The history of Maine Coons
The origin of the Maine Coon is disputed, and there is not a clear “origin story” as one would find in most breeds. It was first thought that the cats mated with raccoons to produce the distinctive bushy ring tail of the breed, but of course this is biologically impossible.
Legends also abound, with the suggestion that the first cats of the breed, known as ‘Maine Cats’ were Norwegian Forest Cats that landed in North America with the Vikings and mated with the local cat population there. This is unlikely, however, as the domestic cat had not made it to the shores of the Americas by the time the “Vikings” (or rather, visitors from Greenland) arrived.
Another story suggests that the breed’s ancestors arrived with Marie Antoinette in the form of 6 Angora cats favoured by the queen. In reality, such a small number of cats were very unlikely to have any meaningful influence on the cat population of the East American coast.
The final story is that of Captain Coon, who arrived in North America with longhaired, poly-pawed cats. His ship cats mated with harbour cats and produced a litter which was referred to as “another Coon cat”.
In reality, Captain Coon’s story is not dissimilar to what is likely to be the roots of the Maine Coon. It is claimed that sailors preferred polydactyl cats, as they were said to have better climbing and mousing abilities and were considered to be good luck. It is estimated that somewhere between 25-40% of Maine Coons have polydactyly and we can look at those pockets of coastline where polydactyl numbers have developed and link them to where ships docked, to potentially see the origins of the breed.
The Maine Cats, as they became known, developed shaggy, dense coats to survive the harsh New England winters, which then drops to a thin coat in the warm summers. The breed as it is now has become synonymous with its state of origin, Maine, USA, and was appointed the “Official State Cat” in 1985.
From Maine Cat to Maine Coon
Maine Cats were seen across agricultural fairs as early as the 1850s and the popularity of Maine Cats spread across the US throughout the 1860s. These cats were not the kind of Maine Coon we see today, but rather were simply longhair cats from Maine. The Cat Fancier’s Association, created in 1906 and thus the oldest cat fancy in the world, registered 28 Maine Cats in its first studbook.
Sadly the Maine Cat struggled to compete against more popular longhair cats such as the Persian. The last recorded show entry of a Maine Coon was in 1911 in Portland, Oregon, and by the 1950s the Maine Cat was all but extinct. Indeed it was declared so by the CFA and so breeders took rapid action.
The Central Maine Coon Cat Club was formed by Alta Smith and Ruby Dyer, who aimed to move the breed away from Maine Cats and towards Maine Coons. The club was formed with the aim of showing the Maine Cats at every show possible to gain breed recognition. Those who loved the Maine Cat had worked to preserve them, albeit without credible breeding plans, and wanted to get them back into the exhibition halls.
Thus, the first Maine Cat show was held on 21st June 1953, in Skowhegan, Maine. There were 40 cats in attendance and more than 200 visitors came to meet the cats, cementing the Maine Cats’ position as a popular breed with the public.
Between 1953 and 1963, the CMCCC held 11 shows, with the winning Maine Coon earning the title of Maine State Champion Coon Cat. Ethelyn Whittemore’s cats were regular winners at these shows, and popularity for the breed and the shows began to grow. By the fifth show, entries were over a hundred and the Club had members from 38 US states and 15 foreign countries.
A Standard of Points was written for the Maine Cats in 1956 by Dr Rachel Salisbury. Although the later Standards, including our modern-day Standard, have nothing in common with Dr Salisbury’s, it was still a Standard.
Sadly, the CMCCC was dissolved in 1963, when Alta Smith married and retired from the Club. With no one to replace her, the Club disbanded, leaving a significant legacy to the Maine Coon breed in the form of publicity and written records. All was not lost, however; shortly after this, the Maine Coon breed took off thanks to the hard work of some now-famous breeders.
The origins of the modern Maine Coon
In August 1968, a meeting was taken by 6 Maine Coon breeders and owners to fill the gap left by the CMCCC. From this meeting, the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association (MCBFA) was born. The club allowed the first Maine Coon breeders to work together under one banner, documenting and sharing their work, and working towards recognition with the various associations. Their aim was to get the Maine Coon recognised as a purebred cat, and to protect and promote the breed. The key to this work was the protection of what the breed already was. Unlike other breeds, there was no desire to ‘add’ anything to the cats, the focus was entirely on preserving what was already there.
In 1969, the work of the members of the MCBFA started to come together. Ethelyn Whittemore of cattery Whittemore’s, who, unusually for the time, had kept handwritten records of her breeding, was able to register her cats after working with her own lines for a number of years. The first official Standard of Points was written by Sonya Stanislow (Tati Tan), which later will become one of the three key parts of the Unified Standard.
The Heidi Ho cattery was born when Conny Condit rescued a pregnant cat and kept a longhair boy from the litter (Andy Katt), and was given a tortoiseshell (Bridget Katt) from her good friend Bonnie Rich (who later founded Richelieu cattery). These two cats, along with two from Tati Tan and one from Whittemore) became the foundation cats of the breed we know today, known as the Top5 cats, and Whittemore’s, Heidi Ho and Tati Tan became the foundation catteries for every Maine Coon in existence today. When examining the pedigree of one’s cats, one will always find these five names in its ancestry:
- Andy Katt of Heidi Ho
- Bridget Katt of Heidi Ho
- Dauphin de France of Tati Tan
- Titania of Tati Tan
- Whittemore Smokie Joe
In addition to the Top5 cats, many Maine Coons also have the Clones in their pedigree; that is cats that were bred from a specific mating that all looked alike, i.e. clones. In 1978, Heidi Ho Sonkey Bill was born out of a line mating between Andy Katt and Bridget Katt, both of Heidi Ho. He was then mated to Tanstaafl Polly Adeline, producing a litter in which all the kittens looked exactly alike. The kittens were known as the Clones, and the litters they produced themselves took the breed forward as significant step.
Through these Clones, larger kittens were produced with excellent show quality, and they were carefully line bred with each other and their offspring to develop the breed. Consequently, almost all pedigrees will contain the mating between Heidi Ho Sonkey Bill and Tanstaalf Polly Adeline, and their Clones. Pedigrees of today contain on average 35% of clones, whilst some go right up to 50%. According to the PawPeds Maine Coon Heritage site, there 17 Clones in all:
- QGC Heidi Ho Annabel Lee of Tycoon, OD
- SGC & CH Heidi Ho Aurora of MtKittery, OD
- PR Heidi Ho Barnaby Katt
- CH Heidi Ho Camille of Calicoon
- QGC Heidi Ho Canth of Tanstaafl
- QGC & CH Heidi Ho Coon Victoria, DM
- CH Heidi Ho Just Plain Bill Katt
- PR & CH Heidi Ho Justin Morgan Katt
- SGC & GC Heidi Ho Lady Arwen of Mary B, DM
- Heidi Ho Lovey Mero of Meunerie
- SGC Heidi Ho Molly Brown of Tanstaafl
- QGC Heidi Ho Percival of Meunerie
- CH Heidi Ho Portius of Olde Farm
- Heidi Ho Rachel Adeline
- TGC Heidi Ho Richard III of Charmalot, OS
- Heidi Ho Sasquatch of Ktaadn
- Heidi Ho Wilyum of Ktaadn
From its inception, the MCBFA remained the most influential international Maine Coon association until it dissolved in 2017, having achieved all it set out to and more. By January 1969, just 12 months after its inception, the MCBFA had successfully gained the Maine Coon recognition in the Canadian Cat Association (CCA), the American Cat Fancier’s Association (ACFA) and the American Cat Association (ACA). Unfortunately, however, recognition from the CFA eluded them for some years.
Despite this, members of the MCBFA were not put off, and they continued to exhibit the Maine Coon at every possible cat show, gaining recognition in other, smaller associations for the next 7 years. Finally, in 1976, the CFA finally recognised the breed as a pedigree cat. When The International Cat Association (TICA) was later founded in 1979, it recognised the Maine Coon from its inception. Finally, after many years of hard work, the breed was accepted in all aspects of American Cat Fancy, and sights were turned to Europe.
The Fédération Internationale Féline d’Europe (FIFé) took a little more persuasion and it took until 1983 for the association to accept the breed. The World Cat Federation, following its split from FIFé, also accepted the Maine Coon from its inception like TICA. Finally, the Maine Coon arrived in the UK in 1984 by Pat Brownsell of Patriarca cattery. These cats provided the foundation of Maine Coons in the UK, and most UK-bred Maine Coons will find Patriarca cats in their pedigrees.
The last thing to mention as part of the Maine Coon heritage is their unusual polydactyl paws. As referenced previously, it is estimated that 25-40% of Maine Coons are polydactyl, and it is thought that this trait of extra toes came from the cats on ships travelling to the New World. It has been found that the first polydactyl cats in America arrived in Boston Harbour, and from there they spread across the eastern seaports of New England.
Gradually the trait became entwined with the local cat population, providing the foundations of the breed we know today. The polydactyl cat was perfect for the rugged landscape and varying temperatures of New England, with its extra toes it was able to catch its food easily and manage the varying ground types.
For the purposes of this project, as can be seen in upcoming chapters, the polydactyl paws have always been a somewhat contentious issue. As the two registries I am examining in this Special Project – GCCF and FIFé – do not allow the breeding of polydactyl Maine Coons, I will not be including them further.
Today, breeders of Maine Coons pride themselves on continuing to preserve the breed and maintaining the look the Maine Coon is known for: the thick, shaggy, all-weather coat, the muscular, well-built body, a long and fluffy tail, tall ears, large eyes, sweet snowshoes, and, of course, the larger than life personality.
Sources & further reading
GCCF, Maine Coon Breed Standard.
Available at: https://www.gccfcats.org/Portals/0/MaineCoon.SOP.Template.pdf?ver=2019-09-09-165545-020
Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association, The Maine Coon: Cat Breed FAQ.
Available at: http://www.fanciers.com/breed-faqs/maine-coon-faq.html
Maine Coon International, 2012. The commentary of the authors of the FIFE-Standard of 1992 with additions by the Breed Councils as of 2012.
Available at: http://www.mainecooninternational.com/A-clarifying-Commentary-on-Standard-by-its-Authors-and-a-Pictorials-Link/
MCBFA, Scratch Sheet – Fall 1971.
Available at: http://www.mcbfa.org/1971%20Fall.PDF
Meuller-Rech, H., The Breed’s History in 9 Small Chapters.
Available at: http://www.mainecooninternational.com/The-breeds-history-in-9-small-chapters/?fbclid=IwAR12Cgs1UR3aBRkWiARm6B1-hPR4sAyxoECH64PuMKvLPZDZ4e5N4mHMne8
The Maine Coon Cat Club, The History of the Maine Coon.
Available at: http://www.maine-coon-cat-club.com/about/history/history.html
TICA, 2018. Maine Coon Breed Standard.
Available at: https://www.tica.org/phocadownload/mc.pdfhttps://tica.org/resources/our-publications/breed-standards/file/222-maine-coon