“Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”
Harry Whittier Frees was a Pennsylvania native and creator of novelty animal postcards in the early 1900s. He is best known for his photographs of kittens and puppies dressed up and acting out human scenes.
And who wouldn’t want one of these postcards! Frees also published his costumed animal photos in children’s books with accompanying backstories about the “little folks in animal land.” The kitten above was named Mrs. Bufkins, a well to do resident of Dogville, the “nicest suburb of animal Land:”
“In the kitchen Mrs. Bufkins prepared to take Barker’s place and be her own servant for the morning. Most mothers in Pussyway Lane have to do their own work all the time, but the pension that rewarded the late Colonel Thomas Bufkins’ years of active warfare, gave his family many comforts. It always made Mrs. Bufkins both sad and proud when she remembered the notches in his ears. A soldier of fortune, each one had stood for a victory in a different cause. But she went briskly to work, and in less than an hour, the angel-cake was in the oven and the yolks of the eggs had gone into some delicious cream-puffs. It was not until Mrs. Bufkins was standing over the fire, stirring smooth a chocolate filling, that she began to think how very hot and tired she was getting.”
Published in 1915, “The Little Folks of Animal Land” contained Frees’ guarantee that all his photographs were genuine: “The difficulties encountered in posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness. My little models receive no especial training, and after their daily performance before the camera they enjoy nothing better than a frolic about the studio. My work in the posing of animals has been so highly successful as to give a rise to a doubt that the pictures are genuine. For this reason, I take occasion to give my personal assurance that all pictures appearing in this book are photographed from life.”
Frees was not the only member of his generation to capture the human spirit of cats and dogs in film. Decades earlier English photographer Harry Pointer made hundreds of photographs and carte-de-vistes of cats and kittens and sold them as postcards and greeting cards.
In 1904, Thomas Edison joined the turn of the century cat craze and filmed the famous boxing cats in Professor Welton’s Training Cat Circus. You can see the film at the Library of Congress here. According to one observer, Professor Welton’s circus “boasted cats that rode bicycles, turned somersaults, and walked through fire, but the boxing casts were the most popular of his attractions.” (Charles Musser, Edision- The Invention of the Movies, Film Notes, page 16).
All fun and games aside, I think Frees’ baby animal photos are the most interesting for one other reason- that they also show us parts of ordinary life that were typical in the early 1900s. Frees posed his subjects so that they were using new technology like telephones and automobiles (which sometimes broke down) and acting out chores and other parts of the daily routine like cooking, gardening, and child care. The “Animal Land” book quote above even has a reference to a war pension, which was common to many Civil War veterans still living 60 years after the war ended. Its an interesting glimpse into what were probably the regular activities and jobs in many viewers lives. I wonder who was entertained by these photos, children or their parents? Hopefully both! Even though we seem to be obsessed with taking photos of cats and dogs today and plastering them all over the internet, they’re not done in quite the same way as Frees and his contemporaries 100 years ago. Makes for some interesting photos!
Below are a few more of Frees’ photographs. To see the entire collection at the Library of Congress click here.