Once upon a time, when I was in college, I listened in admiration to an earnest conversation between a couple of young women on the differences between kitties, cats, and kittycats. I don’t remember all of the points discussed, but I should like to make the point that postcards of kittens are a whole different matter than postcards of cats. Kittens do essentially one thing on postcards: they are actively cute. No, don’t try to confuse me with postcards of kittens sleeping: they know what they’re doing, and they’re still being actively cute.
Like dogs, cats have a modest range of activities. They suddenly turn up with a bunch of kittens (I would show you one of the many postcards where Mamma Cat is telling the passing tom “You told me we were just going to wrestle”, but I’;m saving that for my dissertation: every postcard company in the world seems to have used this gag as a filler), and they menace mice (the mouse gets the punchline, but what happens next is left to our imagination.) Postcards like the one at the top of this column pay tribute to the cat’s reputation as a hunter, in the wild
Or on the domestic front.
But the main activity of the cat, when a postcard cartoonist took up the feline subject, was sitting on fences. It wasn’t so much the sitting on fences which attracted so much attention as the noises they made while on the fence, whether they were just calling out a mating song.
Or dealing with the results of the call.
Or disputing territory with some other tom who wanted to use that fence for the same purpose.
(Our ancestors, who, as I noted, lived more often with open windows than we do, knew that cat romance and cat fights could be hard to tell apart, and commented on this as well.)
It all probably dates back to an era when everybody with a yard had a garden, as well as a few chickens, with possibly a goat or a pig or two. We have gradually moved away from this kind of domestic agriculture, and any kind of fence is a rare thing. Where we have fences, they are more often the metal variety: a chain link fence largely unsuitable for sitting (maybe that was one of the reasons they caught on: they discouraged cat concerts.) And people are less likely to let their cats wander at night: the invention of kitty litter meant that keeping your cat indoors wasn’t such a risky proposition. Pet owners who have the foresight to neuter and spay have also cut back on the urgent need of cats to get out and prowl by night.
But once upon a time, it was even more automatic on the postcard than Dog Equals Fire Hydrant, that Cat Equals Fence. It was simply the way the world worked.