ITHACA, N.Y. — An important part of toy and Ithaca history is making a comeback. The Ithaca Kitty, a stuffed animal made in the 1890s that launched a fad for plush toys in the United States, is being made again at the History Center in Tompkins County with the help of local volunteers.
Phyllis Smith-Hansen, a retired teacher and self-proclaimed cat lady, led a workshop Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Friends of the Library Book Sale building on Esty St., to teach a group of about 10 people how to make Ithaca’s renowned stuffed kitty.
The plush toy was modeled off Caesar Grimalkin, a gray tabby cat who lived at 116 Oak Ave. in Ithaca. It wasn’t until recently that Smith-Hansen realized Caesar was born with seven toes on each of his white front paws and started producing the Ithaca Kitty accurately as a polydactyl cat.
“Though they loved their cat, his owners said his extra toes were ‘unseemly,’ and chose not to include them when making the Ithaca Kitty. So here we are in Ithaca where we like people just the way they come out of the oven, so we don’t need to have anything corrected,” Smith-Hansen said.
Caesar’s family included William Hazlitt Smith, an attorney and Cornell University graduate, his wife Celia, a skilled sewer and toy designer, and their 2-year-old daughter, Madge. According to the Ithaca Journal, one evening in 1890 Celia pointed to where Caesar was sitting and said, “You know, I could make him, in three pieces.”
After working with scissors and some muslin, she was able to make a cat form. In October of 1892, the Smiths patented the Ithaca Kitty, first known as “The Tabby Cat,” and sold their design to Arnold Print Works in Massachusetts, which sold the printed pattern on half a yard of muslin for 10 cents each. The Ithaca Kitty became enormously popular nationwide as nearly 200,000 were sold that holiday season. It was also featured at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, spreading its popularity and creating a fad for plush toys in the United States that lasted from the 1890s through the end of World War I.
Over a century later, Rod Howe, executive director of the History Center, has reissued the Ithaca Kitty at the History Center, which hasn’t sold the toy since the 1970s. He asked Smith-Hansen to help sew some Ithaca Kitties, and Smith-Hansen took to the threads. She said Howe gave her a silk-screened Ithaca Kitty kit, which contains almost all the materials needed to make an Ithaca Kitty, but after searching through the History Center’s database and learning Caesar had more toes than the kit’s design had, she knew there was a problem. Meanwhile, Smith-Hansen was searching for someone to digitally print the cats and found Stan Bowman, her new digital printer, who managed to finally bring all of Caesar’s toes onto fabric. She said the first 180 cats they printed were made without the extra toes but said that going forward all the cats will be digitally printed with the correct number of toes.
Smith-Hansen then had the idea to write a book about the Ithaca Kitty and the story of Caesar getting his toes back. After a year of searching for an author, Rebecca Barry, a published author and former student of Smith-Hansen’s, has chosen to take on that role.
“This is a story waiting to be written. It’s an Ithaca story and a contemporary story that this poor cat didn’t get represented accurately because he was ‘unseemly’ for having extra toes,” Barry said. She is still brainstorming ideas for the book but said it will be a children’s fiction book that should appeal to adults because of the interesting details that will be included to help tell the story of the Ithaca Kitty. One such detail Barry cited was that the rag toy was allegedly used by farmers to scare away birds and by the Central Park police station to scare mice. Smith-Hansen added that they would like to sell the book alongside the Ithaca Kitty at the History Center.
Smith-Hansen also discussed the community aspect of this effort, as the Ithaca Kitty is locally printed and produced. She said she wants to create a community of sewing circles to tell the story of the Ithaca Kitty and how to produce it and has sent out appeals to other organizations to create their own Ithaca Kitty sewing circles.
“I want to help create a community for anyone who says, ‘We’re ready to sew some kitties.’”
Barry said she sees potential in this community as well, and said other local sewing circles have already shown interest in getting involved in sewing the Ithaca Kitty.
Anyone interested in volunteering to sew the Ithaca Kitty can contact the History Center.
Featured image: The Ithaca Kitty makes its way down the line of a human brigade Oct. 21 transporting items from the History Center’s old location to a new shared location on the Ithaca Commons. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)