One reason why the Maine Coon cat’s origins remain mysterious is because of the State of Maine itself. A ship-building mecca and busy seaport, Maine hosted many visitors from all over the world — visitors who often had cats with them. Cats from distant lands were common sights in coastal towns, according to Pierce’s written recollections. She wrote that many ships kept cats for children to play with, in addition to their important role as vermin catcher.
Of course, once these cats hopped ashore, they quickly made themselves comfortable, and often made kittens. No wonder, considering the cold weather, that the cats most likely to survive were not only shaggy and heavily furred but mellow-tempered, too. An anxious, high-strung cat wouldn’t have survived very well on a long transatlantic voyage, and certainly wouldn’t make friends easily in a new world. A gentle giant, on the other hand, would be a welcome companion on the open sea and family homes.
Martha Auspitz, Cat Fanciers’ Association Maine Coon breed council secretary and a Maine Coon breeder in Kentucky, theorizes that the Maine Coon’s size also had something to do with the breed’s original ability to survive in Maine. “These cats had to have enough size and strength to take down small game. If they were out in the wild, presumably they would have to be bigger than your average cat to catch rabbits, groundhogs or other animals for food. I think we’ve certainly retained that feature in the Maine Coon today.”
Best in Show
The residents of Maine have always been proud of their native cat, but in 1895, the Maine Coon made a serious and lasting impression on the cat fancy, all because of one female brown tabby named Cosey.
In the late 19th century, both cat and dog fanciers began to hold formal shows to feature their favorite breeds. Many regional cat shows and state fairs featured pedigreed cats (going by all kinds of unusual names). The largest and most prestigious of these shows happened in 1895 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The show founders had no idea how wildly popular the cat show would be, but spectators crowded in to see strange and unusual breeds from all over the world.
Despite the popularity of the slinky Siamese and the pug-faced Persians, an all-American cat stole the show. Cosey, owned by Mrs. E.N. Barker, was named the best cat in the show. Maine Coon fancier and cat historian Mrs. E.R. Pierce wrote, after this monumental cat show, “In May 1895, when the most famous and largest of the early shows was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, the show was won, hands down, first place and best of show, by a brown tabby female Maine Cat named Cosie. It must have been a spectacular show, numbering 176 animals in all and including two ocelots, two wildcats, and three civet cats.” (The winning medal and a New York Times article covering the show spelled the cat’s name “Cosey,” although Pierce spelled it “Cosie.” We can’t be sure which is correct.)
Cosey’s win, and subsequent positive press, captivated the country. Suddenly, everyone wanted a “Maine Cat” and word of their beauty and mellow temperament spread. They became more popular in cat shows and as pets. Although popularity of the Maine Cat was on the rise, no one knows for sure when the breed name changed from Maine Cat to Maine Coon.
But residents of Maine had lived with large, beautiful, shaggy cats long before Cosey helped popularize the breed. Pierce, who wrote about that first National Cat Show, also wrote about cat history, especially Maine Coons, which were her personal favorite (she co-owned a Maine Coon named Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines).
In the famous “Book of the Cat,” first published in England in 1903, Pierce wrote the chapter on the “Maine Cat.” She wrote that many “Maine Cats” existed all over Maine well before the Civil War and became particularly numerous by the 1880s according to her interviews with relatives and elderly friends about their earliest Maine Coon memories and the Maine Coons owned by their own parents and grandparents. The Maine Coon’s popularity might have surged at the turn of the 20th century, but the cat obviously wasn’t a recent import.
Finally, Maine Coons should also retain that classic Maine Coon temperament: mellow, laid-back and self-confident — part of what makes them Maine Coons. “They’re supposed to be pretty amendable to handling,” Auspitz says. “They should be friendly and easy-going. They should live up to the nickname ‘gentle giant.’”
And isn’t that the American temperament, too? Because no matter how far the Maine Coon has come, whether in the company of queens, Vikings or salty sea captains, Maine Coons really are all-American—sturdy survivalists with confidence and personality to spare, generous with their affections and always just a little bit larger than life.
A Piece of Maine Coon History
As every antiquer knows, sometimes you come across something truly remarkable — it’s what keeps us hunting through those dusty shops and roadside sales. When cat breeder Bobara Pendergrast [CITY/New Jersey] heard that a New Jersey antique shop had some unique cat-related items, she paid them a visit … and not only found a silver medal from the famous 1895 National Cat Show, but the silver collar awarded to Cosey, the show’s winning Maine Coon cat. Although the pieces were pricey, Pendergrast couldn’t resist. Since then, the Cat Fanciers’ Association purchased the silver collar, and it’s now on display at the CFA’s central office in Manasquan, New Jersey. The CFA “museum” displays a few historical cat artifacts in a conference room/library at the office. The public is welcome to view the items but should call ahead to make sure the room isn’t being used. If you’re interested in learning more about the CFA’s museum, visit their website at www.cfa.org
Eve Adamson is an award-winning pet writer and the author of more than 40 books, including Adopting a Pet for Dummies (Wiley, 2005). A member of the Dog Writers Association of America, Eve lives in Iowa City, Iowa.