Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
There is a Colonial American proverb: “You will always be lucky if you know how to make friends with strange cats.”
Perhaps it was a popular saying because that friendship could help quell the numerous mice the colonists were forced to contend with. Not only did the scavengers threaten the colonials’ meager supply of food, the rodents even ate any supply of candles. The tallow (animal fat) that was used to make this precious commodity was apparently appreciated by the little creatures—much to the house owners’ consternation.
To shield the candles from destruction, the colonists built special wooden boxes and set them on the wall to keep their source of light safe from the hungry creatures.
But an early American household also kept that ultimate mice killer—a cat.
Until I visited Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield, Massachusetts last fall, I was unaware that some colonial homes had openings to the outdoors for their cats to go in and out. I actually thought that cat doors were a 20th century invention. It certainly made more sense in the 18th century since they likely did not tolerate cat boxes in the house.
If you look closely at this 18th century home, which is situated at the museum in West Springfield, you will see the cat door in the lower right near the door.
A close-up will reveal it even more clearly.
Ah, the life of a happy colonial cat. Since we have no photos of a colonial kitty, my own feline, Julius, has graciously offered to model.
Julius has no such luxury to come and go as he pleases. His outdoor ventures to my front porch are closely monitored by humans. He is an indoor, city cat—but a great mouser indoors. With the cooler, fall weather descending, I am grateful for his hunting skills since the little rodents are notorious for finding the tiniest entrance into a home.
Mice were not indigenous to America. They were stowaways on board ships from Europe. As uninvited guests, they quickly made their home quite comfortably in the New World. Along with these little varmints on the boats were other pests: gray rats, black flies and (gulp) cockroaches.
The only reference to mice being in any way useful was in a volume called Taxation in Colonial America by Alvin Robushka: “Specific export duties were imposed on skins of beaver, raccoon, mink, otter, bear, wolf, muskrat, mice, and deer…”
Shiver. Mice skins? They actually skinned them and used them for something?
I don’t even want to think about it. But there must have been a lot of mice…
This author has opted to include no photos of rodents. :)
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