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THE ORIGINS OF LONGHAIR CATS
Peter Paul Moormann
The cat fancy is a relatively new phenomenon. A systematic description of breeds began quite late in history. More specifically after 1871, when Harrison Weir from England and Champfleury from France started to study, describe and categorize different cat breeds (Van der Werff). Because of the lack of systematization the origins of longhair breeds are extremely difficult to unravel. Formerly longhairs were indicated as Angora cats or Russian cats. Then in 1887 the British decided to call all longhairs Persians (Van der Werff), as the different breeds were mixed to such an extent that the features characteristic for each specific breed had almost vanished (Tabor, 1991): "The long graceful shape of the Angora disappeared when it was bred with the heavier Persian, and was not seen in the West until the 1950s when new animals were brought from Turkey" (p. 113). Nowadays we have the distinction between longhairs and semi longhairs. Hence both long and semi longhairs have evolved out of a combination of various breeds, some of which have been reported in old cat books. Therefore the following question can be posed: "Which long and semi longhair breeds are discussed in old books?"
Below an investigation of ancient longhair breeds is presented.
One of the best-known longhairs is the Angora (see Fig. 1, 2, and 3.3), at present called Turkish Angora. It has been suggested that this breed is descended from the wild Pallas's Cat of Central Asia (Tibet, extending westwards into Ladak, and northwards through Mongolia to Siberia), that is somewhat smaller than the domestic species, and that is easily recognized by the abundant coat of long and soft hair with which it is clothed (Lydekker, 1896). The Angora stems from Middle Asia, particularly from the regions Khorassan, Khiva, Bokhara and the country of the Turcoman people (Van der Werff). In the ninth and tenth century Turkish tribes brought the Angora, via Persia to Asia Minor and Northern Syria, where Turkish farmers and Turcoman shepherds settled under the patronage of his highness the sultan, first Seldschucksan and later Ottoman sultans. The old Greeks and Romans didn't know the Angora and this breed first entered Europe after the fall of Constantinople. The conquest of Constantinople by the Turks made this city to the Oriental centre of pomp and circumstances and facilitated the import of large numbers of proud, longhaired pussycats. However, it took some time before they showed up in Europe, where longhaired cats became fashionable in the higher circles of aristocracy - mainly in France - after their introduction of Venetian traders in the late Middle Ages, or even earlier, some believe, with the returning crusaders (Gabor, 1991).
Figure 1: Angora cats.
Figure 1: Angora cats. Illustration in Cassel's popular naturel History (2nd half 19th century). Volume II; Mammalia. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.
According to Van der Werff the Angora is quite big, larger and heavier than the European shorthair. The coat is long and silky, covering the whole body. The tail resembles a large plume. Many colors were known. According to Van der Werff the purebred Angora however has a solid color, never has markings or patches. For that reason it might be that Angora's with patches, for instance tortie & whites were given special names such 'Angora d'Espagne', or Spanish Angora (see nr. 13 from Fig. 8). Since its first appearance in Asia Minor white, black, blue and bright orange were the colors of the Angora cat. Eye color should harmonize with coat color. High prices were paid for Angoras and Turkish merchants brought these cats to India, Afghanistan and Southern Persia where they became the little darlings of women living in harems. Particularly white Angoras with blue eyes were much sought after. The best description of the Angora (see Fig. 2) is given by Harrison Weir (1889):
Figure 2: Angora (Harrison Weir, 1889)
"The points are a small head, with not too long a nose, large full eyes of a colour in harmony with that of its fur, ears rather large than small and pointed, with a tuft of hair at the apex, the size not showing, as they are deeply set in the long hair on the forehead, with a very full flowing mane about the head and neck; this latter should not be short, neither the body, which should be long, graceful, and elegant, and covered with long silky hair, with a slight admixture of wooliness; in this it differs from the Persian, and the longer the better. In texture it should be as fine as possible and not so woolly as that of the Russian; still it is more inclined to do so than the Persian. The legs to be of moderate length, and in proportion to the body; the tail long, and slightly curving upwards, towards the end. The hair should be very long at the base, less so towards the tip. When perfect it is an extremely beautiful and elegant object, and no wonder that it has become a pet among the Orientals" (p. 22).
Figure 3: Dutch copper engraving, about 1800.
1: Chartreux   2: Spanish cat   3: Angora
Weir claims as well that he has never seen imported strong-colored tabbies of this breed, nor does he believe such are true Angoras. I have some doubts about this assertion (see Fig 2 where tabby markings are prominent in the cat below at the left, and see Fig. 3 where tabby markings are incomplete though visible). During my visit in Istanbul some years ago I have seen quite a lot of Tabbies. I even made pictures of them. Moreover from a genetic point of view there should be tabbies if there are blacks. According to Gabor (1991) Turkey is also noted for another longhaired cat, although the Turkish Van, bred and shown in Britain, would not be recognized as such in its homeland, the Lake Van region of Anatolia. Gabor traveled to there and expected to find longhaired cats that would look like the Turkish Van, such as described in the standard of points of the GCCF with the characteristic auburn patches. However the true Van cat turned out to be a charming, delicate, all-white Angora. Both the local people as well professor Gure of the Van University who has made a special study of them confirmed this notion. For the local people what distinguishes a Van is its odd eyes, preferably one green and one blue, although yellow and blue are also acceptable. Such odd-eyed cats are selected from litters. The cats from Ankara, they say, have both eyes blue (Gabor, 1991).
Despite its charm, elegance and beauty in the long run the Persian (see Fig. 4 and 5) won the battle against the Angora in regard to popularity. However it should be noted that in the eighteenth century famous naturalist such as the French Comte de Buffon were not yet fully aware of the real difference between Angoras and Persians. De Buffon for instance believed that there was no difference between an Angora and a Persian except in color - that in build and appearance they were the same (Gabor, 1991). The Persian De Buffon described in fact was a blue smoke form of the Angora (the Dutch illustration of the Angora from Fig. 3.3 probably is copied from in illustration in Du Buffon, because of its great similarity. I know this because I gave my original black and white De Buffon as a present to Jean-Paul Maas).
Figure 4: Persian (Harrison weir, 1889)
The original Persian (Van der Werff) was larger, more massive, and had a broader skull and more powerful head than the Angora and the expression of the eyes was almost human. The claws were more impressive and the frill was longer. The Persian breed is very old, and sculptures and inscriptions from the ruins of Susa and Persepolis demonstrate that Persians were already known at the court of Cambyses and Darius. From ancient chronicles and paintings we can learn that in Persia, during the reign of Darius and Xerxes, beautiful golden and silver tabbies existed. Since ancient times the Persian was known for its lovely tabby markings. Particularly the silver tabbies at the court of the Sassanites were famous in the whole Orient. The golden tabbies from the shah of Nadir were glorified by poets. Nowadays the reservoir of beautiful cats in Persia is empty. In the 19th century English travelers and diplomats bought the best specimen for considerable sums of money. The last shahs had other troubles than taking care of their strain of cats at the national court. This explains why at the onset of the cat fancy the best Persians were found in England. When looking at the descriptions given in old books there is a great similarity between Van der Werff and Weir regarding type and coat texture: "The (Persian) head is rather larger, with less pointed ears, although these should not be devoid of the tuft at the apex, and also well furnished with long hair within, and of moderate size. The eyes should be large, full, and round (orange-yellow), with a soft expression; the hair on the forehead is generally rather short in comparison to the other parts of the body, which ought to be clothed with long silky hair, very long around the neck, giving the appearance of the mane of a lion. The legs, feet, and toes should be well clothed with long hair and have well-developed fringes on the toes, assuming the character of tufts between them (1889, p.25). Regarding the Persian's tail Weir notes the following: "This differs somewhat from the Angora, the tail being generally longer, more like a table brush in point of form, and is generally slightly turned upwards, the basic being more full and coarser at the end, while at the base it is somewhat longer" (p. 24). Concerning body features (see Fig. 5):
Figure 5: Persian (Harrison Weir, 1889)
"It is larger in body, and generally broader in the loins, and apparently stronger made, than the foregoing variety (Angora), though yet slender and elegant, with small bone, and exceedingly graceful in all its movements, there being a kind of languor observable in its walk, until roused, when it immediately assumes quick motion of the ordinary short-haired cat, though not so alert" (p. 25). However regarding accepted coat colors there is great dissimilarity between the Dutch and the English author. According to Weir: "The colors vary very much, and comprise almost every tint obtainable in cats, though the tortoiseshell is not, nor is the dark marbled tabby, in my opinion, a Persian cat color, but has been got by crossing with the short-haired tortoiseshell, and also English tabby, and as generally shows pretty clearly unmistakable signs of such being the case" (p. 25). Apart from a genetic point of view there is another reason to believe here Weir might be wrong, as Van der Werff relies upon ancient Persian chronicles and paintings, from which it becomes crystal clear that it just was the tabby that was famous and glorified in the courts of the shahs of Persia. However it might be that Weir only excludes marbled tabbies (blotched) and that striped tabbies (mackerel) were recognized as being authentic Persians
The Russian longhaired cat is another example of an ancient breed that in regard to its roots and looks is surrounded by mystery, confusion, and misunderstanding.
A Russian breed described by Van Gink is the Caucasian cat from which it is speculated that it has been imported from Persia. The head is smaller and the coat is not that long as in the Persian. Coat color usually is orange, yellow or pale brown, both with and without tabby markings. It is supposed that divergence from the Persian has been caused by differences in climatologic influences and/or crossing with Russian shorthair breeds. However it is striking that the Caucasian demonstrates the same type in Kabarda, Abkhazia, Legist Han and the Southern steppes despite the divergence in climates. In the Russians longhairs Van der Werff makes a distinction between the Tobolsk, the Kazan, and the Crimean (Van der Werff).
The Tobolsk cat with red coat is a massive animal, which can easily weight more than twenty pounds. It resembles a miniature of the powerful tiger of Siberia. It looks wild in appearance, but in fact it is sweet tempered. In my opinion it seems the best candidate for being the direct ancestor of the Siberian Forest Cat. It might be descended, just like the Angora from the wild Pallas's cat from Central Asia, which is characterized by a very broad skull, much elevated in the region of the eyes; nasal bones very narrow posteriorly, and suddenly expanded at their terminal third; anterior pre-molar apparently wanting. Length of head and body, about 21 inches; of tail, 10 inches. The hairs of the Pallas's cat are long and soft, yellowish-grey at the base, yellowish in the middle, and white at the tips. General color of the fur whitish, with some slight black markings on the chest and upper parts of the limbs, a few narrow black transverse bars, widely separated from one another across the loins; tail ringed with black (Lydekker, 1896).
The Kazan cat is black or has a silvery blue coat with blue extremities. Probably solid black or blue smoke. It resembles the Turkish Angora and it is supposed to have the same ancestry, as Kazan has been an independent Tartar empire and the Tartars of this country and the Turcoman people from Khorassan were doing business together and were blood-related.
The Crimean cat is pure white and the coat is shorter than that of an Angora, probably by hybridization with cats from Rumania and Poland (Van der Werff). Already between 1853 and 1856 the Crimean was extremely rare, and nowadays it probably has become extinct.
Weir (1889) made a portrait of a Russian, which he owned himself (see Fig. 6). The parents of the cat came from Russia but from what part he never could ascertain: "It differed from the Angora and Persian in many respects.
Figure 6: Russian (Harrison Weir, 1889)
It was larger in the body with shorter legs. The mane or frill was very large, long, and dense, and more of a woolly texture, with coarse hairs among it; the colour was of dark tabby, though the markings were not a decided black, nor clear and distinct; the ground colour was wanting in that depth and richness possessed by the Persian, having a somewhat dull appearance. The eyes were large and prominent, of a bright orange, slightly tinted with green, the ears large by comparison, with small tufts, full of long, woolly hair, the limbs stout and short, the tail being very dissimilar, as it was short, very woolly, and thickly covered with hair the same length from the base to the tip, and much resembled in form that of the English wild cat. Its motion was not so agile as other cats, nor did it apparently care for warmth, as it liked being outdoors in the coldest weather" (p.31). Furthermore Weir goes on will telling that he never saw any but those of a tabby color, and they mostly were of a dark brown, e.g brown tabbies, with only one or two exceptions, and these were both black. The picture in Fig. 6 and the description given by Weir instantly reminded me of a type of Persians I judged in the seventies in Holland. There is a remarkable similarity. They were either red (orange) or white. I particularly liked the cobby body, massive short legs and the short tail. However the type of head did not correspond very well to the present Persian standard, because the ears were quite large and pricked (placed too close together). Furthermore the eyes were deep set, which affects the illusion of roundness. However the coat was magnificent. Very long, even on the head and legs, with tufts everywhere, particularly around the ears and between the toes. Nowadays you seldom see Persians with such a long coat. Coat length doesn't seem to matter anymore. It might be that the 'Persians' that conform to the descriptions above had Russian bloodlines far away in their pedigrees. However this is more speculation than fact.
The Himalayan cat (Van Gink), discovered in the high forest regions of Northern India, near the borders of Tibet by English travelers is huge, strong, and pure white with a long coat. This cat is famous for its deep blue eye color. Its ancestry dates back thousands of years ago. Some were imported to Europe and Mrs. Mc. Laren Morrison showed Himalayans at London Exhibitions. However this breed hasn't become a great success. Some felt oppressed in summer because of their thick coats. Others suffered from homesickness. They simply could not cope with the British climate. Most died and purebred offspring doesn't exist anymore. However some Himalayan males were successfully used for improving blue eye color and coat texture in other longhairs.
The Chinese cat with pendulous, flattened or folded ears (Van Gink) is described as a subspecies of Chinese longhair cat (Figure 7). In Gray's 'Catalogue of Carnivorous Animals in the British Museum' it is stated that in some Chinese cats the ears are pendulous, but subsequent observers have been led to doubt the truth of this statement (Lydekker, 1896). According to Van Gink the coat is cream or red with or without white patches. The eye color is golden yellow and they have a sweet expression and temper. They belong to one of the oldest, perhaps the oldest longhair breeds. The domestic cats of China have been regarded as originating from an exclusively Asiatic source, and the same has been suggested as those of India (Lydekker, 1896).
Figure 7: Chinese longhair cat with pendulous ears. Illustration in Van Gink after a sketch of Jean Bungartz.
Although now the Highland Fold is considered as a rarity, as something new, special and interesting, in fact we are mistaken, as the Chinese already bred cats with folded ears centuries ago. From ancient Chinese Encyclopedias (Van der Werff, beginning of 1900) we know that the orange-yellowish longhair with folded ears was described 6000 years B.C. The folded ears are a sign of domestication and selective breeding. According to Van der Werff, long before Egypt and Assyria reached their peak, China already was a highly civilized and prosperous country, renowned for breeding several domestic animals, for instance the miniature spaniels, Pekinese, and the mops. And do not forget the different varieties of carps and gold fishes, such as the Lion's head. In Nanking, China's former capital, longhair cats with both semi-folded and folded ears have been described. The French writer Pierre Loti, a marine officer, possessed some of these Chinese cats as company on his ship. He adored them.
In contrast with the present status as a short hair breed, in the first half of 1900, Van Gink described the Chartreux as a longhair breed with an extremely fine and silky coat texture. In the Larousse Encyclopedia even a picture exists of this French breed as a longhair cat (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Illustration from Nouveau Larousse Illustre (par Millot)
12: Chat bleu des Chartreux
13: Chat angora d'Espagne
However a much older Dutch copper engraving from about 1800 (see Figure 3.1) depicts the Chartreux as a shorthair breed. It is called the tame ash-grey colored cat or 'Karthuizer'. It is even mentioned that sometimes they may have ghost markings. As you can see from the picture the eye color was green instead of yellow or deep gold, required in the present standard of this ancient French breed. It should be noted that the colors in old pictures and engravings often are unreliable as they have been added later on. Hence we don't know whether the colors are based on real-life examples or based on imagination.
In the early days of cat showing in America the Maine Coon reigned supreme: at the Madison Square Garden show in 1895 a Maine cat was best of show (Gabor, 1991). But the arrival of fashionable pedigree Persians forced them to retire to the ranks of the farming community for many decades. According to Gabor two theories exist on the origin of the Maine Coon, e.g. on the introduction of the longhair gene in America.
The first one is the most romantic and concerns immigrant cats on ships from France to America. The heroin in this story is the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette, who owned six Angoras (Gabor, 1991): "During the French Revolution a plot was hatched for the royal family to escape from France on the ship Sally, whose captain was a man named Samuel Clough from Wiscasset, Maine. The plan failed, but the captain sailed with the household effects - including the six cats. Outdoor life in New England would have turned the courtly Angora into the all-American Maine Coon" (p. 125).
The second theory is based on coat colors, and holds the Vikings from Scandinavia responsible for the introduction of the longhair gene in America (Gabor, 1991). Hence the Norsk Skaukatt stood at the cradle of the Maine Coon. The idea is that some Skaukatts could have been taken from Iceland or Greenland to America. Both theories are highly speculative. The argumentation that the close resemblance between both breeds strengthens the latter theory isn't very plausible as we have seen that nearly all ancient longhairs have features in common. Furthermore a point that weakens this theory is coat texture. In Maine Coons a woolly undercoat isn't allowed while it is a prerequisite for the Norwegian. Where is the more or less flat lying coat from the Maine Coon then coming from? Angora ancestors? In that sense the silky coat texture of Marie-Antoinette's or other immigrant Angoras is a far better candidate.

What about the ancestors of the Norsk Skaukatt or Norwegian Forest Cat? In ancient Norse legends cats with long bushy tails do occur. The Vikings are held responsible for importing Angoras from Asia Minor. Another possibility is the import of Russian cats via river trade routes (Gabor, 1991). For both points of view there is some credibility. The wedge-typed head, oblique eye setting and quite large ears point to the Angora, while the broad skull, woolly coat texture and wild looks are suggestive of Russian influences. More recent hybridization with modern Persians is another factor for explaining the thick coat of the Norwegian.
In the beginning of the seventies, at the start of my judging career I was invited to judge in Uppsala (Sweden) by the club of Annehilde Richter. An interesting, though irrelevant detail, concerns the fact that I judged together with the flamboyant Ivor Raleigh, a former president of the GCCF (whose father had a position under the tsars and who went back to England after the Russian revolution). In Uppsala it was the first time I had to judge Norwegians. However I also had to judge a great number of Angoras, all belonging to a Swedish exhibitor, who had brought these cats directly from Turkey. There she had spent several years because her husband worked for the Swedish consulate. What's the point? Well, in many cases I couldn't see the difference between the Norwegians and the Angoras. The Angoras were purebred, but it turned out that 'accidents', e.g. hybridization with Persians were exhibited as Skaukatts. None of those 'Norwegians' had straight profiles, but they all had the required wedge. The standard at that time even accepted a slight dip in the profile for females (characteristic of Angoras). Over the years a lot of work has been done in Scandinavia to improve the type. However there was a period of overshooting. The Norwegians became too oriental in appearance and often had a rather short coat without the wooliness asked for in the standard. Nowadays these points of critique have been overcome by selective breeding, and by hybridization with cats with thick coats. Is this the real Skaukatt? I don't think so, but it perfectly fits what is asked for in the standard.
Epilogue
We have seen that it is very difficult to unravel the origins of the longhair breeds. Many breeds have been mixed up to such an extent that in the end they all look alike. A glance at the picture of the first cat show in Crystal Palace in 1871 (see Fig. 9) instantly makes us of aware of the fact that it is not easy to see the difference between the breeds if coat color, coat length, and coat texture are excluded.
Figure 9: First Cat Show in Crystal Palace, 1871
By 1903, Frances Simpson, the influential English show judge, could find 'hardly any difference between Angoras and Persians', and the distinctions were so fine 'that I must be pardoned if I ignore the class of cat commonly called Angora, which seems gradually to have disappeared from our midst' (Tabor, 1995, p. 51). Several solutions for this problem can be brought forward. 'Call them all Persians and don't bother anymore' was the easiest way-out to solve the problem. This is exactly what the British did about a century ago. However, at present there is a growing interest to restore the authenticity of the ancient longhair breeds. I encourage this tendency, but the lack of documentation, particularly the lack of pictures is an obstacle. Without pictures it is impossible to know how a purebred feline should look like. This article supplies us with some information on the looks of ancient breeds, but I would be grateful if other cat lovers can supply me with additional information. A better approach would be to go back to the native country of a particular breed and to carry out a research on the local cats. That would be exciting, in particular concerning the Eastern European breeds discussed in this article. Who can inform me about the ancient Russian or Ukrainian breeds?
My contact by email is: < almoor@xs4all.nl >
References
  • Cassell's Popular Naturel History (2nd half 19th century). Volume II; Mammalia. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.
  • Gink, C.S. Th. Van (undated). Katten: Verzorging, teelt en rassen [Cats: Management, breeding and breeds]. Utrecht: De Haan N.V.
  • Lydekker, R. (1896). A hand-book to the carnivora. Part I: Cats, civets, and mongooses. London: Edward Lloyd, Limited.
  • Tabor, R. (1991). Cats: The rise of the cats. London: BBC Books.
  • Tabor, R. (1995). Understanding cats. Devon: David & Charles.
  • Weir, H. (1889). Our cats and all about them. Houghton, Mifflin and Company: Boston & New York.
  • Werff, W.J. van der (undated). Onze katten [our cats]. Amsterdam: Kosmos.
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