The History of the Funny Cat Picture

Nothing seems to be as quintessentially Internet-driven, and consequently as quintessentially modern, as the captioned cat photograph, or lolcat.  The phenomenon, driven by the popular blog I Can Has Cheezburger, was sparked by the picture to the right.

Lolcats can be further traced to Caturday on 4chan, when posting focused on captioning cat photos, back in 2005.

The history of funny cat pictures, however, extends back much farther.

For instance, older readers will remember the “Hang In There” posters that adorned many a counselor’s office in the 1970s, which commonly featured a kitten hanging from a branch (or, in this case, a rope).

Also observe this example from 1929: the Laughing Cat.

The invention of the funny cat photograph is attributed to Harry Whittier Frees, a turn-of-the-century photographer and creator of novelty postcards featuring kittens and puppies dressed up and, yes, sometimes captioned.

That’s about the beginning of cat photography, but funny drawings and art of cats date back much farther.  Cats, with their sardonic expressions and independent attitudes, have long been symbols of satire (as opposed to the dog, whose temperament makes it the perpetual “straight man”).

For instance, here’s a literal “rain of cats and dogs” from the nineteenth century.

This 18th-century Russian print shows a cat being buried by mice.

And finally, there’s the satirical papyrus, dating from 1100 BC.  It’s an ancient Egyptian scene of animals doing people things.  And yes, there are cats.

Conclusion: the desire to depict cats doing funny things is one of the most primal human impulses, dating back to the first domestication of felines.  It seems that the discovery of a new visual medium immediately gives rise to this impulse.

For instance, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria, regarded as America’s first film studio, opened in 1893.  By 1894 it had been used to film cats boxing.

Ah, human nature.


Black Maria films are actually highly reminiscent of YouTube: Short, often funny or unusual, rarely very profound or well-executed.  The more things change and all that, right?


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