Like so many other immigrants to the United States, the ancestors of the American Shorthair arrived by ship. They had one job to do once they disembarked: Rid homes, farms, and businesses of mice and other small vermin. There’s no doubt that they came over on the Mayflower, and it’s likely that earlier settlers, such as those at Jamestown, also brought cats with them to the New World.
During the 19th century, cat shows became popular and domestic shorthairs — as they were originally called — were exhibited alongside pedigreed cats. Breeders eventually began to select for the specific traits that now define the American Shorthair: a large head, a face with full cheeks and a sweet expression, a wide muzzle, a powerful jaw, and that coat of many colors. In 1966, the cats were given the name American Shorthair to differentiate them from random-bred felines. They are now the eighth most popular breed registered by the Cat Fanciers Association. It’s clear that domestic cats first set paw in North America when the Europeans did, since North and South America have no indigenous species from which domestic cats could have developed. Since it was a common practice to keep cats aboard ships to deal with the ravaging rodents, cats may have been aboard the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria when Columbus sailed in 1492. Cats were definitely present in Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in the New World; we know this because there is a written mention of cats dating from 1609. Who knows? Colonial cats might have snatched bits of turkey and venison off the table at that famous Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving feast in 1621.
At any rate, regardless of when they arrived and with whom, cats were working members of society rather than pampered pets, serving as perfect mouse traps in the barns and fields of colonial America. At this point, function was far more important than form, and folks paid little attention to the color, pattern, and body style of their mousers. Through natural selection—life was hard on cats and humans alike—these feline immigrants developed powerful muscles, strong jaws, and hardy constitutions.
In the late 1950s, Domestic Shorthair breeders secretly began crossbreeding Persians into their Domestic Shorthair lines to “improve” the body type and to introduce the striking silver color to their lines. As a result, the Domestic Shorthair body type began to change, becoming more Persian in style. Since Persians were (and still are) a very popular breed, these hybrids did well in the show halls.
As time passed, however, familiarity bred contempt for the breed. Fanciers became more interested in imported breeds such as the Persian, Siamese, and Angora than in the familiar Domestic Shorthair who had warmed their laps and served them faithfully for so many years. And as these imports were crossbred with the Domestic Shorthair, the pure bloodlines of the American native began to be adulterated. In the early 1900s, a group of people who loved the stalwart look of their valiant all-American cats began a selective breeding program to preserve the breed’s natural beauty, hardiness, and mild temperament. They did allow the silver coloration to remain, however, since it brought a popularity not previously enjoyed by the breed.
At first, it was slow going and the breed received little respect from other cat fanciers. In the early days, not only did Domestic Shorthairs not win in the show ring against the exotic imports, but often cages were not even provided for the breed and no trophies or rosettes were presented to the Domestic classes. It wasn’t until the early 1940s that the breed began—slowly and with difficulty—to gain some recognition.
In September 1965, breeders voted to change the breed’s name from Domestic Shorthair to American Shorthair (abbreviated ASH). With the new name came a new image. The same year, an American Shorthair silver tabby male named Shawnee Trademark won Best Cat of the Year in CFA, heralding a new era for the ASH. Today, plenty of fanciers pledge allegiance to this all-American breed, and you’ll see the ASH competing beside the finest Persians and Siamese and winning their share of awards. According to CFA’s breed registration totals, the American Shorthair is North America’s fourth most popular shorthair, and seventh most popular overall.