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The Accidental Invention of “Kitty Litter”

By Julia Williams

Kitty litter is essential for anyone with an indoor cat. But other than deciding what kind to buy and cleaning the litter box regularly, most cat owners probably don’t give it a lot of thought. I’m not like most people, though (a fact I’m well aware of and wouldn’t change if I could!) so I recently decided to find out how this useful invention came about. I was surprised to discover that the first product marketed as “Kitty Litter” was an accidental invention.

Moreover, this invention dramatically changed the nature of the relationship many people had with their cats. How so? Before the original clay litter, people who wanted to keep their cats indoors had some pretty inadequate options for litter box filler. They used sand, sawdust, wood shavings, shredded newspapers or even plain ol’ dirt. Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how all of those options could be considered a giant FAIL in terms of performance, odor and cleanliness.

When an entrepreneurial man named Edward Lowe began marketing oil-absorbing clay as Kitty Litter in 1947, more people began opening their homes and hearts to felines. Although there have been vast improvements in kitty litter in the last few decades, this original clay litter was a huge step up from the options people had at the time. Hence, a better litter box filler meant that it was more convenient – and less messy and odorous – to keep a cat indoors.

The Accidental Invention

After serving in the Navy, 27-year old Ed Lowe returned to Cassopolis, Michigan and began working for his father's company. The Lowe’s sold ice and coal to the residents of Michigan; they also sold sawdust to neighboring industries, and had recently begun offering oil-absorbent kiln-dried clay as a fireproof alternative to sawdust for sopping up grease spills.

Ed was approached by a neighbor named Mrs. Draper, who wanted some sawdust for her litter box. On a whim, Ed suggested she try a bag of the kiln-dried clay he happened to have in his car. The mineral was highly absorbent after all, and Ed thought it might work just as well for the cat box as it did for the factories. It turns out that Ed’s hunch was correct. Mrs. Draper raved about the clay and wanted to buy more. Because she was so enthusiastic about using the clay in her litter box, Ed wondered if other cat owners might like it too.

To find out, Ed filled ten sacks with five pounds each of the clay granules and wrote the words "Kitty Litter" on them. He called on a local pet store and suggested they try to sell the bags of clay for 65 cents each. At the time, sand was selling for a penny a pound, and the shop owner laughed at Ed’s idea. “So give it away then,” Ed told him. As it turns out, the pet shop owner was wrong, and when customers returned asking for “Kitty Litter” by name – and were willing to pay for it – Ed’s business and his brand were born.

Ed began visiting pet stores and cat shows across the United States, and by the end of the 1950s had created a solid business. His absorbent clay became widely accepted as cat box filler and was available nationwide. Kitty Litter was sold primarily in pet stores, so Ed created another brand in 1964, Tidy Cats, which was marketed to grocery stores. Edward Lowe Industries eventually became the largest producer of kitty litter. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the accidental invention of Kitty Litter made Edward Lowe a multimillionaire. Lowe sold his company in 1990, when it was grossing $165 million in annual sales. He died in 1995 at the age of 75.

Clay Kitty Litter Evolves

As great as the original Kitty Litter was for cat owners, things got a whole lot better in 1984. A biochemist named Thomas Nelson developed the first clumping clay cat litter, and it’s interesting to note this was also an accidental invention! Nelson was studying the molecular structure of clay when he discovered that some types prevented urea (the primary solid component of urine) from breaking down, hence no unpleasant ammonia odor as a result. Nelson also learned that drying bentonite clay instead of baking it in a kiln allowed it to form clumps in the litter box, which could then be easily removed from the box. This was a revolutionary discovery for cat owners because it allowed the litter box to stay cleaner and less odorous.

Nowadays, cat owners have many different types of cat litter to choose from, including natural alternatives made from corn, wheat, beet pulp, pine pellets and more. Did Edward Lowe’s original, accidental invention of Kitty Litter help felines gain a pawhold in the hearts of millions? Who knows. But one thing I do know is that kitty litter is here to stay. No matter what type of cat litter you like, this invention is certainly one to be thankful for!

Photo from the Edward Lowe Foundation archives

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