Sleek and sexy, Siamese cats have a long and rich history. The breed may be one of the oldest in existence as its distinctive features were described in Asian literature centuries ago. Their unique markings make them easily recognizable while their devotion and disposition make them a favorite family pet.
The Siamese cat originated in Southeast Asia, roughly modern day Thailand. It is believed that the cats were bred by Siamese royalty, however, the royals of Siam did not keep any records so this is difficult to prove. Quite possibly visitors to ancient Siam would have seen the cats just as easily roam through villages and temples as they did royal palaces. Perhaps these stories of Siamese royalty were to make the creatures more attractive to European buyers at the turn of the 20th Century.
The earliest descriptions of Siamese cats appear in a book called Tamra Maew, or Cat Poems, a manuscript written in the ancient city of Ayudha sometime between 1350 and 1767, during the city’s reign. However, the poems in the book are believed to be derived from oral songs and stories that date much earlier. The cats were called Wichien-maat meaning “moon diamond’ and illustrations depict the cats with slim bodies and pale-colored coats with dark coloring on the ears, face, tail and feet.
The Siamese first appeared in Europe in 1884 when Edward Gould, British Counsel-general in Bangkok, brought back a breeding pair as a gift to his sister, Lillian Veley. The cats, Pho and Mia, had three kittens. All five cats were presented at the Crystal Palace Cat Show in 1885 where everyone who saw them was impressed by their unique appearance. Unfortunately the kittens died shortly after. Veley went on to co-found the Siamese Cat Club in 1901.
Interestingly enough, the first Siamese to appear in the US was six years earlier in 1878. David Sickels, US consul to Bangkok, sent one to First Lady Lucy Hayes. In a hand-written note the Consult said to Mrs. Hayes, “Having observed a few months ago in an American newspaper a statement that you were fond of cats, I have taken the liberty of forwarding to you one of the finest specimens of Siamese cats that I have been able to procure in this country…I am informed that it is the first attempt ever made to send a Siamese cat to America.” The note also states the cat was shipped by the Occidental and Oriental line to San Francisco and then sent express to D.C. That’s quite a trip!
Mrs. Hayes named the cat Siam and she quickly became a family favorite, especially to the Hayes’ 12-year-old daughter, Fanny. Siam was allowed to roam the White House freely and she often made grand entrances when the First Lady entertained. Sadly, a year later the cat became ill and passed away. Her body was delivered to the Secretary of Agriculture with personal instructions from the President’s steward, Billy Crump, to preserve the cat. Despite searches by the Department of Agriculture’s museum and the Smithsonian, Siam’s body has never been found.
The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) describes the breed standard as having a long head with a wedge appearance that continues to their large ears. Their bodies are muscular with long tapered lines. They have almond-shaped eyes colored a deep blue. They have white to creamy color on their bodies with dark-colored fur on their faces, paws and tail. The CFA recognizes four point colors: Seal, chocolate, blue and lilac. These colorings, called points, are created by a recessive gene so both parents need to have it to produce kittens with points. Siamese cats are white at birth and the color develops gradually. The “point” gene is heat sensitive, so the colors appear on the coolest parts of the body.
Once in the New World, the Siamese quickly became popular. It should be noted, however, that the original cats that came from Siam were not as sleek and angular as the Siamese we know today. Those traits were favored in the breeding process. The original Siam cats were a bit wider with a rounder face. This has caused some in the cat community to separate the cats into “Traditional” Siamese and “Modern” or “Show” Siamese.
Siamese were popularized in books, film and television. For example, Si and Am, the cartoon villains of Lady and the Tramp, DC in the 1965 Disney film That Darn Cat! and Ling Ling from Bewitched. More recently, the lovely ladies of Charmed had Kit Kat. In literature Genghis is a Siamese from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and Koko & Yum-Yum are the sleuth cats from Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series. To find photos of famous people and their Siamese cats, visit BlackandTanSiamese.com.
Siamese cats are intelligent and social. They are often described as dog-like in their willingness to please humans. They strongly bond to their “people” and do not like being left alone for long periods of time. Siamese are extremely communicative and known for their loud, distinctive voices. They require little grooming and shed lightly. Siamese are known to be a hearty breed and can live well into their second decade if cared for properly.