12 April 2011

The Robber Kitten

Several years ago, I found this object at an antique shop in Southern Connecticut.  I bought it because, as must be clear to readers of this blog, I'm fond of the felines.   I'm also fond of the preposterous and find this puzzle's absurd conceit endearingly incongruous.  It's not actually a useful thing, in fact, it's just the top of a box that contained, as stated, a "picture puzzle".  As such, it really falls into the category of "ephemera" and I enjoy its silliness even though I usually keep it hostage in non-acidifying plastic in a paper bag in the middle of a pile of heavy books.  Certainly, it deserves better than that, so I thought I'd trace its history and try to figure out just where that Robber Kitten really comes from.  The picture puzzle was created by Parker Brothers, the Salem, Massachusetts games company founded in 1883 by George S. Parker who thought that games should be challenging and fun rather than the spirit dulling exercises in morality so typical of the time.

But The Robber Kitten theme was derived from a book that was highly moral in tone and written in 1858 by prolific Scottish author Robert Michael Ballantyne under the pseudonym "Comus" (lovers of Milton, take note).  It was published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, an enterprise founded in 1798.  Thomas Nelson became, supposedly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first publisher and is still thriving today as the world's largest Christian publishing house.  It was subsequently published (though curiously attributed to a  Dolores McKenna and not Ballantyne),  in 1904 by the Henry Altemus Co., a Philadelphia publisher which created a series entitled Wee Books for Wee Folks and included The Robber Kitten, The Three Little Pigs, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Foolish Fox, and Nursery Tales with Nursery Rhymes.

Chapter One, entitled, "The Kitten Decides to Become a Robber",  begins with a rhyme which recounts the kitten's announcement of its intentions to take up a life of crime...

A kitten once to its mother said,
"I'll never more be good,
But I'll go and be a robber fierce,
And live in a dreary wood;
Wood, wood, wood,
And live in a dreary wood!"

When his shocked mum questions what is surely an ill-considered decision, he defiantly reveals his motive:

"Yes mother", said the kitten, "I'm determined to be a robber; I've not got everything that I want and I feel that I must have everything that I want.  I've been good so long that I'm tired of it, so I've made up my mind to be bad now - fuff!"

Understandably, Mum is now guilt ridden and brimming with self-reproach.  If only she had not been so fond of her young son: "...she gave it too much of its own way, and was not careful enough to keep it out of bad company".   She must face some hard facts.  It's obvious that the kitten has been spending too much time with those rotten kids across the street and has been up to no good.  She follows him to his room and what she finds is every mother's nightmare.  There, she discovers him sporting a full complement of roguish accessories: a holster containing two large horse pistols, a gleaming sword, and a hat rakishly embellished with a feather.  He seems entranced, addressing his mirror as if confronting a loathesome victim, "Come on villain!  Draw and defend yourself!  Your money or your life!"

The story reveals that for all his nefarious ambitions, as a criminal, the kitten is hopeless.  His dastardly plans to stab people, make off with their riches, and raise hell generally are foiled.  He is unskillful with his weapons, occasionally overcome by the beauties of nature and plagued by stirrings of remorse.   A severe beating by a deceitful canine highwayman leaves the kitten in a pitiable state.  His sorrowful mewing is overheard by a kind-hearted owl who urges the naughty kitten to renounce his vow of thuggery and return to his mother.

The kitten came forward with its head hanging down and the tears streaming from its eyes.  Flinging its pistol and sword on the ground, it said: "Take them, mother, and put them into the fire.  Mew!  Oh, forgive me, mother!"

And she does, and through the power of love the Robber Kitten is redeemed, transforming into a Good Kitten once more.   The entire tale, by R.M. Ballantyne, can be read here.  Until I learn otherwise, that seems to be the source for the puzzle, although the Parker Bros. illustration that I have suggests that he has taken up with a confederate, formed a cat gang, and comports himself with a Robin Hood-like brio.  I'm holding out some hope that there's a murkier side to this story in much the same way that the children's rhyme Ring-Around-the-Rosy is, purportedly, about the Plague. 

There's more.  Turn the box top over and you'll find this:

It's an inscription in pencil identifying who I assume to be the original owners of my Robber Kitten Picture Puzzle.  My curiosity is relentlessly feline, so after a little research I made a few discoveries.  I know nothing of either the girl who must have been his sister, Miss Tanner, or the man I take to be her father, Dr. Avery Tanner, Jr.  But I believe I've learned a little about W. Avery Tanner, Jr., who I can imagine as a boy spending a few happy moments with The Robber Kitten  and who grew up to attend Brown University, becoming a member of the Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan Society for whom he served as technical director of  the 1942 production, graduating in 1943, and working as a personnel supervisor at a plastic bottle manufacturer in Stonington, Connecticut while living just outside of Hartford proper.  Mr. Tanner and Miss Tanner, if you're still alive, I have the top of your puzzle.

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