Where did shoppers purchase cat litter in its early days? Who took over litter duties at home? And how did human caretakers clean the boxes? If you’re asking yourself these questions, then keep on reading.
Shopping for Litter
The section on Ed Lowe shows that cat owners purchased their litter in many places, including specialized pet stores and, more often, the grocery aisle. Cat litter sales benefited from the supermarket boom of the 1950s and 60s, when larger, more streamlined stores, carrying a cheaper and wider variety of goods, proliferated in the suburbs.
Purchasing cat litter, however, was an everyday task for Americans in all walks of life. In the pages of the newspaper, cat litter joined the list of grocery items like peanut butter, cleaning supplies, and orange juice that were advertised on sale.
For example, in 1967, one ad for Waldbaum’s, a local grocery chain then serving Brooklyn and Queens, advertised a five-pound bag of kitty litter at thirty-seven cents, alongside cat food, tomatoes, cheese, and deodorant. Offering bags in five- or ten-pound bags suggests that shoppers walked to and from their neighborhood stores. A 1968 ad for Pantry Pride’s Mondawmin, Baltimore location—a historically middle-class African-American community—offered a ten-pound bag of Hartz Mountain litter for forty-nine cents in the Afro-American.
Above: Cat litter advertised among other grocery items, like yams, napkins, and boil ‘n bag meats, in the (Baltimore) Afro-American, 1968.
West coasters, too, had their share of cat litter, as evidenced by a 1963 Los Angeles Times ad for the large grocery chain Ralphs, which promoted five-pound bags of Jonny Cat Cat Litter for a mere thirty-nine cents each.
Cat Box Care is Work!
Who did the work of cleaning the cat box? Marketers, Ed Lowe included, presumed cat litter management was part of housework, hence in woman’s domain. Because of this, companies spent money to advertise in women’s magazines. One advertising budget document created by MacDonald-Cook Company in April 1960 lists such ladies’ magazines as Living, House Beautiful, Better Homes & Gardens, American Home, Look, Woman’s Day, Everywoman’s Family Circle, Parade as locations for advertising campaigns.
But did female consumers respond? In fact, they did. The complaint letters (and Lowe’s responses) kept from 1960 in the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives were all sent by women, listing concerns about changes to Kitty Litter that took both their own comfort and their cats’ into consideration. One Mrs. Gover from Pennsylvania wrote to complain about a sudden “increase in odor and dampness” in the latest batch of litter. Another owner of “ a Siamese cat three years old” complained about her “acting very strangely…frantically [licking] her paws and…twitching so badly that I thought she was going to have a fit” after using the box. One Cedar Rapids, Iowa woman wrote in complaining about the new litter’s “sharp edges that can be very injurious to the feet of a cat. In fact, my beautiful Persian fussed all day with his feet.” And a Florida resident wrote to the company to report on the quality of its Aristo Cat litter, its main difference being “there is no dust in this brand than the others,” a detail that would impact the cleanliness of her home.
In the 1970s, as the women’s movement argued that men should take on a bigger role in housework, the division of feline-related tasks seemed to become more equitable. In 1977, one husband attested in Billy Rowe’s New York Amsterdam News column that he gladly took on half of the household chores, including “marketing, cleaning, washing, and [taking] out the kitty litter.” And in a 1972, the New York Times published a day-in-the-life piece of a woman raising her (human and feline) family with the help of welfare funds. Among the daily tasks of shopping and caring for her children, her boyfriend contributed to the household labor by “[bringing] kitty litter and [looking] in on the children.” Although marketers frequently appealed to cultural assumptions about women’s work and tastes, by the 1970s, both men and women (and likely children) contributed to the care of feline family members’ sanitary needs.
Litter-ary Objects: Reducing the Annoyance of the Cat Box
Cat litter stood (and still stands) at the center of an entire constellation of related objects. What is litter without its tray or scoop? By looking at a few of the items orbiting cat litter, we can come to understand how people have attempted to reduce the annoyance, smelliness, and discomfort of disposing of cats’ urine and feces. As early as 1941, in the days of the sandbox, Lord and Taylor sold a cat privacy screen to help hide the cat box, likely marketed to apartment dwellers. Along with a scratching post and covered wagon bed, the upper left hand corner featured a three-paneled screen that came in green, red, and blue trim, to match the decór. The description speaks to the need for “privacy for puss—her pan and self discreetly concealed behind a cork screen.”
After cat litter hit the market, select pet catalogs continued to sell the privacy screens. Among the many products featured in a 1950s cat catalog that Katherine Grier details in her blog, The Pet Historian, is a privacy screen with images of a Siamese cat on each of its three panels.
The cat scoop or shovel, was, and still is, an essential item of litter usage. The Edward Lowe Foundation Archives feature catalog shots of a slotted metal scoop and accompanying round pan (below).
Above: Catalog photos from Lowe’s company, featuring a round metal cat pan and a slotted scoop. Courtesy the Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives.
The cat scoop became so well known in American culture that one Q&A in the Chicago Tribune referred to using a cat scoop outside with dogs: in 1976, an Evanston resident wrote in asking about a recent “city ordinance requiring dog owners to walk their pets on a leash, and also to carry a litter scoop.” Litter scoops, of course, are associated with cats—since dogs don’t use litter to do their “business”—but their perceived usefulness outside the cat box speaks to their ubiquity. Cat litter packaging, too, could be an object for better cat litter usage. As evidenced by archived correspondence, members of Edward Lowe’s company and Frank Dittrich of All Pets Magazine discussed selling cat litter in boxes instead of bags, so that the boxes could be used as disposable cat trays. Lowe’s later called it their Tra-Box.
But what to do with the scooped urine and feces? Inventors have devised solutions for that too, eliminating the problem of clumps in the trash, or of taking bags out to the trash daily. In a marketing move that gives credence to pet owners as “pet parents,” the Diaper Genie has been adapted for cats, in the form of the Litter Genie.
Other entrepreneurs and manufacturers created objects to tackle odor, arguably the most troubling aspect of cat elimination. In 1980, the Environ-Aire filter claimed to eliminate odor from a number of sources, including “Animal odors—kitty litter odors.”
Litter boxes with lids were another solution. They both reduce odor and provide greater privacy, as seen in this ad from a 1988 Animail catalog, shown above.
Self-cleaning litter boxes eliminate the scooping process, streamlining the shift from cat elimination to trash collection—and some even litter-free, as with the product advertised in USA Today (2007). Newer models, like the “Litterfish” box, bring a bit of whimsy to cats’ bathroom process.
After Ed Lowe’s invention became commonplace in millions of American homes, cat litter became as everyday as picking up a bottle of mustard at the supermarket. Taking care of the litter box can be an onerous and odorous task—for women, in the 1940s–1960s, and men, starting in the 1970s. In response, companies, entrepreneurs, and cat owners alike have sought ways to make the task of scooping feline “eliminations” more streamlined, less smelly, and even playful.
“Billy Rowe’s Notebook,” New York Amsterdam News (March 5, 1977): D12.
“A Day in the Life of a Welfare Mother,” New York Times (May 12, 1972): 48.
Deutsch, Tracey. Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Display Ad. Afro-American (Dec. 28, 1968): 13.
Display Ad. Los Angeles Times (Dec. 5, 1963): D2.
Display Ad. New York Times (May 10, 1967): 77.
Display Ad. Wall Street Journal (Dec. 1, 1980): 22.
Edward Lowe Foundation Archives, Hagley Museum & Archives
Mayo, James M. The American Grocery Store: The Business Evolution of an Architectural Space. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
No title. Chicago Tribune (Dec. 23, 1976): 9.
Smart Pets, Inc. Animail Pet Care Products. Chattanooga, TN: Animail, 1988.