When Time Predicted Cats Were the Hot New Thing


On December 7, 1981, 40 years after the bombing on Pearl Harbor, Time Magazine decided to mark the historic event with a cover story on ... cats?! Time, which once billed itself as “The Most Important Magazine to the World’s Most Important People,” scooped Newsweek with a cover story on this hot new trend. (They scooped the Internet as well.) But what may seem to the casual observer like a fluff piece was important enough that the magazine used several bureaus (including Washington’s Maureen Dowd!) to contribute to the piece.

That extra effort was worth it: At 2:27 p.m. in the afternoon, this Time Magazine officially became my favorite Time Magazine of all time (replacing this one). To celebrate, I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from the cover story with you. Here are just a few of the wonderful indicators that showed that cats (in the ‘80s) were finally clawing their way to the top.

Indicator #1: Garfield, a comic-strip cat.

“The most famous feline to express this perplexing relationship between man and pet is Garfield, a comic-strip cat.”

In 1981, three different Garfield books were on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. One of them, Garfield at Large had been on the list for 84 weeks and had sold 2 million copies! But as the author points out, Garfield wasn’t alone. Three other cat books were also on the prestigious list, raising the total number to six cat-themed books.

Indicator #2: Cat-themed everythings had emerged. 

“Garfield and his top-selling feline pals are but one example of the cat boom in the U.S.”

America’s obsession wasn’t just limited to books. Cats had emerged as a force on Broadway. Specialty cat shops had popped up in fancy cities. Portrait artists had begun to charge $2500 to celebrate your cat.

Indicator #3: California was taking it too far.

“California, as always a seismographic chart of late-breaking obsessions, now has a cat resort, a cat department store, a cat rest home, a rent-a-cat agency, a cat dating service, cat psychics, cat acting coaches and a special annual contest to judge cats’ meows.”

Indicator #4: The numbers were strong.

“Cats, love ’em or hate ’em, are a hot number.”

In the early ‘80s, Cats were quickly gaining on dogs as pets. The story reported 34 million cats had worked their way into homes, a 55 percent increase over the last decade. And people were spending to keep those cats alive: Cat food sales would be $1.4 billion that year.

Indicator #5: Litter boxes had improved.

“Explains one close observer of the animal universe, Boston Veterinarian Jean Holzworth: “When you talk about convenience, the advent of cat litter is comparable to the invention of the electric light bulb.”

Litter boxes fueled the phenomenon of the indoor house cat. And in the ‘80s, those boxes were getting better and better: $35 litter boxes (about $95 today) had just hit the market boasting kick-proof, odor-proof technology.

Indicator #6: Breeders were getting into the act.

“Gebhardt’s glow is provided by Voodoo, a great black Persian champion who sired 200 championship kittens. Recalls Gebhardt, “Voodoo was the feline answer to Man o’ War.”

While pedigree cat breeding doesn’t bring in the same cash that dog breeding does, some cats were starting to sell for $500 to $1000.

Indicator #7: The Celebrity Cat had arrived. 

“The world’s No. 1 celebrity cat, Morris, has no problems. He is the feline Burt Reynolds...”

Between his awards, the fat cash he was making, his public adoration, his sassy jokes and his (grammatically appropriate) speech patterns, Morris wasn’t just the 9-Lives spokescat, he was a forerunner to the Cheezburger-craving cats and joke-telling felines to come.

Indicator #8: Also, they don’t give a #@%$. (But you do.)

“They pay no mind to politics, opera, opinion polls, fuel-stingy autos or nuclear proliferation. They remain unimpressed by est, Kiwanis, cocaine and PBS. Felines yawn equally at the reputations of Mick Jagger and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.”

Just to remind the reader, cats don’t care what you think … which only makes us want to impress them more?

Whatever the argument, the reporter’s prediction on the growing cat mania was dead right. Last year, an Animal Planet executive told the Boston Globe that cats and dogs were finally on equal footing, drawing equal ratings on the channel. The story also reported that there are now more pet cats in America than dogs: about 86 million to 78 million. And as one cat behaviorist told the Globe, cat lovers finally have the opportunity to show their pride: “The Internet is bringing to the surface what the truth is.”

To read J.D. Reed’s full cover story on cats, which has lots of interesting points that my mangled report didn’t include, be sure to click here.