Surprisingly, before the 1950s and 60s, there was no defined “market” for the sand, sawdust, and dirt that filled cats’ litter boxes. This is likely because the era of the indoor cat had not yet arrived in full. In 1984, Meg Cox, writing for the Wall Street Journal, explained that “once there was a simpler time, when it was naively thought that cats needed no help at all from man in this affair. Most cats lived outdoors. Those in houses often knew a thing or two about how a screen door works.”
Arguably, many cats still know how to use a screen door. Cox’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the purported coddling of incompetent felines in fact obscures a longer story about Americans’ shift in attitudes toward cats during the twentieth century. Cats, as adaptive, talented hunters, have long been uniquely suited for both country and city life.
In 1895, a guide aimed at cat fanciers and breeders organized the wide world of felines according to how they fit in various modes of human life. Playing off the binaries between indoor and outdoor, city and country, the author likened the country cat to a “barefooted, half-dressed boy who can be trusted to run the farm over” and needed no guide to care. City cats, however, and especially those of fine breeding, “must be fed, looked after, and guarded in its moments of freedom.”
In spite of these divisions, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cats—indoor and outdoor, stray and pet, city and country—were valued for their mousing skills. In fact, as Katherine Grier writes, “folks could rent them from exterminators and animal dealers. Cats were crucial to urban rat control, especially around markets and stables.”
But by the 1950s, thanks to new veterinary practices, pet-minded inventions, and the rise of consumer culture, cats occupied a more emotional than functional role and were increasingly moved indoors. For one, Americans began feeding them specialized food, in contrast to the earlier practice of providing cats with table scraps.
Furthermore, notable changes in the veterinary profession brought a keener eye to feline health. Before motorized vehicles and electric transportation dominated roadways, veterinarians almost exclusively served the vast horse population that powered human movement and commerce. As horse numbers dropped with the adoption of automobiles, veterinarians sought out other animal services to keep themselves and their profession sustainable. By the 1920s, many veterinarians re-branded themselves as small animal specialists, and in the 1930s, spaying and neutering practices became more widespread. Veterinarians also offered cat vaccines for rabies, distemper, and others, especially after World War II. All of these inventions and professional changes rendered cat ownership more manageable.
In the midst of these gradual changes, Edward Lowe’s cat litter entered the mass market. Writing in 1964, Mitchell Gordon espoused cat litter’s possibilities for pet ownership: “cat litter…is ringing the pet store rather regularly these days by making it easier to keep cats in apartments.” It turns out, cat litter was useful for more than just apartment living.
Cox, Meg. “When Kitty Needs to Go Freshen Up, Technology is Ready.” Wall Street Journal (Feb. 15, 1984): 1.
Gordon, Mitchell. “Going to the Dogs: Pet Owners Embark on Annual Spending Binge of Over $1.5 Billion.” Wall Street Journal (Aug. 17, 1964): 1.
Grier, Katherine C. Pets in America: A History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. See also Grier’s blog related blog post.
Huidekoper, M.D. and Rush Shippen. The Cat: A Guide to the Classification and Varieties of Cats and a Short Treatise Upon Their Care, Diseases, and Treatment. New York: D. Appleton & Co.,1895.
Jones, Susan D. Valuing Animals: Veterinarians and Their Patients in Modern America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Spaulding, Roy Henry. Your Dog and Your Cat, How to Care for Them. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1921.
Stables, W. Gordon. Cats: Their Points and Characteristics. London: Dean & Son, 1877?.