By Sarah Stanley, Bard Graduate Center
A bench (in cat show vernacular) is a designated platform or table where breeders hold their cats when they are not being judged. To distinguish and celebrate the feline competitors, breeders elaborately decorate their cages (fig. 1). This creative practice was completely unknown to me until I stumbled upon a regional cat show in the fall of 2015. The more decorations I saw, the more I wondered about their history and contemporary significance. By observing decorations, analysing photographs and newspaper articles, and speaking with breeders and CFA officials, I began to establish an understanding of this unique practice.
Modern cat breeding became popular among the English aristocracy during the second half of the nineteenth century. Cat owners formed social clubs, which eventually evolved into competitions (fig. 2). The first recorded cat show was held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1871 and a few years later, in 1899, the Chicago Cat Club held the first cat show in America. In 1906, breeders formed the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), which today recognises forty two different breeds around the world and maintains the pedigree for nearly two million cats.
Cage decorations, usually in the form of fabric curtains, are an essential element of the modern cat show. On a practical level they visually and physically separate the large number of cats in the show venue. Although participants are not required to do anything special with their dividers, the CFA does encourage decorations. Based on my observations, most of these decorations fit into several categories. All of these categories highlight certain historical aspects of the breed or cat shows in general. Breeders most often choose to reference unique breed characteristics, pedigree, or conventions of luxury through their designs (fig. 3).
Through my research I became interested in why breeders began to decorate their cages and how the decorations could be used as a point of entry into the social and historical world of showing cats in America. The first reports of lavishly decorated cages appear at the same time that shows begin to become cat-exclusive events. Prior to the 1930s, the most common animals to be shown with cats were birds and poultry, perhaps against better judgment. Elaborate cage decorations began when cat shows and cat owners wanted to establish their own identity in the pet world. Emphasising stereotypes of luxury and pedigree through cage decorations became a way to validate the cat and the breeders’ practice. Portraying a sense of physical comfort and lavishness remains a unifying factor among contemporary cage decorations
In the twenty first century photography is also an important component of cat show culture. Show organisers use the presence of well-known photographers to increase participation in smaller shows. I noticed a tendency to include products in the cage decorations—from pet food bags to Playboy magazine—whose designs featured the breeders’ cats as models (fig. 4). When incorporated into cage decorations, photographs do more than simply convey ideas of luxury and pedigree; like show ribbons, they convey the success and employability of the cat and the breeder. Fascination with cats in the media, often seen as a modern internet phenomenon, has deeper historical roots that trace back to the popularity of amateur photography among nineteenth century cat breeders (fig. 5). Karen Lawrence, director of the Feline Historical Museum, directly correlates the rise of cats in advertising to the growing popularity of cat shows. She suggests that the first evidence of this practice in America was in an Ivory Soap ad in 1899, the same year that the Chicago Cat Club held their first official show (fig. 6).
As vernacular modes of display, cage decorations all work to highlight the cat—the product of the breeder’s hard work. I see the show experience as a reward for the breeder, in and of itself. The cat show is a social event that allows the CFA community to come together and celebrate its own history, high standards, and mutual love of cats. Creating meaningful cage decorations is a way for everyone involved to acknowledge the significant role cat shows play in their lives, while highlighting the personality, pedigree and prestige of the true stars of the show, their cats.
 Cat Fanciers’ Association, http://cfa.org/AboutCFA/CFAInfo/OurHistory.aspx [accessed December 2015].
 For more information see: The Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibit How Cats Took Over the Internet, on view August 7, 2015 – February 7, 2016, http://www.movingimage.us/exhibitions/2015/08/07/detail/how-cats-took-over-the-internet/, [accessed December 2015].
About the author: Sarah Stanley