Many of us are familiar with a poster depicting a cat hanging from some kind of branch with the words ‘Hang In There, Baby,’ or something to that effect, printed beside it. It’s perhaps the first motivational poster created, meant to inspire us to hold on to our resolve and battle through whatever challenges we’re facing. To Hang in There a bit longer, insinuating a reprieve is coming if we can just hold strong. I can’t say that looking at that startled cat hanging from a branch has ever stirred much inspiration inside of me, although that may be because in my mind the cat looks like its about to fall. Or maybe it’s the use of the word baby. However, many others have been inspired by said poster, enough that it’s become a mainstay in our collective consciousness, the image still being shared and sold in multiple forms to this very day, and it could be argued that it’s the first of the modern kind of meme. It truly has hung in there…baby.
The original image was black and white, featured a siamese kitten hanging from a bamboo pole, and was taken by a man named Victor Baldwin in 1963. It wouldn’t be until eight years later that the poster was made, but in that time the image was already gaining in popularity. Baldwin lived in Beverly Hills in California where he owned a portrait studio and photographed famous clientele such as Sammy Davis Jr, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra. But he was also a lover of animals, so he didn’t limit himself to taking photos of just our species. He also worked as animal portraiture and photo editor for Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy magazines, which I think deserve their own reviews one day as not only were they spectacularly titled magazines but also have their own rich history.
In 1970, Baldwin and his then wife, Jeanne Baldwin, produced a book called The Outcast Kitten. It featured photos Baldwin had taken of their numerous cats, and told the story of Wiki, a lost kitten who gets adopted by a mother cat who already has two kittens of her own. Wiki, aiming to impress and gain the approval of his two adopted siblings, performs a number of acrobatic tricks, including one where he hangs from a bamboo pole. Wiki, whose real name was Sassy, was not only featured in the book in that now famous pose, but also on the back cover. The image was then used again as publicity to increase subscriptions to Cat Fancy. Soon fans of the book started writing to Baldwin, requesting copies of the photograph. Baldwin saw the demand as the opportunity it was and so produced a poster of the image, deciding to add a caption which comprised four words and one comma: ‘Hang In There, Baby’. After composer Meredith Wilson bought the first copy, orders started coming in, so many in fact that soon Baldwin had to hire staff to keep up with them. By 1973 Baldwin had sold more than 350,000 copies.
Like I said earlier, the poster does little to inspire me personally, but I can’t deny the effect it had in its time. Baldwin later spoke of receiving letters from people thanking him, saying it helped them through accidents, and surgeries, and a number of other difficult events where they needed a reminder to Hang in There. The popularity of the poster is also undeniable. Imitators quickly spawned out of this popularity; some bootleg copies of the original, others produced by major greeting card and poster publishers. As a “matter of integrity” Baldwin, who has held the copyright to the original image since 1970, sued each infringement he could find, winning every case. He’s estimated that over ten million unauthorized versions and direct copies of the poster have been made. Over ten million cats, hanging from ten million poles, or branches, or bits of rope, all of them telling us to hang in there.
The poster has also been featured in some way in an incredible multitude of television shows and movies, including; The Simpsons, Finding Dory, That 70’s Show, Becker, The Hangover Part III, Mad Men, Fear the Walking Dead, Family Guy, Mr Robot, and multiple others. In The Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, the human resistance even uses the phrase ‘Hang in there, Baby’ as their motto, with one of the original posters making an appearance on the show, as well as another that features a lion gnawing on a terminator skull with the phrase inscribed beside it. At this very moment a copy of the poster hangs in an outer office of Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau; a vintage copy that previously belonged to his father. Copies were also presented to Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, signed by fellow members of congress as a show of support during their scandals. Although, as history has shown, it was perhaps the wrong advice to give on those particular occasions.
Which brings me to my final point. At some point that cat stopped hanging in there. In fact, after a number of people wrote in to Baldwin, concerned the poster constituted animal cruelty, Baldwin assured them that Sassy had in fact held onto the pole only briefly while playing, before falling gently to the ground. And therein lies the one bit of inspiration I draw from that poster: Don’t be afraid to fall.
It may run counter to the posters original advice but to me it’s one that has more resonance. That’s because I’m someone who likes to do things right. More than right. Perfect. And so sometimes I hold onto a thing, afraid to let go. Afraid to move lest I fall into that bottomless pit of failure. Except failure isn’t a bottomless pit. I’m not sure it’s even a pit at all. I think it’s a step, one that exists as part of a staircase. A staircase that leads to something greater. Achievement.
Without the occasional failure you can’t have learning, or improving, or the eventual mastering of a thing. Hang in there may be good advice for those going into surgery or recovering from heartache, but it’s not apt for those resisting movement due to a fear of failure. And you can be afraid to fall, you can be terrified, that’s okay, just don’t let it stop you from doing the thing. Because doing the thing, whatever it may be, is always better than never having tried.
It seems to me that if Sassy had held on for fear of falling, he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. He would have hung in place, moving neither up nor down. Static and afraid. Never knowing just how close he was to the ground.
Maybe it’s time to let go…baby.