Pschemp, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0
Pschemp, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

A Brief, Fur-Filled History of Cat Shows

Pschemp, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0
Pschemp, Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’re a die-hard feline fancier, you’ve most likely been to a cat show. Between the elaborately decorated cages, the agility contests, and the perfectly groomed Persians, you may have a) left the premises needing Benadryl or a lint roller, or b) wondered how these juried competitions began.

Turns out, ailurophiles have wanted to show their furry companions off to the world since long before the Internet popularized cat videos, or memes transformed felines like Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat into celebrities. Many sources say that the world’s very first cat show was held at the St. Giles Fair in Winchester, England in 1598, but beyond that, there's not much information about the event (if it actually took place). In subsequent years, more cat owners might have hosted similar, lesser-known affairs. But the event that truly put cat shows on the map was a national competition at London's Crystal Palace in July 1871.

Harrison Weir, an artist and "Father of Cat Fancy," who authored the first pedigree cat book, Our Cats and All About Them (1889), founded the UK's National Cat Club and was the first to set standards for specific cat breeds. Thanks to these bona fides, he’s usually credited with organizing the Crystal Palace show. Other accounts state that naturalist Fred Wilson, who served as superintendent of the natural history department at the Crystal Palace, was instrumental in planning it. (Newspapers also mention that Wilson may have hosted his own small cat show at the venue three years prior.)

In any case, the grand Crystal Palace event reportedly showcased a range of exotic cats. According to varying reports, between 150 and 211 were shown. A staggering 200,000 guests are said to have ogled a range of Siamese cats, Manx cats, Persian cats, and English Shorthair cats. Newspapers noted the presence of other unusual felines, including a Scottish Wildcat owned by the Duke of Sutherland, an Algerian Cat that was listed as a “French African cat,” a polydactyl cat that had 26 claws, and a tortoiseshell cat. Some cats are also said to have belonged to the Palace's workmen, or to have been caught in the palace cellars and thrown into cages to satisfy the event's animal quota.  

Weir and one of his brothers, John Jenner Weir, served as judges along with the Reverend J. Cumming Macdona, a well-known Saint Bernard breeder. Weir had written a set of guidelines to judge the cats by, which he called “Standards of Excellence” or “Standards of Points.” They were later transformed into a manual for cat show organizers called “Our Cats.” Participating felines were sorted into different classes according to color, shape, coat length, and body type. Awards were granted to cats that fit Weir’s criteria, and prizes were also given to the event’s “fattest cat” and “biggest cat.”

The cat show ended up being such a public success that Weir organized another cat show at the Crystal Palace several months later. The first cat competition had been planned in a hurry, and showcased many fancy pets from aristocratic households. The second show, however, encouraged working-class individuals to submit their ordinary domestic cats. Weir hoped that by celebrating the humble Tom, owners would take better care of their feline companions. The follow-up exhibition ended up displaying far more kitties than the first one, and an expanded judge pool awarded trophies to pedigreed and "working men's cats" alike. 

Meanwhile, between the two Crystal Palace shows, a feline frenzy spread over the denizens of Europe. Four other private cat shows were held by entrepreneurial members of the lay public—two in London, and two in Scotland. Soon after, cat shows became a common occurrence in Europe. 

Eventually, the practice crossed the Pond. The first well-known cat show in America was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1895. Fanciers began organizing their own events, and various American cat clubs and associations were formed.

Over the years, cat shows gradually morphed into the be-glittered, be-furred, and, well, slightly absurd animal pageants they are today. Of course, all countries rely on separate breed standards, and each cat group adheres to its own rules and regulations—meaning one cat show isn't necessarily like the other, depending on its location or organizer. Still, it's fun to know where the practice got its start—and to know that the Siamese, which is now the ninth most popular cat breed in America, was once seen by a journalist at the first Crystal Palace show and described as an "an unnatural, nightmare kind of cat." Times and tastes may change, but rest assured: As long as there are cats, there will always be cat people ... and cat shows. 

11 Fuzzy Facts About Pandas

Happy National Panda Day! Celebrate with some facts about everyone's favorite black-and-white bear.


Live Smarter
8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.


More from mental floss studios