Is it possible to have too many cat images in one's blog? Not when they're as wonderful as this one! The frantic feline (left) is an illustration of "Phoenix's Feline Attachment," an ingenious contraption designed to harness the energy of one's pet cat to power a sewing machine. This technological innovation is the brainchild of George Horatio Derby (1823-1861), writing under the pen name John Phoenix, in his book of humorous stories and illustrations, The Squibob Papers (New York: Carleton, publisher, 1865; call number PS1535 .S6X 1865 AAPGRB American Art/Portrait Gallery library).
For just $90.00 and change (which works out to over $1200.00 in today's money), an enterprising person could build this cat-powered sewing machine, assuming he or she could find a cat that didn't immediately get bored with chasing the mouse dangled in front of its nose. Obviously, it's not meant to be a REAL invention. After all, no self-respecting cat would put up with this sort of treatment (notice that the budget for the machine doesn't include bandages, a clear tip-off that it's fiction!).
George Horatio Derby, who worked for the U.S. Army Topographic Corps and looked as dashing as his name (his portrait from the Wikipedia article is shown below), wrote humorous stories about American characters, in the same style as his contemporary, Mark Twain. You can read The Squibob Papers online from Google Books, if you can't come down to the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art / National Portrait Gallery library to see the book in person.
This past April, the Libraries blog featured a contest to see if anyone could identify the coat of arms that appears in the cat picture from Travels through the southern provinces of the Russian Empire in the
years 1793 and 1794 by Peter S. Pallas (London : Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly,
1812; call number qDK509 .P3513 1812 v. 1-2 CHMRB, in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library). The unknown coat of arms featured three hay stacks above two crossed ax blades. Within twenty-four hours of posting, the mystery was solved, thanks to the excellent investigative skills of two blog readers with an interest in heraldry, "Ducky" and Maria E. McWilliams, who were able to cite specific sources that linked the coat of arms to the Russian town of Mokshan, in the Penza Oblast. Maria offered a surprise bonus as well, having tracked down a colored version of the same cat image, from the online article Siberian Cat: Without a Masquerade by A.V. Kolesnikov, PhD., featured on the site of a Siberian Cat fancier based in Germany, Tscharodeika. Zarine L. Arushanyan, the researcher of Russian cat breeds in Armenia whose one line comment on
the original Smithsonian Libraries blog entry about
Peter S. Pallas served as the catalyst (pun intended!) for the coat of arms contest, was delighted by this new information too, writing, "I did not pay attention to the emblem when I studied the illustration last year. And your attention to this detail is helpful for indicating the exact place, where the strange cat had been seen by Pallas."
The most amazing development from this contest, however, is that both Ducky and Maria already happen to work at the Smithsonian. Although they work for the National Museum of the American Indian, they could be considered honorary Libraries reference staff, since they were so helpful in resolving the question about the coat of arms. This is the remarkable thing about crowdsourcing research questions on the internet: it may turn out that the person who has the answer might work in the next office, or across the country, or on the other side of the world, but how would you know to ask them, if their expertise isn't already known to you? With the Smithsonian Libraries blog, we can put the thorniest questions out to the public and there's a great chance that someone out there will either know the answer, or will be able to contribute insights that lead towards an answer, in the best spirit of collaboration. This whole episode demonstrates the great potential that the resources of the Smithsonian can offer for researchers and other interested readers, whenever the Institution's collections, the expertise of its staff, and its public outreach efforts are combined on the World Wide Web. This serendipitous combination is at the heart of the Smithsonian Commons project (now in the prototype stage), which will establish a "digital presence dedicated to stimulating learning, creation, and
innovation through open access to Smithsonian research, collections and
Stay tuned for more information about SIL's contributions in support of the Smithsonian Commons effort. And for all you cat enthusiasts out there, look for the story of "Poor Kitty Popcorn" appearing on the SIL blog in July.
—Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger
Hi Diane! I love the way you’re talking about how collections + expertise + openness contribute to the messy, strange, and wondrous process of figuring out the world 😉
Thanks, Michael! This whole twist- and turn-filled episode starting with the Pallas cat picture (which turned out not to be a Pallas Cat!) shows that every book, every image, can launch an adventure that links people and the Smithsonian’s collections. The process can be messy indeed: when the Pallas blog entry was first posted, the book containing the illustration had already been returned to the Cooper-Hewitt library in New York after cataloging, so I couldn’t refer back to it without having it sent down to DC again (hopefully this book is on the list to be digitized eventually). But with the internet and the help of Zara, Ducky, Maria, and others, this became a much richer story. The questions raised in the comments, and in looking at the image more closely, all offered a great opportunity to look into related resources I wouldn’t have explored before: heraldry sites, the Russian-language version of Wikipedia, and cat fancy sites, among others. And it’s a delight to share this information with the readers of this blog.
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