Kitty tinned cat food point-of-sale cardboard poster for a supermarket, late 1960s-early 1970s.
I’ve recreated this point-of-sale board from an auction that came up some time ago (but I didn’t win). I liked the simple, clean-cut (not to mention kischy) graphics and thought it would be another project to add to the “remake” list – “It’s an easy one” I said to myself, “not too much detail…”. Well, famous last words. It took a lot longer to recreate than I thought it would.
A couple of people seemed to remember it on supermarket shelves from the late 1960s to early 1970s, but only vaguely; and were unsure of whether it was actually a New Zealand brand or not, when it had first appeared – or even how long it was around.
Buffalo Puppy Cakes – Evening Post, July 1926, and Mellox – Evening Post, February 1927. Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.
So while I was redrawing it, I looked around to see what I could find out about it – which was not much, until I stumbled across the online CV of an American company executive who listed having worked on Kitty cat food during his tenure developing the pet food division of an American company.
I think that Kitty was likely the creation of a long-standing US outfit named New England Fish Company (NEFCO), who were frantically building their pet food market and division in the 1960s, and by the early 1970s – had set-ups internationally including Asia. So I don’t think it was a domestic New Zealand manufacture or even a license – it was likely imported.
Kitty salmon tin, early 1970s. Image courtesy of dustincropsboy on Flickr.
Although J. Murray and Co were making both Mellox Marvels and Buffalo Puppy Cakes by the late 1920s in Wellington, Aulsebrook’s were making and selling food for dogs by the late 1930s at least, and Chums was available in stores by the mid 1940s – all appear to have been biscuits or at the most pellets of some form – specific food for pets was likely still seen as a bit silly as well as a superficial expenditure.
Pets generally got the meals scraps from the table and whatever else was handy at the time to supplement it. I’m not really sure when or why people got the idea that their non-human companions needed “special” food, but it seemed to have started to build just before WWI. Certainly it existed in Britain and the US a bit earlier than that but I don’t think the general idea of wet, canned pet food as a convenience was a thing until nearly the 1950s.
Kitty Salmon advert, The Milwaukee Journal, USA, Jan 1975.
What the reasons are behind the advent of this industry is not something I’m really sure about and I can’t say that I’ve come up with what I think is a solid reason. The obvious one is simply advertising agencies suggesting it was an untapped market that could be built on to extract yet more money from unsuspecting customers. The increase in marketing of branded products could be a significant contributor, although that really started to build steam in the 1950s. I also thought about the juxtaposition between domestic animals as a practical requirement (think of the usefulness of cats and dogs to keep rodents and other pests under control, particularly in rural areas) and then – the trend turning to pampered pedigree luxury. I certainly think the enduring hardships of the Depression and then WWII rationing had an impact on the change of outlook when it came to all products.
I thought that probably the most plausible explanation for the explosion in the 1950s of pet food brands is the fact that the NZ government cut imports of some products by fifty percent in the mid-late 1950s. I have little knowledge the politics of import trade at the time. The obvious answer is it was put in place to foster the growth of domestic industries. Regardless, companies quickly responded to this; Wattie’s first launched their infant food line in 1958 in direct reaction – but already by 1955 they had established two brands of pet food – so this may or may not be the answer either.
A still of a Bob Kurtz cartoon from an early-mid 1970s Kitty cat food TV ad.
First were Felix for cats and Fido for dogs – those two brands are acknowledged to be the first domestically produced canned pet food. Then came Bonzo which was launched the following year. Fido Crunchies was introduced in 1967 and Chef Jellimeat and the ludicrously-named Pussy Puffs in 1969 (the latter quickly flopped, and was put on ice until the mid 1980s when it was re-introduced into the market as Biscats and was a roaring success second time around). The idea of the pet food line apparently had its roots in using up waste fish product; no import politics involved seemingly – however a salesperson who was involved in that industry at the time told me that “in the mid 1970s, we were only allowed to bring in about five hundred dollars worth of Whiskas and Pal pet foods a year – the import licence covered just a hundred cases of each per annum, from memory - which we sold in one lump to Woolworths, who had it in one or two flagship supermarkets.”
At this time both of those brands still came in from overseas. Also by 1959 – major foodstuffs company of the time, Butland’s, had joined the market with the Champ range for both cats and dogs. By the 1960s there was Lucky by Meat Packers NZ Ltd, and in the 1970s, Holmes, and VIPets by Thompson & Hills Ltd joined them. Tux had been around for a while by then. So I’m not sure why imports were needed at that point – However this piece of information proves there were restrictions – and there may have been for some time. It seems that by around 1979 import restrictions were lifted across several categories.
A still from an early-mid 1970s Kitty cat food TV ad showing the range.
NEFCO was founded way back in 1868 – and by 1901 had changed from a co-op to an incorporated company. Kitty was probably launched sometime in the 1960s – quite late in the piece.The well-known cartoonist Bob Kurtz did a series of fun TV ads for them in the early 1970s that North Americans seem to remember well. You can see some of them here, here, and here.
However the short-lived brand was likely gone by the late 1970s. An art director who was around that time says - ” I heard the creator of these spots (Greg “Cat” Springer, who earned his nickname from this campaign ) speak at a meeting. He told us that, although the ads were wildly successful, and the product became an overnight sensation, Kitty failed quickly because cats wouldn’t eat it. “It made them gag,” he said. A caveat for all advertisers: Good ads don’t make good products.”
Although records show Kitty was still on the North American market until at least 1977 – through the decade the company went into decline due to various events including several serious law suits, and then eventually bankruptcy – filing for complete liquidation in 1980. In reality, Kitty probably only ever had a moment in Aotearoa.
One of the earlier dog foods available in New Zealand on a commercial scale -Chums dog biscuits, Auckland Star, November 1944. Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.
I think this item was likely just a board done by some local sign artist for a supermarket in the Invercargill area in the very early 1970s. Like many of these Kiwi items the dated graphics make it appear to be much older than it really is, which can be misleading when it comes to researching. It clearly had little to do with the brand’s official imagery. They probably simply said – “Right, we have this new shipment of cat food coming in to get rid of. Do a sign – we don’t care much what it looks like – just put a cute kitten on it, anything will do”. While seemingly not a product unique to the Antipodes – the graphics likely are.
Above and below: Champ canned dog and cat foods, from JR Butland aka the Champ Pet Food Co. These labels circa 1959, private collection.a
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