The Siamese cat arrived in Europe embellished with tales of both a royal heritage and a past as a sacred temple cat. In fact, the Siamese has probably had more extravagant legends attached to it than any other breed in feline history. So where did it come from, and what is the truth about its origins?
One legend says the Siamese is as old as Noah's Ark! The story is that while the Ark was waiting for the waters to subside after the flood, the animals got bored. A liaison took place between a lioness and an ape, resulting in the birth of the first Siamese cat, said to have the bravery of a lion and the attributes of an ape. A lovely story, though genetically impossible of course!
According to another legend, many years ago in Siam – now known as Thailand - the Siamese cat was a very exclusive feline. It was reserved for the king and the royal family, and no-one else could own one. When a member of the royal family died, as Siamese cat was selected to capture and contain the loved one's soul. But nothing bad happened to the cat. It now lived a life of luxury with the monks and priests of the local temple. It was kept in luxury by the relatives of the deceased, with the best of food on gold plates, and beds made from silk cushions. Thus the relatives of the deceased hoped to gain good fortune and special blessings. The selected cat was believed to be able to intercede for the soul of the departed.
None of the above seems to be true. No real evidence has been found to back up the tale that Siamese cats had any special privileges. And while they are an old breed, they certainly weren't around in biblical times. In fact, no-one knows when they first arose. The mutation that causes the pointed coat pattern arose at least five centuries ago, somewhere in Asia, and it was most strongly associated with the Far East. But beyond this, very little has been ascertained with any certainty.
Cats of Siamese type have been found in Thai manuscripts which were written sometime between the 14th and 18th century, but that is the closest anyone has come to pinning down their first appearance. Despite trade between east and west for centuries, no record of Siamese pointed cats reaching the west can be found before the 19th century, although a description of one in eastern Russia was written in 1793. The first British mention of the Siamese is in a catalogue from the first Crystal Palace Show in 1871. In 1879, the American Consul in Bangkok brought cats to the USA, and in 1884, the British Vice Consul in Bangkok sent a breeding pair back to Britain as a gift for for his sister, Lilian Jane Veley. Although the story goes that these cats were a royal gift, and they were dubbed the Royal Cats of Siam, Lilian Jane Vehey wrote that at least one of them was bought from a street vendor at a relatively modest price. These two Siamese and their three kittens were shown at the Crystal Place Show in 1885. Their exotic appearance and loud voices were not a hit with everyone; one observer apparently described them as “an unnatural nightmare of a cat”. And the two cats sadly died after the show. However, enough people were taken with them, including the founder of the Cat Fancy, Harrison Weir, for more to be imported. The breed started to become more popular, and the Siamese Cat Club was founded in 1901.
The original Siamese imports were medium-sized, rather long-bodied, muscular, graceful cats with moderately wedge-shaped heads and ears that were comparatively large but in proportion to the size of the head. The cats ranged from substantial to slender but were not extreme in either way. As their popularity grew and they began to be shown more often, changes occurred. Self cats were excluded in the 1920s, eventually becoming Oriental Shorthairs. Similarly, unwanted longhair Siamese cats became the Balinese. When new colours appeared, only some associations accepted them.
However, the most controversial change in the Siamese was more subtle. In the 1950s and 1960s, as the Siamese was further increasing in popularity, many breeders and cat show judges began to favour a more slender look than the traditional one. As a result of generations of selective breeding, they created increasingly long, fine-boned, narrow-headed cats. Eventually the modern show Siamese was bred. It is extremely elongated, with a lean, tubular body, long, slender legs, a very long, very thin tail that tapers gradually into a point and a long, wedge-shaped head topped by extremely large, wide-set ears. By the mid 1980s, cats of the original style had largely disappeared from cat shows. However, a few breeders, particularly in the UK, continued to breed and register them. And many ordinary owners, who did not show cats, remembered and preferred the more traditional Siamese.
This has resulted in two types of Siamese cat existing today. On the one hand there is the 'show-style' standardized Siamese. But there is also the 'Traditional Siamese', which looks more as early Siamese cats looked. This is sometimes called the 'Old-Style' Siamese or 'Classic Siamese', and there is now an Old-Style Siamese Club, which was formed in 2000 to promote this particular type. Both these types of Siamese are descended from the same distant ancestors, but with few or no recent ancestors in common, and effectively forming distinct sub-breeds. Indeed, there is now some pressure to separate them entirely.
Whichever type of Siamese you like, it is possible to obtain a kitten from all the usual places – breeders, websites and so on. They have similar personalities, and both are beautiful cats. However, the Old-Style Siamese are unlikely to do well at cat shows, where the modern, slimmer type of Siamese is still preferred.