Saturday, July 26, 2014

Harry Whittier Frees and the Cats in Clothes

It's not uncommon to see photographs of live animals wearing clothes and/or involved in activities that, under normal circumstances, only people would do.  

For example, photographer William Wegman immortalized his dogs in costumes of all sorts.  A traveling hedgehog wearing an assortment of hats has become popular on Instagram. Cat memes on the Internet show kitties doing "people" things, captioned in pidgin cheezburger.  

A photograph currently circulating on Facebook demonstrates that someone knitted a tiny striped sweater and put it on a live hamster. 
Mr. Sniffles was obviously disturbed at this turn of events. In the picture, his little eyes are dark and bulging, whiskers bristling like arrows stuck in a target, tiny front paws forced out to either side of his chest by the sleeves of his new pullover jumper.  (I can easily imagine the hamster unraveling his new sweater and incorporating it into his nest after the photo shoot, fluffing his fur back into place, and curling up to puzzle over the silliness of humans.)  

Animals have often had to pose in clothes to make their humans happy.  I noticed this when I opened the April 1937 issue of Better Homes & Gardens that I found at an estate sale last week, to see Snowy the Cat and her kitten endorsing bed linens.

The ad noted that Snowy and her kitten were "photographed from life" and that the picture was "No. 8 of a series."  

I did a quick online search for the phrase "cats in clothes" and found information on the photographer who spent so much time stuffing pet animals into little outfits.

There are several web pages and books devoted to the work of Harry Whittier Frees (1879-1954), the man who painstakingly photographed "Snowy" and many, many other small animals.  For decades, his work was featured on postcards, in ads in magazines, in brochures (Utica, the sheet manufacturer, released a 28-page booklet called "Restful Sleep," illustrated by photographs of "Snowy"), and in children's books.  

If you've ever tried to stuff a live small animal into a dress, you can imagine the challenges Frees faced in his work, long before the days of Photoshop.  Mary Weigley, writing for Pennsylvania Heritage magazine, says that Frees' career started innocently enough -- someone put a hat on a cat at a birthday party in 1906, Frees took a photo, and the image was so popular that he created a few more and sold them to a postcard company.  

His career took off from there; over the course of several decades Frees published many children's books illustrated with photographs of animals in costumes.  Even more of his photos were featured in print ad campaigns. Weigley continues:

Frees's photographs were uncommon because he used live animals and no tricks were involved.

He initially added a bow, a hat or some small clothing accessory to his four-legged subjects. About 10 years into his career, Frees began expanding the animals' wardrobe (making it easier to pose them) and created elaborate settings for his models. He attired them in dresses, work uniforms, smocks, shawls, robes and aprons made by his mother or his housekeeper Annie Edelman. The clothes were held in place by pins so the animals could be quickly dressed and undressed. They were then posed in human situations - ironing clothes, cooking on an old-fashioned cast-iron stove, hanging laundry, playing a piano, pumping water, even casting votes in a wooden ballot box! 

Frees' animal subjects were not always patient with him.  About two-thirds of the pictures he took were ruined because the cat, dog, rabbit or chicken (yes) took off, trailing bits of costume, out of camera range.  Weigley observes:

The work was challenging, time-consuming and nerve-wracking. It caused Frees so much anxiety that he photographed his furry subjects for only three months a year. To make the situation even more difficult for Frees, only about 30 negatives out of every 100 could be used. Consequently, he needed the remainder of the year to recuperate from exhaustion and formulate new ideas.

(To say nothing of how some of the animals felt.)  Frees' favorite and most cooperative subject was his own cat Rags, who patiently endured photo shoot after photo shoot.

Frees never married, devoting his life to his career and taking care of his parents.  After they died, Frees developed cancer and, despondent, took his own life in 1953.  

Frees' patient work continues to be admired more than 100 years after he took that first picture of a cat in a party hat.  Scholars have researched his work. He is referenced in at least one college design textbook.  The government of France owns a collection of his images, which have been reproduced in a book.  His photographs continue to be published to this day.

So the next time you're tempted to costume a cat and take its picture, you can remember patient Harry Whittier Frees, the man who set the standard.


The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website has a page devoted to Frees:

The Atlantic magazine notes that the idea of an "lolcat" image is nothing new, thanks to Frees' work:

This blog summarizes Frees' career:

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