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This 19th-Century Book Chronicles Victorians' Strange Cat Fears And Fascinations

Cats, as a group, had a bad reputation in the 1800s. There were so many superstitions centered around cats that many people saw them as downright evil. English cartoonist Charles Henry Ross noticed that books about cats were obviously written by people who didn't know much about them, since they repeated the superstitions. So he wrote one himself: The Book of Cats. A Chit-Chat Chronicle of Feline Facts and Fancies, Legendary, Lyrical, Medical, Mirthful and Miscellaneous, published in 1868. In it, he promotes cats in many ways, including confronting the superstitions head on.

The Book of Cats addresses the wild, popular fears regarding cats—rumors flying that their scratches were venomous and that their breath sucked the life out of infants. In comparison to the smooth cut left from a knife, the thin scratch from a cat’s sharpened nail often festered, leading people to believe their claws were venomous, Ross explains. In addition to avoiding their claws, some would lose their wits at the mere sight of a cat. Conrad Gesner, a 16th-century botanist, documented men losing their strength, perspiring, and fainting when they saw a cat. A few have reportedly fainted after seeing a picture of a cat.

Read about The Book of Cats at Atlas Obscura, where you can see a selection of illustrations, or you can read the whole book at the Internet Archive.

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