The 'Feline States of America': How Cats Helped Shape The US

Aug 8, 2018

Progress is not always linear, and that maxim holds especially true for house cats. While their popularity has wavered over the centuries, cats have been an integral part of human history for millennia.

" ... They were raised to the highest of the highs and they were plunged down to the lowest of the lows and then very, very slowly by the end of the 19th century, they finally built themselves up to be companions again."

"They were domesticated, they were raised to the highest of the highs and they were plunged down to the lowest of the lows and then very, very slowly by the end of the 19th century, they finally built themselves up to be companions again," says Paul Koudounaris.

Koudounaris is, among other things, a cat historian. He has a lecture on the history of American cats at LuLu Cafe & Bar, in honor of International Cat Day on Wednesday, Aug. 8.

He says that many cats came to the Americas by ship with early colonists. Known as shipcats, they were used to get rid of rodents and protect the boat's food supply.

Koudounaris says, "It was a one-way trip. So those cats also got off those boats at the same time as those people and they founded their own feline states of America."

Although cats continued to face persecution in Europe at the time, some early colonists saw the utility in using their hunting skills for pest controls. In fact, cats were some of the first animals employed by the U.S. army.

Melvin Vaniman and Kiddo, the mascot of the airship America.
Credit George Grantham Bain / Wikimedia

"The United States Army had hired cats long before they had hired dogs," he explains. "The United States Army had hired cats in the 19th century, again, to protect the commissaries."

Even though cats played an important role in early U.S. history, it took a couple centuries for them to be considered companion animals instead of working animals. Koudounaris says the transition happened slowly, spurred by their popularity in the West (particularly among cowboys who would use cats to watch their rations). Creative folks, like Mark Twain, started bringing cats indoors and their popularity as house pets grew. 

Koudounaris is currently writing a book profiling some of America's most famous cats, including some of the more well-known shipcats like Kiddo, a cat onboard the airship America, the first dirigible aircraft that tried to cross the Atlantic. 

"[It] crashed," says Koudounaris. "For all the humans there was humiliation, but it wasn't the cat's fault. So ... to put a spin on it, they were like, 'Hey, aviating cat.' And everybody went for it."

Kiddo the cat went on a national tour in 1911, making $2,000 a week. "That's a big deal cat," Koudounaris says.