In the 1960s, New York City commuters were prodded into respectful behavior by subway posters featuring a black-and-white tuxedo cat. “Etti-Cat,” the punnily named feline mascot for manners, warned against littering, encouraged offering seats to the elderly, and expressed loquacious shame at defacing the trains:
It was real wild scribbling over the subway walls & cars but, in objective & realistic retrospect & in full evaluation of the initial impact & the effect of the regretful consequences, it would seem that the entire action was motivated rather imprudently &, truthfully, in recalling the whole stupid mess, I feel real dopey about it, I’m sorry & I’ll never do it again.
The humble ramble is punctuated by the emphatic, “ACT YOUR AGE ~ PLEASE!” This poster, along with others featuring Etti-Cat, is included in Transit Etiquette Or: How I Learned To Stop Spitting And Step Aside In 25 Languages, currently on view in the Grand Central Gallery Annex of the New York Transit Museum. The institution has also long displayed the Etti-Cat posters among its vintage advertisements in the historical train cars parked in its main museum, which is housed in the disused Court Street subway station in Brooklyn.
The posters “were introduced in 1962 and were placed in almost 3,000 of the Transit Authority’s 6,500 subway cars at the time so they were hard to miss,” Chelsea Newburg of the Transit Museum told Hyperallergic. Newburg also shared a June 26, 1962, New York Times article titled “Etti-Cat to Spur Subway Eti-quette,” in which a reporter asks a spokesperson for more details on the real feline behind Etti-Cat and gets a coy response: “If Etti-Cat is adopted by the public he will hold a news conference for the pet so that riders can learn more about the new subway mascot.”
Alas, it’s unclear if such a press conference ever took place. There was, however, a very real cat behind the campaign. The “JOM” initials at the bottom right corner of the posters stand for writer and artist Jo Mary McCormick, whose obliging model was a cat named Pipsqueak (or Pippy). Her photographs and text replaced earlier subway posters by Amelia Opdyke-Jones, aka “Oppy,” that had cartoon men in fedoras and ladies in long skirts glaring at litterbugs and seat hogs.
McCormick seemed to delight in Etti-Cat as a public figure. In 1964, she sent a letter offering condolences on the death of Peter III, the official Home Office cat in residence with the British government, and the next year authored a picture book called Etti-cat: The courtesy cat. The cover featured Etti-Cat as the American ambassador to the United Nations, while the text counseled readers on a broader range of manners beyond the rails. You can find scans from the interior at the feline-friendly blog Mew Mew Munchy Toe; they show Etti-cat advising readers not to stare and demonstrating how to graciously accept an ice cream cone.
Thanks to the display at the Transit Museum, as well as our abiding love of personified cats, Etti-Cat lives on as a retro meme, helped along by posts like Jen Carlson’s last year on Gothamist. Compared to the dry, blank-faced figures of today’s subway etiquette posters, the Etti-Cat visuals do have way more purr-sonality and much more playful language. But of his enduring fame, the modest Etti-Cat might have bared his teeth and mewed: “I’m flabbergasted!”
Transit Etiquette Or: How I Learned To Stop Spitting And Step Aside In 25 Languages continues at the Grand Central Gallery Annex of the New York Transit Museum (Grand Central Terminal, 89 East 42nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 20.