue, Elzac cats were outfitted with gaudy Lucite bows and tails. (Co-founder Elliot Handler later achieved greater success with another venture: “Mattel.”)
Glass cats were also popular. These could be pressed, molded, blown, fused, or created through a combination of glassmaking techniques. In a blown glass figurine, interior bubbling added texture to the cat’s “fur.” Fusing meant that other elements could be added to the mix. Flexible wire legs and whiskers imbedded in the glass body, for instance, allowed the cat to be “posed” in true catlike style.
There were “folk art” cats too, the designs as individualized as cats themselves. Every material, from clay to shelf mushrooms to Mayan marble, seems to have been used at one time or another as a basis for folk cat figurals.
Most common are wooden cats, hand-carved and hand-painted, their styling deliberately primitive. Metal proved adaptable as well. During the 1800s, metal cats fashioned from iron, pewter, and even silver plate were all the rage. By the mid-twentieth-century, frugal buyers in the mood for metal opted for tin cats, often brought back as souvenirs from trips south of the border.
The most personal examples of figural folk art are cloth cats, usually stuffed and sewn at home, their decoration either the result of painstaking needlework, or of liberally applied fabric paint.
Not all cat figurines are created equal. Many were imported knockoffs, or were cheaply made by unknown manufacturers, and fashioned from the least costly materials. But sometimes, even alley cats have an irresistible scruffy charm.
Today, cats are the most popular giftware subject. Not just the most popular animal. The most popular subject. (Sorry, Fido. Sorry, Elvis.) At last count, there were well over one thousand stores across the country devoted solely to selling cat-themed items.
So what conclusion can we draw from all of this? Simple:
It’s a cat’s world. We’re just lucky that they let us live in it.
Uh-oh. Time to feed the cat!
2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the first “official” cat show, held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1871. Meow!
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. His Siamese cat “Asia” assisted in the preparation of this article. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org