Learn more about the Siamese
by Betty White
Originally published in The Cat Fanciers’ Almanac, November 2000
Like cycles in fashion, time produces reevaluations of historical events often brought about by new discoveries. Sometimes it is archaeological evidence; sometimes it is archival through scholarly research. In recent years it has been fashionable to regard the legends surrounding “The Royal Cats of Siam” as more fancy than fact. It is interesting that the earliest publications in England consistently refer to the breed as both “The Royal Cat of Siam” and “Siamese.” This has to do with the claim of protection and breeding under royal supervision in Siam by those who chronicled the earliest imports into the West. Yet these early authors were adamant in their claims of royal protection, and they persisted with their assertions to a degree that suggests veracity. Certainly the Siamese we know and love was revered in its native land long before we knew of its existence. The translation into English in 1998 of the historic Thai Cat Poems or Tamra Maew (published in The Legend of Siamese Cats by Martin R. Clutterbuck) clearly describes a white cat with black ears, face, paws and tail known as Maew Kaew, or Wichien-maas. These poems are between 100 and 200 years old, but reflect a literary culture much older, and contain many illustrations from very old manuscripts.
It was largely the discovery of this one breed by the English well over a hundred years ago that provided the impetus for the world of cats we know today. A striking, contrasting color pattern on an elegant frame, all made dramatic by dark blue eyes, captured the imagination of cat lovers the world over. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Siamese has the undisputed claim to the title of most beloved feline breed. It has been the inspiration, if not the primary genetic source, for many other breeds (Balinese, Colorpoint Shorthair, Javanese and Oriental), has figured in the creation of the Himalayan Persian and Tonkinese, and has served in the development and/or maintenance of the Burmese, Havana Brown, and Ocicat. The Siamese is a mainstay of the pedigreed cat world not only for its own distinct, intrinsic beauty, but also as an unsurpassed genetic wellspring to which many breeds owe their existence and, in some cases, continued well-being. The Siamese is, in short, a feline treasure.
Imported into England in the late 19th century and appearing in catalogues of the Crystal Palace Show as early as 1881, the Siamese at that time was recognized only in seal point. A description by Harrison Weir in Our Cats and All About Them (1889) of the ideal show specimen bears repeating:
The head should be long from ears to eyes, and not over broad, and then rather sharply taper off towards the muzzle, the forehead flat, and receding, the eyes somewhat aslant downwards towards the nose, and the eyes of a pearly, yet bright blue colour, the ears usual size and black with little or no hair on the inside, with black muzzle, and round the eyes black. The form should be slight, graceful and delicately made, body long, tail rather short and thin, and the legs somewhat short, slender, and the feet oval, not so round as the ordinary English cat. The body should be one bright, uniform, even colour, not clouded, either rich fawn, dun or ash. The legs, feet and tail black. The back slightly darker is allowable, if of a rich colour, and the colour softened, not clouded.
Clearly this was an exotic creature in 1889 as well as today!
Always aware of the world around them and cognizant of the gorgeous cat being bred and promoted in England, American fanciers spared no expense in importing many beautiful examples of the breed quite early. Siamese are found in the Beresford Cat Club Stud Books in 1900, and the first Siamese was awarded Best Cat in Show in 1907. With characteristic charm, the breed vanquished this continent as thoroughly and decisively as it had captured the hearts of “Merry Old England.” Classes became large; color classes expanded to four: seal point, blue point, chocolate point, and lilac point. CFA recognized the blue point in 1934, the chocolate point in 1952, and the lilac point in 1955, five years before the English did so. In this millennium year, the four Siamese colors will have been together on the CFA show bench for 45 years!
But it was in the years directly preceding and following the Second World War that the popularity of the Siamese soared, along with the burgeoning of the American cat fancy. Siamese and Persians dominated the show scene, with classes of well over a hundred Siamese being commonplace. Having fallen hopelessly in love with the Siamese color pattern, the consequence of a temperature-controlling enzyme that restricts color to the coolest parts of the body, the American public clamored for this glamorous pet. Overall quality suffered in the rush to supply this demand, resulting in a misconception of the breed that still lingers today. Cats with heavy boning, round heads and washed-out blue eyes began to appear in increasing numbers, a sure sign of mixed ancestry and indiscriminate breeding. Those who remember those frenetic times also recall the many poor examples of the breed on the show bench. As one judge has remarked, “Judging the Siamese classes was more of an exercise in stamina than anything else; good examples were relatively few and easily identified.” The exotic structure of the Siamese was overlooked by the general public in the fascination with its paint job, and this misplaced focus has resulted in a widely-held notion that persists today in the so-called “Traditional Siamese.” It has been with a sigh of relief that those who treasure the breed have welcomed today’s more secure place of the Siamese as a revered, popular breed among other favorite breeds of cats. Accordingly, Siamese to be found in cat shows at present are much more representative of the breed and consistent in type because they are exhibited by breeders dedicated to preserving the finest attributes of this ancient cat.
Without question the Siamese has evolved in type from its earliest beginnings, but the evolution has been consistent with the vision of generations of breeders all over the world whose cats echo the graceful elegance suggested in the earliest breed standards. Simply put, a Siamese is a living, breathing work of art that shuns a display shelf in favor of a lap! Long head, long body, long tail, long neck, long legs – everything about a Siamese is long with the exception of its short coat; a state of affairs which accentuates the body lines and underscores the porcelain-like quality of its visual image. A tubular body, large ears, and fine bones contribute to this exquisite refinement of type. The long, wedge-shaped head graced by large ears that complete that triangle, straight profile, and lovely almond-shaped eyes contribute to a unique expression of feline beauty. When color contrast is excellent and correct, body color even and clear, and the eyes a gorgeous deep blue, the resulting Siamese belongs in that “takes your breath away” category of all riveting great art.
An indication of successful, lengthy domestication of any animal can be found in a high level of communication with and affection for human beings. This is especially true of felines, a naturally independent species. No breed surpasses the Siamese in its ability to communicate and in its love for human beings. Whether it is by vocalizing or by body language, the Siamese is determined to communicate. The degree to which they are talkative depends a good deal on the amount of conversation that is directed their way. In addition, they tend to be vocal in direct proportion to the desired end, always demanding the last word!
Siamese do not tolerate isolation (or being ignored) well; they want to be a part of their owners’ lives, as they hold firmly to the belief that they are man’s best friend. (They play fetch exceedingly well, and have the distinct virtue of returning the thrown object to your lap instead of your feet!) They are in one’s lap, on one’s newspaper, in one’s bed, and completely in one’s heart. There is no better companion cat than “The Royal Cat of Siam.”
A famous author once said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” It is no stretch of the truth to paraphrase Gertrude Stein by affirming: “A Siamese is a Siamese is a Siamese.”
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13. White, B: We Are Siamese…Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, Part 1. The Cat Fanciers’ Association Yearbook. Ocean, NJ, 1987. pp 658-665.
14. White, B: We Are Siamese…Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, Part 2. The Cat Fanciers’ Association Yearbook. Ocean, NJ, 1988. pp 178-185.