Photos courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy
Walter Potter first began practicing taxidermy in 1850 at the age of 15, when he decided to "preserve" his pet canary (Stephen King wouldn't write Pet Sematary for another 139 years, so it was the best Walter could do to hold on a little longer). It did not take long for taxidermy to become a passion that would spawn masterpieces like this:
These are (were) all. real. cats. At first, a museum insisted that no animals were killed for Walter's artistic purposes. But the uniformity and luster of the cats' coats suggest that these are not run-of-the mill, chanced upon alley cats. Indeed, it came to light that Walter had an "agreement" with a local farmer. I hope I never, ever, find out the exact terms of that agreement.
This macabre fixation with mounting and ornamenting animal cadavers seems shocking, morbid and downright disturbing. To understand Walter Potter's hobby, we need to examine it against the backdrop of his lifestyle in the mid-1800s and discover reasons why a teenager would engage in this grim pastime:
Reason 1: Toy Shortage
Facing a dearth of toys and decent parlor games, is it any wonder some children would turn to corpses for entertainment?
In 1850, kids had no Internet, no iPads, no TV. Not even radio. They didn't have phones, much less iPhones. Tires hadn't been invented, so they had nothing to roll down a hill. And they couldn't play hot potato because of the famine. In the Victorian Era, these were the "in" games for kids:
Kick the Tea Kettle
I'm thinking tea kettles were made of cast iron back then, which probably damaged many a foot. Rich kids kicked less ponderous tea kettles made of sterling silver, coining the phrase, "born with a silver pot on your foot."
Blind Man's Bluff
This game was basically tag, but "It" was blindfolded and pushed people instead of tagging them. So the kids were either blind or being shoved around like broadway play orphans.
Hunt the Slipper
"All the players but one are placed in a circle; that one remains outside to hunt the slipper, which is passed from hand to hand very rapidly in the circle. The hunter cannot judge where it is, because all the players keep their hands moving all the time, as if they were passing it." (Girl's Own Book by L. Maria Child, 1834). How bored are you when this is a game? Even prisoners don't get bored enough to play "hunt the government-issue shower shoes."
I'm thinking Walter Potter said to himself, If I have to kick one more damn kettle, or hold one more person's stinky-ass slipper, I'm going to, going to... outfit that kitten pelt in a fabulous wedding gown!
Reason 2: No Bob Barker
How on earth could they control the pet population in the Victorian Era? Without "The Price is Right's" reminder to have our pet spayed or neutered, Victorians were lousy with kittens. They were popping out of their frock coats; nestling in their corsets and crinolines; circling their mince pies. You couldn't so much as sit down at the piano forte without a kitten muffling the soundboard. Where were they all supposed to go? One answer: In a diorama with a miniature tea service.
Reason 3: Governesses
So what if Walter Potter liked to dress up dead animals in ladies' clothing? He didn't have to fit in at school and seem normal to the adjustment counselor. Victorian kids with money had governesses teach in the privacy of their homes -- and anyone whose family could afford that many miniature morning suits was doing all right. Today, that young teen who delicately pulls the blood and organs out of dead animals before bedecking them with pearl necklaces is sitting right next to your kid in class. And filching everyone's pencil stubs for scenes like this:
Thankfully, today we have a kinder, gentler society. We vigorously frown upon the idea of 15-year-olds killing farm cats and forcing them to wield croquet mallets for all eternity. Instead, 15-year-olds play civilized games like Grand Theft Auto where they learn how to kill, steal and procure prostitutes. Prostitutes "are mainly out on the streets at night, and to receive their services, you must drive close to them and stop. Prostitutes can raise your health to more than 100% in the 3D Universe. However, you can kill the hooker and take your money back when you're finished." (gta.wikia.com)/prostitutes
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