Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A mummified cat miscellany - featuring swedes, guano, and sensitive pre-Raphaelites

Frankly, when I started investigating the mummified cats, I was hoping to debunk it.  The story is usually told quite badly, with important details omitted or mangled, and exaggerated to the point of falsehood.  The most common exageration is to use the Liverpool cat auction as a stand-in for the other importations of mummified cats that must have occurred, even though no one wrote down a word about them.  I'm convinced that this was it.

Many, many thanks, by the way, to the indefatigable Obooki for the English newspaper articles supplied in comments here.  His work is a tribute to the historic Anglo-American Special Relationship. The articles answer more questions than they raise, which is progress.  For one thing, the seesawing tonnage of mummified cats is explained: there was one shipment (19 1/2 tons) and two auctions, half of the cats in the first, half in the second.  The same buyer "won," if that's the right word, both lots, paying 1.6 times more for the second lot - all of that newspaper publicity must have driven up the price.  That second auction sounds like a circus.  A circus whose only attraction is cat mummies.

Bones as Fertilizer:  19th century England had an active animal bone and bone ash import trade that dates from the late 18th century and continued well into the 20th century.  Bones were ground and directly applied to crops, or, as the chemical fertilizer industry developed, used to make superphosphate fertilizers.  Although "15 per cent were taken by bone-turners and other for non-agricultural purposes."*  I don't even want to know.  Bone ash china, ma femme suggests.  Good point.

The article that supplied that quote also has a handy table of fertilizer prices, 1840-1870, including nitrate of soda, Peruvian guano, and "half-inch bones."  If I am reading the table correctly, the supposed mummy cats were auctioned for a price per ton comparable to that of other bone imports, at least in the first lot.  But the bone price series is incomplete, so who knows if the cats were bought at a premium or a discount.

Did you know that almost all of the guano imported into England went onto turnip crops?  Turnips and "swedes"?  What the heck is a swede?  (It's a rutabaga).  All turned into animal feed.

My bone chemistry question: does the phosphate content of old bones change over time?  Would four thousand year old animal bones be as useful for fertilizer as new ones?  It's a mineral, so why not. 

Mummy Paint, Mummy Powder:  The thing that still puzzles me is that mummies were in fact imported to England for two high-end purposes.  They were ground up to powder for sale as a) medicine, and b) paint.  The scattered and poorly sourced references I've found to these trades refer to these as valuable items, priced per ounce, not per ton.  But I have no idea what amount of actual mummy went into paint and quack powder.  The medicinal mummy dust was notoriously faked.  And anyway, the key part of mummy powder was a mineral salt called natron, which is part of the rags, not of the bones.

I haven't been able to figure out which part or how much of the mummy went into "Mummy Brown" or "Egyptian Brown" paint, either.  I read a crazy story about the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema coming upon his assistants grinding up a mummy for paint.  Alma-Tadema, horrified to learn that there was human material in his paint, rushed off to tell Edward Burne-Jones, who also didn't know that "Mummy Brown" contained actual mummy.  They then - well, let's turn to Rudyard Kipling's memoir.  Burne-Jones was Kipling's uncle:

And once he descended in broad daylight with a tube of 'Mummy Brown' in his hand, saying that he had discovered it was made of dead Pharoahs and we must bury it accordingly.  So we all went out and helped - according to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope - and - to this day I could drive a spade within a foot of where that tube lives. (Something of Myself, Chapter 1, p. 10 of the 1990 Cambridge University Press edition).

Note that Alma-Tadema has vanished from Kipling's version, which was written fifty years after the fact.  Is any of this true?  I thought art historians had gotten interested in materials and prices and that sort of thing, but I can't find any real information about "Mummy Brown."

Is this all the result of a large mummy trade?  Or the product of a small number of mummies smuggled out of Egypt (I've seen sources that imply this)?  Or is the amount of actual mummy rather more homeopathic?  And why couldn't the cats be used for this more valuable purpose?  You can order your own supply of mummy-free Mummy Brown right here.

How to read late 19th century newspapers:  One thing I've learned here is that I don't really know how to use these sources.  To what degree should I trust what I find in a late 19th century newspaper?  Of all the newspaper articles I or Obooki found, only one (The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Feb 11, 1890) reads like an eyewitness account.  Newspapers today have been known to print lightly edited press releases.  They're a source; sources have problems; be careful out there.
Perhaps it's better that the mummified cat story is true. It's so ridiculous.  So unrealistic.  So much fun.

*  All guano and bone-related information from Mathews, W. M. "Peru and the British Guano Market, 1840-1870." The Economic History Review, 23:1 (April 1970), pp. 112-28.  That bone-turner business is from footnote 6, p. 121.  The table with the price series for various types of fertilizer is on p. 120.  Note that the period covered here ends before the legendary mummy cat auction.


  1. I love the investigative report. Of course at some point the phosphorus must leave the bone if it is going to be of any use as fertilizer, but nothing in sitting around time should have started that process.

    A year at Scottish gardening school is enough to make sure you note that not all Swedes are used as livestock fodder.

    AR- side note-- ask about "Appreciationism and Eating Out: An Unwritten Essay from One Non-Professional to Another" next week.

  2. Although I've lived in the U.S. for many years, I was born and grew up in England. We used to have "swedes" all the time--mostly alongside roast beef, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, and cabbage for Sunday dinner. I never knew the word "rutabaga" until I came to America. I still like them boiled, then mashed with butter and pepper.

  3. I was engaging in a bit of summary hyperbole. English farmers were for a time importing hundreds of thousands of tons of expensive South American fertilizer and spreading almost all of it on turnips and rutabagas. That was, then, another puzzle: how could that turnip crop possibly be worth the expense? But it turns out the turnip crop was basically animal feed.

    That's a strange enough story right there. Huge caves of bat guano are mined in order to fertilize turnips which feed cattle which provide jolly Englishmen clubmen with beef steaks. Weirder than the mummy cats, in a way.

    Yeah, rutabagas / swedes aren't bad, are they? I prefer my turnips in soup, though, or as a component of soup stock.

  4. I'm very impressed by your attention to detail - and you say you're not an academic? As for 19th century newspapers, I think that journalists then were much the same as journalists now - pushed for time and interested in the most sensational angles. I tried to find out if there were any good histories of newspapers - loads for the US, but hard to find one for the UK. I came up only with Henry Bourne's 'English Newspapers: Chapters in the History of Journalism Vol II'. No idea where vol I went, but this is in the more appropriate time zone, I think.

  5. I think, at some point, Trollope's Orley Farm involves the purchase of a large amount of guano. I seem to recall there's a humorous scene where the son explains the purchase to his mother.

  6. Your cat mummy posts have been marvelous reading! I am impressed by your dogged determination to get to the bottom of the story. And what a story it is too!

  7. I'm glad people have been enjoying this. The historic detective work is fun, wherever it leads.

    Ah, how I wish I had known that about Orley Farm! That's great. I scanned through the novel - there's a lot of guano there!

    litlove, I don't believe I have ever said I'm not an academic! I'm not in the humanities, though. And until very recently, I was in private industry. With some, but not all, of the Mummifed Cat Special Investigation, I'm more of a Professional Reader. I should clarify some of this, soon. Henry David Thoreau will assist me.

    Thanks for the British newspaper history - I'll want to look at that some time. I came up completely dry in my search.

  8. You're getting paid to read about mummified cats? I so want that gig.

  9. You're getting paid to read about mummified cats?

    I'm getting paid and I'm, reading about mummified cats.