The Earliest LOLCats and Other 19th-Century Animal Photography

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LOLcats and other funny animal pics weren't born with the Internet; they've been around since the end of the 19th century. Here are some of the early photographs that inspired them.

Harry Whittier Frees is one of the best-known novelty photographers of the 1900s. He dressed animals in clothing and then posed them in humorous scenes.

While other animals were sometimes funnier and rabbits posed more easily, Frees preferred working with cats because he felt they captured human emotions the best.

Often the images spoke for themselves, but sometimes Frees liked to add captions. A few years ago, this image taken in 1906 circulated around the web dubbed “the first LOLCat.” A year later, one of his older images was rediscovered and took its tour of the net with the same title.

Animals are difficult subjects. Over two-thirds of Frees’ negatives had to be discarded, and the work was so stressful that he only actually photographed animals three months out of the year. The rest of the time he worked to create props and costumes for his little models.

Original postcards and books featuring Frees' photographs are incredibly valuable, but if you want to own a collection of his works while also having money for food, check out one of the reprints of The Little Folks of Animal Land.

While Harry Whittier Frees had all the components of an LOLcat over a century before they swept the internet, he wasn’t the first to come up with this formula. As it turns out, he was inspired by a lesser-known animal photographer named Harry Pointer.

While Frees’ critters tended to wear clothes, Pointer's were generally nude. (Or as nude as a creature covered in fur can get.) But being as how the photos had captions and were created a good quarter-century before those of Frees, they are almost certainly the first true LOLcat photos.

Pointer’s images are particularly impressive when you consider the limits of the photography equipment available in the 1870s. Despite the challenges though, the photographer was dedicated to his cat images and by 1884, he had published over 200 postcards in what he referred to as his “Brighton Cats” Series.

Of course, one of the greatest aspects of both Frees’ and Pointer’s work is that both photographers had impressive of patience with their cuddly little subjects. The same could not be said for Walter Potter, an artist who made fun and fanciful scenes featuring taxidermied creatures. Unfortunately, the museum that housed most of Poterr's work has been shut down and his art auctioned off to private collectors.

Of course, the trend didn’t die after Pointer, Potter and Frees passed on. Even the famous “Hang In There, Baby” motivational poster is considered to be another early version of an LOLcat. But what about other creatures? Cats don't have the market cornered on cute animal pics. Sugar Bush Squirrel isn’t an original concept. Back in the 1940s, the world’s most famous squirrel was named Tommy Tucker, and he was a star.

Tommy, owned by the Bullis family of Washington D.C., was so famous that he even was featured in LIFE Magazine.

“Tommy never seems to complain,” LIFE wrote, “although sometimes he bites Mrs. Bullis. Mrs. Bullis never complains about being bitten.” To be fair, Tommy might not have bitten Mrs. Bullis so often had she dressed him in boy-squirrel clothes once in a while.

Little information exists on the photo above, but this lady and her pet lobster prove that furry and cute creatures weren't the only early animal models.

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June 24, 2012 - 5:37pm
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