The Persian is an old breed. To those who love this elegant cat, it will come as no surprise that the longhaired beauty originated in the cradle of civilization: Mesopotamia, which was later known as Persia and is now modern-day Iran. The breed’s long hair was probably the result of a natural mutation, and its striking appearance attracted the attention of 17th-century Italian nobleman and world traveler Pietro Della Valle, who is credited with bringing the first longhaired cats to Europe in 1626. At that time, the cats had shiny, silky gray fur, but thanks to selective breeding Persians are now found in a kaleidoscope of colors, including bi-color (a color plus white).
Until the late 19th century, when breeding and showing cats became popular, longhaired cats from Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan and other exotic locales were known simply as “Asiatic” cats and were often bred together. At the Crystal Palace cat show in 1871, Persian-type cats were among the breeds exhibited. They were popular pets of the time and had a special cachet because of Queen Victoria’s fondness for the breed. Even in the Victoria era, association with a “celebrity” ensured an animal’s desirability.
Through selective breeding, cat fanciers began to mold the Persian to its present-day appearance. They bred cats to have a round head, short face, snub nose, chubby cheeks, small, rounded ears, big eyes, and a sturdy body. Their fur was longer than that of the Angora cat, and they had shorter legs. Soon, the Persians surpassed the Angoras in popularity.
In the United States, where they were first imported in the late 19th century, they also became favorites, edging out the longhaired Maine Coon cat, which had once held pride of place as an American sweetheart. In the little more than a century since, the Persian has become the most beloved cat breed in the world, prized for its beautiful appearance and sweet personality.