Washday

Posted by Ellen

According to the good people at Life magazine in 1937, no animals were harmed in the production of this and the many hundreds of similar pictures that comprised the life's work of photographer Harry Whittier Frees, "the most famed U.S. photographer of dressed-up animals."

"No animal protective socities have ever accused him of cruelty to animals," said the Life article. "Some have praised and admired his work." Frees, for one, insisted that gentleness with his models was the secret of his success.

Still and all, in the twenty-first century, we kinda wonder.

It all started one evening in 1906 at the Frees dinner table in Audubon, Pennsylvania. Somebody had brought a silly paper hat to the table, and it was passed around from head to head with plenty of giggles and wisecracks. And then somebody put the hat on the head of the family's pet kitten, Boots, which led to even more giggles but also to an epiphany for Harry Frees: he would take a picture of the cat in the hat and see if he could sell it.

A postcard printer bought it and begged for more; a career was born. Frees spent the next forty years dressing up baby animals that he rented from the neighbors and posing them in human sorts of activities. The postcards and children's books now sell for about $20 each on ebay.

Most of the costumes were sewn by Frees's housekeeper, Mrs. Annie Edelman, who contrived stiffeners to keep the animals posed somewhat upright. In his studio, Frees worked hard to keep his models' attention; bunnies were the easiest to work with, he said, because they were so timid they didn't move much. Piglets were the most difficult to handle; when unhappy, they tended to close their eyes tight and squeal.

But Frees's bread and butter were kittens and puppies doing everyday sorts of things that people do. And for what it's worth, note that the clothespins here are made from a single piece of wood, not the spring-loaded pincer kind of clothespin, which would have been difficult to manipulate without opposable thumbs.