Monday, March 28, 2011

Quick, It's the Cats' Meat Man! 1819

Monday, March 28, 2011
Susan reporting:

When reading last week about 18th c. milk-maids, I wandered off into London's street vendors in general, many selling wares that no longer have a market. Curds and whey, anyone?

To my horror, one of these was the cats' meat man. Now I'm that stereotypical writer with a pair of thoroughly spoiled cats, and though I knew Georgian England was a rough-and-tumble place, I didn't want to imagine my kits on Samuel Johnson's dinner menu. Fortunately, my first reading of this trade was wrong: the cats' meat in question was food for the little darlings, not food made from them.

The cats' meat man (or woman, since later in the 19th c. this seems to have become a female trade) trundled his barrow through residential neighborhoods with chunks of raw horse-meat on wooden skewers. This he would cut to order on the wooden board that topped his barrow especially for the purpose.  Like their counterpart, the dogs' meat men, the best cats' meat men knew their customers well, and could greet them and their owners by name. As Thomas Rowlandson's 1819 illustration, left, shows, the doubtlessly fragrant barrow also attracted quite a following, with eager pets racing to greet his arrival. I particularly like the cat leaping from the upstairs window.

Charles Hindley's Cries of Old London was first published in 1880. More a poem than an actual cry, this selection  does reflect a time when cat food wasn't a scientific mix from a specialty pet store.
   Hark! how the Pussies make a rout –
   To buy you can't refuse; 
   So may you never be without
   The music of their mews.
   Here's famous meat – all lean, no fat –
   No better in Great Britain;
   Come, buy a penn'orth for your Cat –
   A happ'orth for your Kitten!

See here for more about Rowlandson's vendors, and here for a lengthy, grisly description of the finer points (aka butchering) of being a successful cats' meat man in the Victorian era. But don't say I didn't warn you....

Above: Cats and Dogs' Meat?  from 'Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders' by Thomas Rowlandson, published 1820.


American Duchess said...

I first ran across The Dog's and Cat's Meat pedlers a few weeks ago from one of your breakfast links over to Spitalfield's Life blog, and I had exactly the same reaction, lol. I thought he was selling cats and dogs meat for people to eat! EEee! It took me entirely too long to find the real answer, but thank goodness it is as you say, nice people feeding the cats and dogs, not butchering them!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Yes, it was Spitalfields Life that sent me on that same course, and with the same relief, too. I did come across a later reference, though - apparently during wartime meat rationing, people were desperate enough to include unwary stray cats in the category of wild game, and they did end up in the occasional stew-pot. Dark humor name: roof rabbits. Wah!

Unknown said...

Luckily there talking about Jolly Olde England and not contemporary China! Kitty Chow-Mein anyone?

Isobel Carr said...

Dog meats man? That is so cool. I'm so using that in a book!!!

Marti said...

This is the first time I ever read of people of the era feeding cats. Always thouht that they were expected to eat mice! In all my historical reading I only ever read about pet dogs.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Daniel, bite your tongue!

Isobel, we've already talked on twitter about what a very very good customer you'd be for the dogs' meat man. Clancy would see to that!

Marti, that was my impression too. Maybe a dish of cream on the side, but no real mention of designated cat food. What I found esp. interesting was that the cats' meat was generally of a higher quality than the dogs' meat - cats of the past apparently being just as picky as their modern counterparts, while dogs are less...discerning. *g*

Linda said...

Nice post, I hadn't heard of anyone hawking meat for pets before. The illustration shows a few animals gathered around but I'd be surprised if he wasn't mobbed by waifs and strays.

Ralph Dratman said...

I have a recollection of the cat's meat man as a character in -- I think -- one of the Mary Poppins books. My wife, however, does not recall this, although she has a lot of other details from two of the P.L.Travers books firmly stuck in her head. I believe I may have read three of them. However, it is possible that I am thinking of a different book.

Does anyone here remember the cat's meat man appearing in a children's book?

Thank you!

Branko said...

Matthew Mugg, the cats' meat man in the Doctor Doolittle books.

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