Most people probably assume that humanity’s obsession with cat pics began with the Internet. They’re wrong.
Humans have been photographing their cats since at least the 1850s — just a bit after photography was invented. And they kept doing it, all the way through the 20th century — even when film was expensive, and taking a photo was a totally analog process. Humanity even documented cats visually for thousands of years before the camera was invented.
In many ways, the history of cat pics is really a history of photography itself. Here’s a brief history of photography as told through the cat pic— from antiquity to today.
Cat pics didn’t begin with the existence of cameras. The human obsession with depicting cats goes back way farther, to at least the time of the ancient Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptians were more obsessed with their cats than even modern Redditors. They felt that cats were sacred, and included images of cats in ancient tomb art.
The Tomb of Nebamun (ca. 1400 BCE) Photo: Albertis Window [Public Domain]
Other artistic traditions depicted cats as well, with notable examples in European Renaissance art, as well as the art of Islam and ancient Japan.
Cats in the Garden, by Mao Yi, 12th century (Courtesy Wikimedia/Public Domain)
By the time photography was invented in the 1820s, people had been depicting their cats for centuries. Many of these early visual forms--especially those focused on portraits, documentation, and realistic colors/perspectives — paved the way for the birth of photography. And photography would have profound effects on these forms as well.
The First True Cat Pic
When was the first cat captured photographically? No one knows for certain. But a likely candidate is this daguerreotype of a cat drinking from a saucer, which dates to around the 1840s.
Public domain image via Harvard Houghton Library
The daguerreotype method was the first commercially viable means of producing photos, originating in the 1830s. It involved capturing an image on a metal plate using mercury vapors. Daguerreotypes photos are incredibly sharp and detailed, even over a century after they were created. Early daguerreotypes had exposure times of between 3–15 minutes. Anyone who has ever owned a cat knows that getting one to sit still for that long would be impossible.
By the 1840s, though, exposure time had dropped significantly, to about 20 seconds. Whoever took this daguerreotype cat pic probably used the saucer to keep the cat distracted and reasonably still for long enough to get a decent exposure. Even so, the cat is a bit blurry. She probably moved while the photo was taken, confounding the photographer’s efforts.
19th century cats, like cats today, weren’t big on cooperating with their owners’ grand photographic plans.
Cat Pics Get Funny
Around the 1870s, exposure times became fast enough — and photographers numerous enough — that people started to produce the first funny cat pics.
This was likely a product of the introduction of less complex, less expensive photographic processes. Wet plate methods, for example, allowed for the capture of images on treated plates of glass. This opened up photography as a profession for a broader range of people, and led to more photographic experimentation--including more funny cat pics.
Photographer Harry Pointer, from Brighton, England, was the master of the 19th century funny cat pic. Pointer became renowned for posing his pet cats in amusing ways, photographing them, and distributing the photographs as a way to promote his studio (and probably just because he liked cats, too).
One of Pointer’s cats. Public Domain.
Seeing the enormous commercial potential in silly cat photos, Pointer also began to add seasonal messages to his photographs (such as “A happy New Year”) and selling them as greeting cards. In his lifetime, Pointer produced over 100 captioned images of his cats.
He even created a cat pic of a cat taking pictures.
Pointer cat captioned “The Photographer”. Public Domain.
This form continued through the turn of the century. This photo from the early 1900s is a stunning example.
From the New York Public Library/Public Domain.
Cat Pics Get Personal
Around the turn of the century, photography suddenly became much more personal. The driving factor behind this was the launch of the Kodak Brownie camera, which sold for $1.
Kodak sold 100,000 Brownies in the first year after the camera launched. The Brownie introduced photography to the masses, and allowed people to take photographs of daily life, without having to go into a dedicated studio. It largely launched the medium of snapshot photography, which remains popular today.
When people were free to photograph anything, many chose to photograph their cats. Here’s a photo held in my company’s internal archive, ca the 1940s or 1950s.
Credit Gado Images, ca mid 20th century
This woman was willing to brave the snow to stand outside and take a photo with her cat, likely because her camera didn’t have a flash and couldn’t handle indoor photos in low light.
Cats in Color
Kodachrome was a color slide film which became popular beginning around 1955. Kodachrome was incredibly difficult to develop, but it yielded perhaps the best colors of any photographic medium ever. Kodachrome is incredibly stable, too, and photos taken in the 1950s-1970s remain perfect and crisp today.
That includes pictures of cats. Kodachrome cats of the 50s to 70s napped in birdbaths…
Credit Gado Images, ca. 1966
Credit Gado Images, ca 1970s
Credit Gado Images, ca 1970s
And occasionally cuddled with their owners.
Credit Gado Images, 1966
Cats Go Digital
Beginning in the mid 1990s, digital cameras started to become available to consumers and professionals. Digital processes had existed since much earlier, but many photography historians consider the Casio QV-10 to be the first viable consumer digital camera.
Launched in 1995, the QV-10 took 320 x 240 resolution photos (less than a megapixel). It cost $750 at the time. Other consumer digital camera followed, including the Sony Mavica line, which took photos on either floppy discs or specialized CDs. I recall using a Mavica in the early 2000s.
By the mid 2000s, consumer digital cameras had dropped dramatically in price, and improved dramatically in resolution. The ability to take unlimited photos for free likely led many consumer to take many more photos of their cats. Photo quality — especially in low light — still wasn’t great. But the greater accessibility and lower cost (as well as the ability to share photos) made digital cameras appealing.
Here’s a 2007 cat pic taken on a Canon Powershot SD100, a popular digital consumer point-and-shoot of the era.
Photo by Yancyfry jr/Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Cat Pics Go Social
Around 2010, camera phones improved dramatically, storage got cheaper and more people had smartphones and broadband Internet access. All these factors came together to kick off the era of social media, and the rise of companies like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and the like.
With the social media era, cat pics were suddenly much easier to capture and much, much easier to share. The average cat owner today takes seven photos of their cat per day. By 2015, CNN estimated that there were 6.5 billion cat pics on the Internet. Arguably, the 2010s and onward represent the golden age of cat pics.
The era saw the success of grumpy cats, LOLCATs, and #CatsofInstagram. It also saw the launch of YouTube, and the growth of cat videos as a new format for depicting cats. The first cat video on YouTube was published on May 22, 2005.
The world hasn’t looked back. As of 2015 (the last time this was surveyed), there were 2 million cat videos on YouTube. There are almost certainly many more today. There were 373 million pet cats in the world as of 2018, so if the average owner takes 7 cat pics per day, that means humanity is currently producing cat pics at the rate of 2.6 billion per day.
All this begs the question: “Why cats?”. It’s a question which has been studied much more than you might expect.
One major theory is that any visual medium both captures reality and alters it. When you know someone is photographing or filming you, you behave differently — even if the change is subconscious and subtle. That tendency leads to a very human anxiety about visual technologies like photography.
We like taking photos and being photographed, but we can’t help but feel that by photographing the world (or allowing others to photograph us), we’re someone altering our behavior and thus losing some element of our true, off-camera selves. Even dogs seem to know when you’re taking a picture of them, and to act accordingly. Photography captures reality, but also subtly alters it.
Cats, however, seem immune to this. Even with 100 cameras pointed in their faces, they keep right on being cats, and doing exactly the same things they’d do if no one was recording their actions. The cat in the original 1840s cat pic was probably totally focused on that saucer of milk, and not the guy with his head in a giant fabric-covered box trying to photograph her.
It’s unclear whether cats aren’t aware that they’re being captured visually, or if they’re aware, and simply couldn’t give a damn. Either way, there’s something compelling about cats’ immunity to altering their behavior. Cats are always their true selves — even in front of the lens — and that makes us want to keep photographing them.
What’s next for the history of cat pics? VR cats? 3D cats? 8k cats? I’m not sure. But if you have a camera and a cat, you don’t have to wait to find out. Take some cat pics today, and know that you’re following in a rich, millennia-long visual tradition.