Friday, 11 July 2014

Would the Paca House have kept a cat?

As part of our new 'Ask the Curator' initiative at the William Paca House, we have been researching the likelihood that the Paca House would have kept a cat. If not a cat, we asked, what other animals might have been family favorites? This blog is a place for us to share this research - and hopefully many more interesting findings in the future.

Archaeological evidence from Maryland and Virginia indicates that there were many cats living in this area in the late eighteenth century and earlier. In one seventeenth-century well shaft alone, the remains of thirteen cats were discovered.[1] Many of these cats would have been kept in households to reduce the population of rodents and insects. In wealthier homes they would be fed by servants, and kept away from the family.

Domesticating wild animals
It was during the eighteenth century that pet-keeping for pleasure became commonplace in America and Britain. Pets were referred to as “favorites”; the modern meaning of ‘pet’ was not widely used until the nineteenth century.[2] From the beginning of the eighteenth century wild animals such as squirrels and deer were tamed and taken into the home for the amusement of young children, a phenomenon peculiar to prosperous households in Colonial America (and to the astonishment of their European guests). These animals would be cared for by the family personally, and often at great expense.

Philip Mercier, The Sense of Touch, 1744-47
Contemporary thought on animals
By the late eighteenth century, previously popular sports which encouraged violent treatment of cats were regarded as terribly cruel, with the advent of an intellectual movement towards humane treatment of animals. The earliest legislation against cruelty to animals had come from Puritan Massachusetts in 1648,[3] but this “humane” attitude was not fully and widely established until the 1790s in the early United States and Britain.[4] From then on it became popular for families to keep household animals, so that children may learn the quality of benevolence by caring for their cats and dogs.

Slaves would often own dogs, for hunting, protection, and companionship. This was more common near plantations than in a house such as the William Paca House. Slave owners would not give animals to their slaves as favorites, because ownership of animals indicated authority over the household.[5] Sarah Hand Meacham claims that ‘Chesapeake elites … kept favorites in part because doing so gave them unconscious validation of their right to have slaves’.[6]

Gifts of domestic animals were highly gendered. Women and girls would be given small ‘decorative creatures’ such as birds and squirrels,[7] which they would take care of themselves. Birds were particularly popular because they were thought to be signs against witchcraft,[8] even at the end of the eighteenth century, and unlike the traditional ‘familiar spirits’ thought to be kept by witches.

The Annapolis gentleman’s animal of choice: a cat or a dog?
Towards the end of the eighteenth century cats became popular domestic animals amongst urban professionals, merchants, bankers and the like in Britain. While the trend for importing, or capturing and keeping, animals to domesticate was as evident in Colonial America as it was across the Atlantic, cats were rarely the animal of choice. Very few letters and journals from the Chesapeake Bay area mention cats, and there are no advertisements for missing cats in the Maryland Gazette or Virginia Gazette. Significantly, although many portraits of the time feature birds, squirrels, and dogs, nobody in the Chesapeake area chose to pose with a cat.[9]

John Singleton Copley, Young Lady with a Bird and Dog, 1767

Men in this region tended to keep working animals as “favorites”. Working dogs were significant as indications of an individual’s connections and social standing. Emotional attachment to a dog displayed that a man was in touch with English cultural trends. George Washington is said to have proudly informed visitors that he had paid two hundred dollars for a “superb bull[dog] of English breeding”.[10] Greyhounds, pointers, and spaniels were popular English breeds. Eighteenth-century men knew each other’s dogs by sight, taking advantage of opportunities to return dogs to their owners as a sign of goodwill and friendship. When Washington admired the female spaniel belonging to Richard Sprigg in Annapolis, Sprigg sent Washington one of the spaniel’s pups.[11] The exchange of animals was an arena for the demonstration, and even formation, of social connections.

There were some men who owned cats at this time, but it was not fashionable to do so in Maryland and Virginia. Robert Wormeley Carter of Virginia recorded the death of “our old cat Corrytang” in his diary in 1780. The animal had been “a favorite cat of my fathers [sic]”, and Carter had “taken great care of him on that account, tho’ troublesome”. Taking good care of the cat, and doing so personally, was a means of demonstrating filial duty to Carter’s young son.[12]

However, Charles “Nasifer Jole” Cole was ridiculed at the Tuesday Club, Dr. Alexander Hamilton’s social club in Annapolis, for his attentions to his cats. Hamilton commented that “Some may think it very Strange, that Mr Jole, a gentleman born and bred in a christian [sic] land, should pay so much deference and respect, to these brute creatures”.[13] It was highly unusual for a grown man to take an interest in cats.

In 1790, Thomas Jefferson arranged for a pair of angora cats to be transported to his residence in New York City from Paris.[14] However, these cats were likely purchased for the entertainment of guests – to be displayed as exotic animals. If William Paca kept a favorite animal, it was probably a dog. An English dog would have represented Paca's English connections and status. The women of the house were more likely to have favored birds and squirrels above cats. The cats that almost certainly resided in and around the Paca household would probably have remained out of his sight, curtailing the local population of rodents and insects behind the scenes.

Written by OUIIP intern, Elena Porter

[1] Sarah H. Meacham, ‘Pets, Status and Slavery in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake’. The Journal of Southern History. vol. 77, no. 3, August 2011, p.540
[2] Tague, ‘Dead Pets: Satire and Sentiment in British Elegies and Epitaphs for Animals’. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2008, 41, 3, 289-306, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
[3] John D. Blaisdell, "An Ordained Compassion: The New England Puritans and Their Laws against Cruelty to Animals," Argos, Speciale Uitgave, Zomer 1991. 11-17.
[4] John D. Blaisdell, ‘A Most Convenient Relationship: The Rise of the Cat as a Valued Companion Animal’. Between the Species. Vol. 9, (1993). Issue 4. p.227
[5] Sarah H. Meacham, p.525
[6] Ibid., p.524
[7] Ibid., p.525
[8] Ibid., p.541
[9] Sarah H. Meacham, ‘Pets, Status and Slavery in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake’. The Journal of Southern History. vol. 77, no. 3, August 2011, p.540
[10] Ibid., p.531
[11] William Oxley to William Galt, July 29, 1837, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 35 (October 1927). Quoted in Sarah H. Meacham, p.539
[12] Sarah H. Meacham, p.540
[13] Ibid., p.548
[14] Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson Statesman of Science, McMillan Publishing, New York, 1990, 201. Quoted in Blaisdell, 1993.

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