While nursing the flu last week, I read M. F. K. Fisher’s A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd and Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man & Beast. It went down as smoothly as the slippery elm drops fed to Fisher when a child by an especially seductive nanny, who also read Hiawatha aloud to her.
Fisher was fascinated by the persistence of folk-medical habits into the modern era. Writing in 1961, she noted that in Western Europe the pelts of housecats still appeared for sale in the windows of drugstores every winter, because people believed that they repelled colds when worn over the chest. “Are there old men who trap unwary housecats on the rooftops and skin them to sell?” she wondered. Maybe they are still for sale, but I doubt it, and it’s intriguing that this medieval belief was still alive and kicking within human memory—that it still survived, if only as a curiosity, into the second half of the twentieth century.
It reminds me a little of the baby-animal postcards that were sold at Eastertime when I was living in Prague in 1991. We young bratty Americans were vastly amused by the photographs, which were transparently of kittens and rabbits who had been killed and stuffed before they were posed. No doubt taxidermy eased the photographer’s task, but it seemed to compromise the underlying pagan message of rebirth in spring.
Not long ago I noticed another expiring animal tradition in Donald Barthelme’s story “The Falling Dog.” In a mock-poetic series of free associations in the key of dog, Barthelme writes,
Tray: cafeteria trays of some obnoxious brown plastic
But enough puns
I only got the joke because I had had to figure out why the mid-nineteenth-century actor Edwin Forrest had once spurned his detractors as the “Tray, Blanche, and Sweethearts” of the press. Thanks to a line in King Lear, Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart were conventional dog-names in nineteenth-century America, the way Fido and Spot are today. In 1970 Barthelme knew about Tray, if not about Blanche and Sweetheart, and considered the convention to be available for punning upon, and yet it’s a piece of cultural literacy that has almost completely vanished. It isn’t explained in the online notes to the Penguin edition of Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, for example. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Barthelme felt the convention was already brittle and antique when he wrote “The Falling Dog,” and that the quaintness was what he liked about it.