Coolidge’s Cat: Out of the Bag!

I’m always on the lookout for cats in our collections. In March 1924, all of Washington, D.C. was on the lookout for one specific cat – Tige, one of the prized pets of President and Mrs. Coolidge! As promised in a recent Picture This post about dogs in our collections, I now bring you the story of one roaming cat.

The National Photo Company Collection was a Washington D.C.-based agency which supplied photographs of current news events to its subscribers as a daily service. The bulk of the collection dates between 1909 and 1932, and some of the photos were organized into chronological albums. I was browsing in one such album of photos featuring events in 1924 Washington, and found a photo of a cat and what appeared to be a police officer (below), and wondered why this handsome tabby ranked a spot in the news of the day – and was he in trouble with the law?!

"Tige" the White House cat and pet of Mrs. Coolidge has been returned. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924 March 25. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31880

“Tige” the White House cat and pet of Mrs. Coolidge has been returned. Photo by National Photo Company, 1924 March 25. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31880

The National Photo Company albums have pretty informative captions, so I read on to find out more: “‘Tige’ the White House cat and pet of Mrs. Coolidge has been returned. Benj. Fink, guard at the Navy Dept. found Tige promenading around the Navy Bldg. and immediately returned him to the White House. “‘Tige’s’ disappearance was broadcasted by Wash. radio stations.

There’s a lot more to this cute cat picture than I realized at first glance! Looking more closely at the man in the photo, I can now see that the badge on Mr. Fink’s cap does have the word GUARD on it. And I was aware that the Coolidges had quite the menagerie of pets, but was more familiar with their dogs and other unusual animals (enough story there for a future blog post!), so I decided to see what else I could find out about Tige, as well as his apparent outing.

I figured Tige must be short for Tiger, so after searching for additional photos of Tige in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog with no luck, I tried searching for Tiger instead. And I found two photos, also from the National Photo Company Collection, of two kittens named Blackie & Tiger. Was this the same tabby cat? I looked to the first photo of the kittens for more clues.

Blackie & Tiger. Photo by National Photo Company, [1923]. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.24823

Blackie & Tiger. Photo by National Photo Company, [1923]. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.24823

The two kittens here appear to be escaping from a cat carrier (note the mesh panel in the open door), perhaps lured by the ball of yarn in front of them or just the freedom of grass and the outdoors. The building in the background is consistent with the White House, so that’s a point towards these being the Coolidge cats. By zooming in on the high resolution digital file, I can also see ribbons tied in bows around both of their necks. Let’s look at the second photo and see what else we can learn.

Blackie & Tiger, 10/20/23. Photo by National Photo Company, 10 Oct. 1923. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.09707.

This photo has a date in the caption: October 20, 1923, and the way they are captured (mostly) sitting in a beribboned basket feels like a much more staged photo shoot. The date fits based on Tige’s size here and five months later, when a mostly grown Tige went wandering. What do all of these details indicate, and why were these cute kittens having a photo shoot with a professional photographer from the National Photo Company (NPC)?

Could they be newly arrived to the President’s home? I searched for newspaper mentions, since the photos taken by the NPC often ended up published, and found a variant photo of the kittens in the same basket along with a short blurb in the Oct. 22, 1923 edition of the New York Tribune, reading: “THE NEWEST ARRIVALS AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Introducing Blackie & Tige, two friendly kittens recently received by the President and Mrs. Coolidge. Peter Pan and Laddie Buck, the President’s wire-haired terrier and Airedale, respectively, have refused to be quoted concerning the latest additions to the White House zoo.”

The news of Tige’s disappearance and recovery was well-covered in the newspapers, as this small sample from March 25 and March 26, 1924 attests.

Now that we’ve found Tige’s White House debut photos, what about this March adventure? The caption tells a lot of the story, and thankfully leads with the happy ending – Tige was returned safely to the White House after just a few days away. According to the March 26, 1924 New York Times, during a March 21 snowstorm, Tige had wandered into the new Navy building, half a mile from the Executive Offices, and decided to stay after being fed by friendly staff. When Tige had been missing for a few days, the Coolidges became worried enough to enlist the public’s help in finding their pet, and turned to radio stations WCAP in Washington, D.C. and WEAF in New  York.

The March 25, 1924 New York Times reported: “James Haley, a secret service man attached directly to the White House, talked into the radio and the country was notified that the White House Tom cat had left home and was wanted back by the President’s household.” The article detailed the description provided – “striped like a tiger” and “seven months old” – as well as the immediate influx of phone calls to the White House offering a replacement cat! The column ended with: “There may be 100 cats at the White House by tomorrow morning.”

Mrs. Coolidge, Mrs. Geo. G. Seibold & James Haley, 10/13/24. Photo by National Photo Company Collection, 13 Oct. 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12429

Mrs. Coolidge, Mrs. Geo. G. Seibold & James Haley, 10/13/24. Photo by National Photo Company Collection, 13 Oct. 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.12429

Luckily, the radio broadcast did the trick, and there was just one more cat at the White House the next morning: Tige. Tige was spotted by another guard in the Navy building the next day and immediately returned to the White House, prompting the photo that originally caught my attention. I wonder if Secret Service agent James Haley (pictured at far right, guarding Mrs. Coolidge) ever expected his duties to include putting out an APB for a missing tomcat!

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