It was over 100 years ago that the first cat memes or LOLcats were first created. It all started with photographer Harry Whittier Frees when he started taking photographs of cats, dogs, rabbits, and other animals posed in costume doing very human activities. At the time it was rather ground-breaking work. Now it is a look back at the early days of professional photography that has remained as controversial now as it was from the start.
Frees produced his photographs to be used in books and on postcards. His first success came after attending a birthday party where the guests started passing around a paper party hat and someone thought it would be funny to put it on the cat. Frees snapped the photo and then took it to a postcard publisher. It was his "a ha!" moment. The postcard was so popular that the publisher demanded more photos. That was when a legend was created.
While Frees' work is remembered as successful, Frees himself was not. Through his life he remained unmarried to focus on his work and to care for his parents. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1879 and shortly thereafter the family moved to Oaks, Pennsylvania where Frees later did his photographs.
Frees worked alone to create his famous photographs with the exception of his faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Annie Edelman. It was her talented fingers that sewed the special costumes the animals wore for their pictures.
Even more than a century later the photographs are still creating controversy. Even though Frees swore that the animals were all live models, there are people who refuse to believe that he could have gotten these photos without using animal corpses.
According to a March 1, 1937, article in Life magazine Frees "rented" all of his live models from neighbors, breeders, and pet shops.
"Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable of taking many 'human' parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal. The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion. The best period of young animal models is a short one, being when they are from six to ten weeks of age. An interesting fact is that a kitten's attention is best held through the sense of sight, while that of a puppy is most influenced by sound, and equally readily distracted by it. The native reasoning powers of young animals are, moreover, quite as pronounced as those of the human species, and relatively far surer," Frees wrote of his work for the opening of his book Animals Land on the Air.
Some people have also suggested that if Frees did use live models for his photos that he would have had to subject them to extreme cruelty to do so. This makes the idea of animals that had been to the taxidermist first sound down right kind. However, there is no proof whatsoever that either of these scenarios are true.
The story goes that trying to get live animals to pose for the photos was so stressful that he was only able to work three months out of the year and then had to spend the other nine months of the year recovering from the experience. This was also the time when Frees would come up with new ideas for the next photo shoot. To be sure, this kind of work would be like herding cats -- quite literally.
“He admits only that objects like forks and needles are tied to their paws. Probably he uses concealed wires. No animal protective services have accused him of cruelty to animals. Some have even praised his work.” -- Life Magazine
One of Frees' favorite subject was his own cat, Rags. In a British Magazine, Little Folks, in 1925, Frees commented “Rags possesses an unusual intellect for a cat. He has been known to keep a pose for several minutes without as much as the flicker of a whisker. When the very limit of his endurance has been reached he will give a protesting little murmur. A short romp on the ground, together with a choice bit of meat as a reward, will at once restore him to his former amiability.”
When I was a little girl I possessed one of Frees' books. I adored the photos. The book had previously been my mother's when she was a child. I don't remember the title, but it had to have been one of Frees' original books that was published in the mid-1930s. It was one of my favorites and undoubtedly helped both my mother and me to become lifelong bibliophiles -- and cat ladies.
In the 1940s, after the death of his parents, Frees moved from Pennsylvania to Clearwater, Florida. Despite a successful career, Frees became impoverished and his life became tragic. He was diagnosed with cancer and had no money for medical treatment. Sadly, in 1953 he ended up taking his own life by turning on the gas in his stove.
As unpleasant as his end was, he did leave us quite a photographic and historic legacy. The human life depicted in this photographs are from a different era. The stoves were wood-burning, the clothing often made of gingham, and naughty students wore dunces hats. And he was one of the pioneers in giving us cat photos and memes to LOL about.
Photos by Harry Whittier Frees, All Images are in the Public Domain