If you think the notion to slap cutesy epigrams on top of photographs of kittens originated with the internet, think again. Deranged cat pictures have been around since the early days of photography. Once humans got their hands on cameras, the dignity of the domesticated feline was forever doomed.
Probably the progenitor of shameless cat pictures was English photog Harry Pointer (1822-1889), who snapped approximately 200 photos of his perplexed albeit jovial "Brighton Cats." Pointer began his career shooting naturalistic photos of cats, but he realized in the 1870s that coaxing felines into ludicrous poses was an exercise in delicious absurdity. Explains vintage photography site Sussex PhotoHistory of his method:
Pointer often arranged his cats in unusual poses that mimicked human activities - a cat riding a tricycle, cats roller-skating and even a cat taking a photograph with a camera [...] Harry Pointer soon realised that even a relatively straight-forward cat photograph could be turned into an amusing or appealing image by adding a written caption. Pointer increased the commercial potential of his cat pictures by adding a written greeting such as "A Happy New Year" or "Very many happy returns of the day."
Pointer may have demonstrated the potential of cats and cameras, but photographer Harry Whittier Frees (1879–1953) took things to the next level. His foray into bizarro animal photography began in 1906, when he put a party hat on the family cat during dinner. The hilarity was so overwhelming that Frees expanded his portfolio to include other fauna. In the preface of his 1929 photography book Animal Land On The Air, Frees sized up his animal subjects:
Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable to taking many "human" parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal. The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion. The best period of young animal models is a short one, being when they are from six to ten weeks of age. An interesting fact is that a kitten's attention is best held through the sense of sight, while that of a puppy is most influenced by sound, and equally readily distracted by it. The native reasoning powers of young animals are, moreover, quite as pronounced as those of the human species, and relatively far surer.
Frees attributed his success as a photographer to his gentle rapport with his animal subjects. Such was not the case with eighteenth-century taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918), whose naturally deceased kittens were unwittingly condemned to embarrassing poses.