Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

8: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece III


"Excavating" the 1856 mantelpiece

Mantelpiece sketch coloured and labelled
Figure 1: Simplified, coloured and numbered sketch of Godwin's illustration of a Plumtree Court mantelpiece.

The Plumtree Court mantelpiece (Figure 1) displays the following (left to right).
A. An unidentifiable something, perhaps a clay pipe;
B. A small crested/decorated cup or mug, perhaps a child's mug;
C. A figure in the form of a woman, hands on hips (one of a pair);
D. A figurine of a parrot;
E. A bowl of fruit (one of a pair);
F. A figurine of a cat;
G. A second bowl of fruit, matching E;
H. A clay pipe;
I. An urn;
J. A figurine of a nodding animal;
K. A candlestick;
L. A second figure of a woman with hands on hips, matching C;
M. A small recumbent cat, facing away;
N. A flat object, perhaps a strike-a-light or a pot lid.

(Behind the mantelpiece)
O. A religious tract: The Descent of Jesus from the Cross (Rubens);
P. A phial (holy water?);
Q. A miniature portrait (one of a pair);
R. A crucifix with rosary and small crucifix draped over it;
S. A miniature portrait (second of pair)1;
T. A religious print or tract: Adoration of the Magi (unidentified artist2);
U. Wallpaper (with design of sailing boats?).

For reasons of space and relevancy, only the decorative artefacts on the mantelpiece are further considered in this study. The remaining objects suggest that the household was a typical, not terribly well-off but not destitute, nineteenth-century one (candlestick rather than lamp, but wallpaper and portraits) that probably included both genders (clay pipe, though both sexes smoked pipes) and children (possible child's mug). It followed the Catholic faith (crucifix, rosary, holy water). The presence of Catholic paraphernalia might indicate that the household was an Irish one, or perhaps Italian. Both would fit the demographics of the area in the mid century. That the religious tracts on the wall were in English makes me lean towards the household being of Irish and/or English-speaking.

The miniatures:

On the mantelpiece stand no fewer than eight objects that can be classified as miniatures (it is difficult to gauge the scale of the drawing, but I estimate the depth of the shelf to be approximately 10cm). Refer to Figure 1 for key letters.

Two matching figures (C and L)

I have identified these two obscure objects (C and L) as either so-called "corn dollies" or pen wipes. In Godwin's sketch they are shaded a dark colour to differentiate them from the plaster and ceramic objects, and they have a characteristic striped appearance that could indicate stems of wheat or barley. Corn dollies with humanoid designs were and are common, and examples of female with skirt, hands-on-hips and hat are still made today3. As symbols with pagan origins, their presence near orthodox Christian objects is interesting.

Alternatively, a US illustration of a crocheted pen wiper from 1898 also closely resembles the shape of the two mantelpiece objects (Figure 2a and Figure 2b ). This is a racially-charged object in its US context, being presumably based on the Topsy character in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it is dangerous to ascribe similar meanings to it on a mid-century English mantelpiece. Harriet Beecher Stowe had published the novel in 1852, only a few years before Godwin's visit. It may be that the crocheted figure was a common design on both sides of the Atlantic well before it was given the "Topsy" name. It seems unlikely, however, that two pen wipes would be displayed on a mantelpiece. The figures may have been simply crocheted "dolls".

A parrot (D)

Parrots (D) were very popular figurines, both in plaster of Paris and ceramics (Figure 3). Familiar since medieval times, they were associated with the exotic, with sunshine, healing and status. They were also regarded as the bearers of good news, of being lucky, and were a symbol of eroticism, of sexual lust and longing (cf Gustave Courbet's painting Woman with Parrot). However their ceramic or plaster of Paris incarnations were somewhat looked down on: Henry Mayhew, noted a "remarkable" improvement in both "images" and "casts" and "moulded" productions of all kinds...from the pristine rudeness of "green parrots". This, he wrote, was "creditable to the taste of working people, who are the chief purchasers of the smaller articles" (Mayhew 1851, 217).

In George Cruickshank's 1826 engraving of the eccentric seaman Billy Culmer (Figure 4), we not only see a cat sitting before the fire grate, but two splendid green and yellow parrots on the mantelpiece. Looking back from the twenty-first century, it might seem surprising that a plaster parrot, probably brightly painted, would stand on a nineteenth-century working-class mantelpiece. However parrots were familiar amongst urban alleys and rookeries in an age when animal welfare and vetinary concerns such as the spread of disease were rarely controlled. There are frequent records of parrots in middle-class settings, some of which are discussed and illustrated by Mimi Matthews in her literary blog (Matthews 2015), and they are one of the most frequently illustrated "images" (see Figure 5).

"Poll Parrot" was amongst the stock in trade of one Antonio Bajocci, who sold plaster images in mid-century New York, an activity that made him "a rich man"4. Huckleberry Finn noted two plaster parrots in the Grangerfords' home: "Well, there was a big outlandish parrot on each side of o'clock, made out of something like chalk, and painted up gaudy. By one of the parrots was a cat made of crockery, and a crockery dog by the other; and when you pressed down of them they squeaked, but didn't open their mouths nor look different nor interested" (Twain 1884).

William Hone, tongue in cheek, wrote in 18375 of the "barbarous parrot...'Poll'" (Figure 6), helpfully informing us not only of its approximate form, but also of its colouring (note the mention of the large eyes):

This representative of the most "popular" of "all the winged inhabitants of the air"6, might have been taken for the likeness of some species between an owl and the booby-bird; but then the wings and back were coloured with a lively green, and the under part had yellow streaks, and the beak was of a red colour, and any colour did for the eyes, if they were larger than they ought to have been.
An urn

The term "urn" probably originated from the Latin urna, a jar (Figure 7). This is complicated by the fact that a jar could be used to contain the ashes of the dead, and urere, to burn, was used to described a vessel intended to contain cremated bone. The presence of an urn (I) on a mantelpiece is therefore laden with morbid possibilities. Urns are everywhere in Victorian cemeteries, but the urn as a device was favoured by architects and furniture makers as a decorative element unrelated to death. Urns were often paradoxically present on graveyard monuments where bodies were buried, not cremated.

Marshall Colman puzzles over these contradictions in his Hand Eye Foot Brain blog, pointing out that: "when the urn was most common in British funerary art, cremation was illegal" (Colman 2012). Colman gives up looking for a definitive interpretation, but Judith Cushman Hammer, on the other hand, suggests that the urn is simply a "brand", a sort of badge of antiquity: "an ornament like a carved urn on a chair back...was simply a sign of the venerable ancient world and hence of the fashionable taste of the chair's proprietor", someone who saw in the device "noble simplicity, beauty and reason" (Hammer 2012). The urn is also "a symbol for a house or dwelling" according to the web site of Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, (Anon 2010a). It was seen as representing the body, a container for the soul, as symbolising immortality and the afterlife.

Urns as symbols form part of James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen’s seminal exploration of the cemeteries of eastern Massachusetts, a 1960s archaeological field project that helped to establish historical archaeology as a solid academic and practical pursuit. They noted, both qualitatively and quantitatively, that different symbols, the death’s head, cherub and urn, achieved maximum popularity at different times and in different places and can indicate the temporal and geographical ebbing and flowing of "cultural processes" (Deetz and Dethlefsen 1967).

It may be that the Plumtree Court householder was thinking about "noble simplicity, beauty and reason," but it is also likely that they simply associated the urn with the ancient world and its values. They would have seen urns in cemeteries, but perhaps just as often as elements of friezes and as finials on buildings.

A pair of fruit bowls

Bowls of fruit (E and G) were popular miniatures (Figure 8 and Figure 9). Bowls overflowing with luscious fruit were frequent subjects for still-lives from the seventeenth century onwards, paintings generally created for upper- and middle-class audiences. While engravings may have made their way onto some working-class walls, these were likely to have been uncoloured and not very exciting. Three-dimensional bowls of fake fruit, often miniaturised, were to be found on the boards of image sellers and on their customers’ mantelpieces.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the availability of fruit was seasonal: apples, August to May; cherries May-July; gooseberries June-August; plums and greengages July-September (Clayton and Rowbotham 2009). Henry Mayhew lists currants, strawberries amongst "tender" fruits (that have to be eaten immediately). He also mentions, amongst other "green" fruits (that are ripe and fresh when sold) "pine-apples, melons, grapes, chestnuts, coker-nuts, Brazilnuts, hazel-nuts, and oranges", as well as raspberries, apricots, damsons and lemons, red white and blackcurrants, pears, mulberries and grapes (Mayhew 1851, 79). Clayton and Rowbotham suggest in their paper that the diet of working-classes declined rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Mayhew reported that by the 1850s costermongers were selling less and less fruit to the working classes. The more exotic fruits would have been bought as occasional treats, and by the slice.

Judith Flanders claims that "Many thought fruit, particularly fresh fruit, to be unwholesome" (Flanders 2003, 225) though I wonder if that "many" applied mostly to middle classes. Flanders quotes Gwen Raverat, whose family thought fruit to be "a pleasant treat but rather dangerous". However Mrs Beeton recommended displays of fruit that resembled, admittedly with a little artistic licence, the plaster of Paris objects on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece (Figure 10).

The gaudily- and probably unrealistically-coloured fruits would have added cheerful, exotic gaiety to the mantelpiece, along with the parrot and urn. It might be imagined that they represented delicacies that would have only occasionally, if ever, have featured in the household’s diet.

Three cats
A nodding cat (J)

This creature is a "nodder" (Figure 11 and Figure 12). The head, which has an internal counterbalance, is suspended from a loop inside the neck, allowing it to move up and down. Nodders were mentioned by several contemporary writers. Hone writes in 1836 of a cat that "moved its chalk head, to the wonder and delight of all urchins, until they informed themselves of its 'springs of action', at the price of 'only a penny', and, by breaking it, discovered that the nodding knob achieved un-cat-like motion, by being hung with a piece of wire to the interior of its hollow body"7. Der deutsche Hausfreund mentions "ein wachelnder Zwerg" (a nodding gnome) in 18438.

Eduard Charton, in an 1850 edition of Le Magazin Pittoresque, writes of "les chiens à têtes mouvantes"9. Henry Mayhew compares, in 186510, the nodding heads of "aged dames" with "so many plaster casts of cats with movable necks". In 1884 Chicago11, a stock of figures included cats, each of which "had a queer expression in its eyes, as if it was tired of continually nid-nodding at the multitude". In the Italian fairy story Il Gattino di Gesso, "gatti e conigli crollavano il capo e parevano vivi"12, and the French folklorist C. Gardel, looking back at the nineteenth century from 1939, recalled "petits lapins blancs à collier pointillé de rouge, dans lequel balançait la tête"13.

A recumbent cat (M)

This object is almost impossible to identify confidently, but recumbent cats were common products of Staffordshire potteries (Figure 13, usually depicted lying on cushions.

A sitting cat (F)

The cat (Figure 14) sits upright on its haunches, its tail curled around its back, front legs straight. Its body bears a rough scatter of splodges. Its eyes are large, and it has distinct eyebrows. Several lines, meant to represent whiskers, are painted on its face. It sits on a flat base. I've left this creature to last because, though it's not particularly spectacular, nor an object of great beauty or sophistication, it is almost certainly a gatto lucchesi, a plaster of Paris cat from Lucca.

It acts as a vital link between the figurinai I introduced in the previous section, and important elements of working-class material culture that extend from Plumtree Court, across London and Britain to Europe, to North and South America and as far as Australia and New Zealand. It also underlines the paradox that this class of decorative objects was hugely popular at the time, and yet has been overlooked by most researchers.

The cat connection

Perhaps no creature in the animal kingdom has inspired such extreme emotions as the cat (Anon 2015b)

The cat, in its miniature, ceramic or plaster of Paris representations (Figure 15/a>), played an important role in the lives of nineteenth-century working-class people.

In his satirical romp A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain introduces us to "a rare relic" (Figure 16), an "exquisite specimen of Old Blue China". This delightful object, "considered to be the finest example of Chinese art now in existence", was, of course, a cat. Twain was making fun of "bricabrackery" and the gullibility of those who believed cheap and cheerful knick-knacks to be immensely valuable (Twain 1880, 187)15. But he chose an example that would have resonated throughout the nineteenth century, almost certainly the late eighteenth century and definitely to the present day, when cats are probably the most popular Internet "meme"16.

It is often wryly remarked in polite 21st century company that it is ironic that the acme of technological advance — the computer, smartphone or tablet networked with the worldwide web — should be more often than not be used merely to watch short videos of cute or funny or grumpy cats (see Bustillos 2015 and very many others). This predilection for the feline species is not a new phenomenon, as is underlined by the fascination such early cultures as phaoronic Egypt had for the animal. But by the nineteenth century, according to some writers, the cat been relegated to a lesser role.

The cat conundrum

"Cats are of course a common animal and are usually found overall glazed in brown" writes H.A.B. Turner in 1971. "'Jackfield' black glaze over red earthenware cats are almost as common as their brown brother and sisters, and it is probable that these were intended to stand in the hearth either side of the fire as were the dogs" (Turner 1971, 206-7). A couple of sentences later, Turner puzzles that "It is strange to us that cats are approximately a hundred times as rare as dogs". This he suggests was due to the "more rural nature of the country" where cats, mostly ignored, were "relatively unseen" as they went about their business of destroying vermin. Turner thought that as pets in urban environments "in Victorian times as were by no means as numerous...and this would account for the 1/100 ratio of pottery rarity of cats to dogs which we find so surprising" (Turner 1971, 208).

An apparent lack of interest in cats during the nineteenth century is reflected by A. and N. Harding's survey of Victorian Staffordshire Figures 1835-1875, in which, though the title page carries an image of a cat, some 56 pages of illustrations of examples of dogs are followed by a mere 3½ pages of cats. The Hardings considered that "all figures of cats are rare" (Harding 1998, 236). One of the figures bears a strong resemblance to the typical stance of a plaster of Paris cat, though it is significant that "this figure is extremely rare" (Harding 1998, Figure 2881, 239). The example is finely modelled, with a realistic face and a distinct collar. Those illustrated are mostly decorated with irregular blobs of colour, as were the plaster of Paris cats.

In her book on Staffordshire figures, People, Passions, Pastimes and Pleasures, Myrna Schkolne suggests that cats were little appreciated in the early nineteenth century. "Because they were of no use in sport or farming, cats afforded their owners neither prestige or profit" and so "were among Britain's most overlooked animals...the disinterest in cats is reflected in the dearth of realistic earthenware representations of them from this period" (Schkolne 2006, 230). Turner, the Hardings and Schkolne relied on Staffordshire products for their comments on the scarcity of cats.

But it seems that plaster of Paris versions of these animals, along with other familiar beasts, had already appeared on mantelpieces at least as early as the mid eighteenth century. In North America, Henry Christian Geyer advertised17 plaster of Paris busts of famous public figures as well as "Images, Birds, Cats, Dogs, and all other sorts of curious Animals, all of Plaster of Paris" as early as 1768 (Dow 1927, 284). If this menagerie was present in the colonies during the second half of the eighteenth century then they had almost certainly been present in the Old World before then. This is supported by some early illustrations. Bewick's woodcut of an image-seller, probably created in the late eighteenth century, includes three cats, including one that is sitting upright (Figure 17). Rowlandson includes at least one cat on his 1799 Image Seller’s board (Figure 18). A second figure may also be a cat.

Paola Sensi-Isolani, writes that: "the first and most popular statuette produced and marketed appears to have been that of a sitting cat whose simple lines allowed for easy reproduction. These cats were sometimes decorated or tinted with lamp smoke" (Sensi-Olani 1990, 98). So well known did these plaster of Paris cats become that the name gatto lucchesi — a cat from Lucca — became a sort of trademark. The early examples, according to Sensi-Isolani, "displayed a certain artistic sense and fineness of craftsmanship typical of the earlier statuettes and seldom found in the figurinai's later production" (Ibid, 98) (Figure 19).

The feline race

Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, in 1853, mourned the loss of "the old British image-seller, who was accustomed—at the due season—to appear in our streets with plaster-cats upon his head—white cats spotted with black wafer" who was, according to the paper "destroyed by the Italian image man"18. Just as homegrown peddlers were not able to compete with the influx of figurinai, perhaps the home potteries, too, decided not to compete with cheaper cats sold by the Italians.

Twain’s choice of a cat would have brought a wry smile to the face of William Hone, who in 1837 had written, also with humour, about several "chalk" figures of "the feline race" in his article Nature and Art, and included an illustration of an example (Figure 20).

One of three that ranged from a nodder down to a specimen worth only a farthing, Hone's cat, which, he tells us, the illustrator was unable to draw badly enough to represent the original, had been sold by "Italian lads" (Hone 1837, 173)19.

Allowing for some artistic licence, and the sketchiness of the images, William Hone's cat is remarkably like the animal on Godwin's chimney-piece. Hone was writing about objects familiar "in my day", that is, from his past. Hone lived from 1780 to 1842, and his periodical was published in 1825-6, so it is likely that he was remembering his array of cats from about 1800. His artist sketched a cat 20 or so years later, and Godwin's illustrator drew the chimney-piece after another 30 years had passed.

In 1890, across the Atlantic, an illustrator drew a census enumerator at work in the tenements of New York (Figure 21). In the background is a mantelpiece, and on the mantelpiece has been placed a figurine of a miniature cat. The "ordinary" people in the illustration, who were recent German immigrants, will almost certainly have bought the cat from an itinerant street seller, a familiar sight in the city. Cats also appera in early photographs of tenemements (for example Figure 22, images that were intended to record poor living conditions but which opccasionally allow us to catch a glimpse of the objects displayed on mantelpieces.

The inhabitants of Liberia, many of them freed slaves, had, in 187820, "familiar plaster of Paris images, dogs and cats on the mantels". The Highland Weekly News in 1880 Ohio21 warned men that their wives might exchange their overcoat for "a plaster-of-paris cat in seven colours, and make home beautiful". In 1884, Mark Twain had Huckleberry Finn22 pressing down on a mantelpiece cat made of crockery, which squeaked, but like the adjacent dog "didn’t open [its mouth] nor look different nor interested".

As an example of a parallel middle-class obsession, Mrs Agnes Repplier, a noted Philadelphia essayist, never married, but by 190023, at the age of 45, had assembled a collection of 39 cats: "and there isn't a live one in the lot. They are mostly plaster casts and images that have been presented to her by friends". She died in 1955 aged 95, so probably possessed even more "images" of cats by then.

Some 30 years after Godwin's artist sketched a seated cat on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece, True Williams drew an Italian Image Boy for the US children’s publication Belfords's Annual. On his board sits a cat (Figure 23) in almost the same pose.

The original popularity of the cat as ornament might be attributed to a simple matter of expediency. The form of a sitting cat is relatively simple to carve, mould and cast. The resulting figure has few projecting features and doesn’t need reinforcing. It is therefore reasonably robust and easy to transport. Decorating the cast is also not particularly challenging. Many were decorated by simply holding them over a smoky lamp or candle, which left blurred grey-black "spots". Others were painted. Colours were garish and patterns, often stripes and circular spots, very un cat-like. Some were given a complete coat of paint, a second painted pattern and then varnished or shellacked. When painted, the eyes were usually large, with prominent eyebrows, and a few lines applied to the face to represent whiskers.

Cats went through several phases of notoriety over the millennia. Their usefulness in catching vermin probably led to them being elevated to the position of demi-gods in ancient Egypt. Later, especially during the Medieval period, they became associated with witchcraft, being regarded as "familiars". By the eighteenth century cats were once again in favour, and the "Catsmeatdogsmeat man" became familiar in city streets. Mlle Lambert told Jean-Sebastien Marcoux, during his investigation of memory associated with the material culture of the home, that she regarded her ornament of a sleeping cat as "a 'piece' of the house". Marcoux wrote that Lambert considered the cat to be "not a simple brick, but 'the soul of the house'" (Marcoux 2001, 74). David Zax, writing at Smithsonian.com, posits that cats are still associated with evil, asking "how often do you see a movie's maniacal arch-villain, as he lounges in a comfy chair and plots the world's destruction, stroke the head of a Golden Retriever?" (Zax 2007).

Wendy Christensen describes cats as "a presence". She suggests that "it was in the nineteenth century, and particularly in the Victorian era, that the domestic cat was finally restored to something like his old position of esteem... Victorian Britons, under the tutelage of their queen, cherished home, family, the domestic arts, and, increasingly, cats" (Christensen 2014). In her book The Cat and the Human Imagination, Katherine Rogers discusses many two-dimensional representations of cats, but doesn't touch on the third dimension. She does include a telling, within my argument, quotation from Christopher Smart, who, writing in 1763 of his cat Jeoffry, tells us that he is admired:

For he keeps the Lords watch in the night against the adversary:
For he counteract the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in the morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
(quoted by Rogers 1998, 90)

The poem of course closely links the cat with the devout Smart's Christian God, but as with so many aspects of all religions, there are echoes of much earlier beliefs. The night was regarded as a time of danger from the earliest times, when evil was liable to be abroad in whatever form it took. The cat’s eyesight fitted it for the task of standing guard. The cat on the mantelpiece, with its large, wide eyes, is acting as a symbolic stand-in for a live animal. Smart also tells us that the cat "...is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly" (see Superstition).

"A well-fed cat is a fairly inactive creature" (Serpell 1996, 17). The presence of a cat on the mantelpiece might indicate that the household is not wanting for food, with enough left over to satisfy a (virtual) pet: a tangible measure of material achievement. Serpell also writes of the importance of the shared "gaze" between human and animal (Serpell 1996, 137), and while a living animal might have a short attention span, the "frank and detached" gaze of a cat, transferred to an ornament, is unflinching and self-satisfied, reflecting the peace and stability of the home.

Cats and the home

As the household cat became an object of affection, it came to embody the Victorian ideal of Home. The cat was still economically important as a rodent catcher, because modern pesticides and building standards had not yet been developed; but most writers preferred to present it as a hearthside spirit rather than a predator. From a useful household pest controller, the cat became an embodiment of domestic virtue (Rogers 1998, 101).

It has been suggested that gender played a part in this popularity: "Despite the popularity of feminine puppy faces, the cat, more than the dog concept, epitomize women's animal nature in the 19th century...lazing or sleeping, squirming or mischievous, fluffy white balls or dark and wiry nightstalkers (or a little of each), the cat seem to embody all the apparent contradictions of femininity for nineteenth-century artists" (Charnon-Deutsch 2010, 45).

Kathleen Kate feels able to claim that the cat was: "...the anti-pet of nineteenth-century bourgeois life, associated with sexuality and marginality, qualities the cat inherited from medieval and early modem times when cats were sometimes burned as witches. Inverted, the tradition persisted in the nineteenth century, since cats were embraced by intellectuals" (Kate 1994, 115). She continues: "The cat was sexually charged, independent, dangerous, egotistical, and cruel. By the end of the century, however, it had become a family pet. It had gained a modern pedigree. Breeds were now important as the cat took its place in bourgeois life alongside the dog. Indeed, it came to act as a dog did, in the determining imagination of pet owners. The cat was neutralized —rehabilitated" — in a telling phrase" (Kate 1994, 116). It is unlikely that these potent symbolisms were present in our Holborn ally, but it is apparent that cats were a well-established part of the domestic scene, as living creatures basking in the warmth of the fire or as miniature representations. Intellectuals may indeed have embraced them later, but if the choice of products of image-sellers were anything to go by, they already meant much to working-class people by the end of the eighteenth century.

A widely-cited RSPCA tract published in 1857 reported that in working class areas "almost every home had a cat" (Kean 1998, 161). The existence of the "catsmeat man" suggested that these cats weren't always left to fend for themselves. But it can't be ignored that cats were often treated horribly by present-day standards. They were routinely tortured by children (and adults) as casually evidenced by some of Bewicks's woodcuts. There was also a minor trade in their pelts.

Most importantly for this research is that the cat on the mantelpiece would not have been there at all if the householder did not in some way invest the figurine with "catness" — the agency of cat — or that the figurine possessed its own "catness" agency which had attracted its owner. The Plumtree Court cats would otherwise have been rather pointless, poorly moulded and garishly decorated lumps of plaster of Paris. Given the presence of the cats on the mantelpieces of so many homes it can be suggested that working class people had a different, closer, stronger, more affectionate relationship with these animals than has previously been assumed. The cat figurines would have added more than just a dotted white patch of colour to their rooms.

Image-sellers may have influenced this positive attitude towards cats, and were probably proactively marketing them. To earn their nickname of "Gipskatter", in Sweden the peddlers had presumably had been shouting something like "Plaster cats for sale!" (Gips katter till salu!) or "Come buy my plaster cats!" (Köp min gips Katter!). Gipskatter (plaster cat) and Katzelmacher (cat/kitten maker) were used as pejorative terms for Italians in Sweden and Germany respectively well into the twentieth century24. This is an important point: if the image-sellers encouraged the desire for and delight in miniature cats, they probably had the same effect when promoting figurines of gods and goddesses and their roll call of celebrities (Table 1).

Once upon a time...

The connection between real and fictional cats and magic is strong, and that connection appears to be shared by ornamental cats. The Italian fairytale Il gattino di gesso, from the collection Il Raccontafiabe (The Fairytale Teller) edited by Luigi Capuana25 in 1894, tells of a plaster of Paris nodding cat that not only repairs itself when dropped, but is eventually revealed to be a prince transformed by a witch. The cat is, conveniently, bought from a figurinaio by a princess, who goes on, with the help of her plaster cat, to destroy the witch and free the prince, and of course they marry and live happily ever afterwards.

Il gattino di gesso C'era una volta un figurinaio che andava attorno per le vie vendendo figurine di gesso: "Chi vuol figurine, chi vuole!" Su la tavola che portava in testa sopra un cércine, vecchi panciuti, gatti e conigli crollavano il capo e parevano vivi. "Chi vuol figurine, chi vuole!"(Capuana 1894, 137)26

The tale is full of familiar fairy tale imagery: the magic self-healing object that can communicate (using nods), a princess and prince, a transformation into a cat, an evil sorceress, a trial abroad (the princess has to retrieve the three gold coins with which her father bought the magic cat in order to break the spell), a girl dressed as a boy (she travels in disguise), falling in with thieves and bandits, the princess humbled (she is forced to act as a servant), a final battle with the witch which ends with the witch turning into a mouse, the prince catching it, cutting off its tail and burning it. The plaster cat is regarded as valueless ("I wouldn’t give a penny for it") by most of the people the princess-in-disguise comes across, and of course it only nods when it is near one of the gold coins.

An Italian fairy story featuring a plaster of Paris cat and a figurinaio links neatly with the largest cat on George Godwin's chimney-piece. This apparently insignificant sketch of a rather prosaic object on a mantelpiece in an almost-demolished London alley lies at the centre of a network of connections that extends halfway around the world. Far away from Holborn, in Södervika, north of Uppsala In Sweden, Johanna Modin, born in 1852, grew up in a home that included a plaster cat (see Preamble) that was/is almost identical to that on the mantelpiece in Plumtree Court. The hollow figure contains a note from a previous owner recounting its history (Janssen 2011).

The full extent of miniature cattery is indicated by the collection of the Museo della Figurina di Gesso e dell'Emigrazione in Correglia Antelminelli, Lucca, Italy. Outside the museum stands a statue of an Image Man, cradling a cat in his right arm (Figure 24), and in its gift shop are displayed cats cast yesterday (Figure 25).

Finally, in 1843 Punch, that constant tongue-in-cheek commentator on its times, celebrated the miniature cat and its seller in a tiny cartoon (Figure 26).


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Last updated 20th April 2020

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Footnote 1

These may be silhouettes, although they appear to be more detailed.

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Footnote 2

I have not been able to identify a parallel of this image; the infant Jesus’ "star" halo could indicate a seventeenth century original painting or even a reproduction of a sculpture or altarpiece.

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Footnote 3

For example see http://bigredbustouringco.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/koorda-corn-dolly-country.html

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Footnote 4

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 6

"All the winged inhabitants of the air" is a quotation from Genesis 1:20; a "booby" is a sea bird. For more, see Appendix II.

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Footnote 7

See Appendix II

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Footnote 8

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 9

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 10

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 11

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 12

"Cats and rabbits nodded their heads and seemed alive" (my translation). See Appendix II.

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Footnote 13

"small white rabbits with red dotted collars nodded their heads" (my translation). See Appendix II.

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Footnote 14

See Appendix I.

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Footnote 15

See bric-à-brac.

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Footnote 16

WhatIs.com defines an Internet meme as "a cultural phenomenon that spreads from one person to another online" (http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/Internet-meme).

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Footnote 17

See also Appendix II.

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Footnote 18

See Appendix II.

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Footnote 19

Appendix II.

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Footnote 20

Appendix II

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Footnote 21

Appendix II.

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Footnote 22

See Appendix II

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Footnote 23

See Appendix II

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Footnote 24

Katzelmacher is only one of a number of suggested etymologies for this word, which appears to predate the arrival of plaster of Paris cats. Like many slang words these were in time applied to any foreigner and to travelling people.

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Footnote 25

Luigi Capuana (1839-1915) was an Italian writer, journalist and critic.

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Footnote 26

The Plaster Kitten: Once upon a time there was a figurinaio who went about the streets selling plaster figurines:"Figurines, who wants my figurines!" On the tray on his head, pot-bellied cats and rabbits nodded their heads and seemed alive. "Figurines, who wants my figurines!" [my translation] See Appendix II for more.

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Figure 2a

A corn dollie
Figure 2a: Corn dollie (image inverted).
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Figure 2b

A black crocheted doll
Figure 2b: "Topsy" crotcheted penwiper1898.
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Figure 3

A plaster of Paris parrot
Figure 3: Plaster of Paris parrot, nineteenth century. This creature closely resembles the bird on Godwin’s mantelpiece, although the latter has a circular design on its breast.
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Figure 4

Billy Culmer sitting by his fireside, with two plaster of Paris parrots on his mantelpiece
Figure 4: Billy Culmer and the Goose, 1826, George Cruickshank (National Maritime Museum).
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Figure 5

Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots Plaster of Paris parrots
Figure 5: Parrots depicted in the stock-in-trade of image-sellers (details). See Appendix I for original illustrations.
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Figure 6

William Hone's sketch of a plaster of Paris parrot
Figure 6: William Hone's "Parrot" (Hone 1837, 172).
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Figure 7

plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns plaster of Paris urns
Figure 7: Urns depicted in the stock-in-trade of image-sellers (details).
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Figure 8

A plaster of Paris bowl of fruit
Figure 8: Plaster of Paris fruit bowl, nineteenth century.
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Figure 9

A plaster of Paris bowl of fruit
Figure 9: Bowl of fruit on image-seller’s tray, 1835
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Figure 10

A plaster of Paris bowl of fruit
Figure 10: Dish of mixed fruit. 1859-61 The Book of Household Management. Mrs Isabella Beeton
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Figure 11

Plaster of Paris nodding cat
Figure 11: Plaster of Paris "nodder", nineteenth century.
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Figure 12

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 12: "Nodder" visible in Vernet’s c.pre-1816 illustration14
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Figure 13

The back of a recumbant ceramic cat
Figure 13: Staffordshire potteries recumbent cat.
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Figure 14

Plaster of Paris cat on Plumtree Court mantelpiece
Figure 14: Cat, A Chimney-Piece in Plumtree-court, Holborn 1856 (Detail) (Godwin).
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Figure 15

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 15: Girl with miniature cat, nineteenth century
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Figure 16

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 16: Old Blue China. (Twain 1880, 187)
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Figure 17

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 17: Detail of Bewick woodcut
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Figure 18

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 18: Detail of Rowlandson caricature.
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Figure 19

Two cat figurines
Figure 19: Eighteenth century plaster of Paris cats, Museo della Figurina di Gesso e dell'Emigrazione
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Figure 20

Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone
Figure 20: William Hone’s "cat". (Hone 1837, 173).
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Figure 21

Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone
Figure 21: Cat figurine on mantelpiece of New York tenement 1890 (detail) Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
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Figure 22

Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone
Figure 22: Cat and Staffordshire dog on mantelpiece in New York tenement. Early twentieth century. New York Public Library
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Figure 24

Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone Plaster of Paris cat sketched by William Hone
Figure 23: Cats among the stock in trade of image-sellers.
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Figure 24

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 24: Statue outside the Museo della figurina di gesso e dell'Emigrazione, holding a figurine of a cat.
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Figure 25

Three replica cats in museum gift shop
Figure 25: Contemporary reproductions of cats for sale in Museo della Figurina di Gesso e dell'Emigrazione.
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Figure 26

Cartoon of an image-seller with a tray crowded with nodding cats on his head
Figure 26: An image seller with a tray of (probably nodding) cats on his head, 1843, Punch or the London Charivari, p 199.
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