Ithaca Kitty was a Success Across America
William Hazlitt Smith, along with his wife and sister, used their gray tabby cat as a model for a rag toy in the 1890s
Caesar Grimalkin was a dignified gray tabby cat with seven toes on each of his white front paws who lived at 116 Oak Ave. in Ithaca.
His family was William Hazlitt Smith, an attorney and Cornell University graduate, his wife, Celia, and their 2-year-old daughter, Madge.
One evening in 1890, Celia Smith pointed to where Caesar Grimalkin sat and said, “You know, I could make him, in three pieces.” She set to work with scissors and muslin and soon she had a cat form.
Her sister-in-law, Miss Charity Smith, an accomplished amateur artist, started painting the blank muslin. But Caesar Grimalkin refused to sit still for his portrait. Finally, she picked him up and took him to Howes’ photographic studio on East State Street, where the cat was captured on film.
When it came to the base, Celia held poor Caesar Grimalkin upside down while Charity painted his feet.
They discarded the first likeness, feeling that his seven-toed front paws just looked too odd. The finished toy cat was photographed, and William Hazlitt Smith applied for a patent covering both the design and the construction.
The Smiths sent the design off to Arnold Print Works in North Adams, Mass. They offered the Smiths $25 for the rights to the cat; it was turned down. The final terms were one cent a yard to the Smiths. The Tabby Cat, sold as a printed pattern on half a yard of muslin for 10 cents, made its nationwide appearance in time for Christmas in 1892.
The Ithaca Kitty was an instant success across America, starting a fad for rag toys that lasted until after World War 1. In 1893, the cat and his kittens were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair and filled Wanamaker’s Department Store window in Philadelphia. Advertisements and articles about the Ithaca Kitty appeared in newspapers and magazines from all around the world.
The stuffed cat was remarkable for its life-like quality. Farmers in Maine told of using it to scare away birds in their fruit trees. The Matron at the Central Park Police Station in New York City used one to frighten away the mice that plagued her in the arsenal. And many people tell of the hostile and wary reaction of their cats when confronted with an Ithaca Kitty.
The tabby cat was soon joined by little kittens, dogs, a bunny and other animals and dolls. Not all of them were painted by Charity Smith or even designed by Celia. And none were as popular as the Tabby Cat. The poet Eugene Field once wrote a letter to Celia Smith telling her that the Ithaca Kitty inspired his classic poem, “The Duel,” which begins, “The gingham dog and the calico cat, side by side on the table sat.”
The late Gretchen Sachse was a Tompkins County Historian and a long-time volunteer and benefactor of the DeWitt Historical Society (now The History Center in Tompkins County). She wrote this article many years ago and we are re-issuing it in tribute to her and to the Ithaca Kitty, which is now on view in our current exhibit Come Play With Us — Early Toys From the Collection. The handsome stuffed toy has become available again after a hiatus of many years and may be seen and purchased at the History Center in Tompkins County.