There may have been informal cat shows in England and the United States before then. I am thinking, for example, of the farm shows in Maine, USA that included large long haired cats, the cats of Maine, the precursor to the famous Maine Coon cat.
I sense that modern day cat shows (2012) are mainly for the benefit of the cat breeders who exhibit their cats at the shows. People can visit but it's like being allowed to visit a private club with stalls attached.
It may be useful to hear what Harrison Weir says are his reasons for creating the first cat show.
He says, that his reasons were to get people who did not like cats to like them through observing their beauty and attractiveness. The idea was to get people to see the beauty in the domestic cat by observing "the different breeds, colours and markings..."
Mr Weirs says, "That is why I instituted this Cat Show; I wish every one to see how beautiful a well-cared-for cat is...." From Harrison Weir's perspective, the core reason for the cat show was to promote the domestic cat and thereby encourage people to like the cat better and to treat the cat better. Mr Weir was upset by the abuse of cats.
Harrison Weir goes on to say that he converted a friend who hated cats by inviting him to the first cat show. He met the friend while on a train going to the show! Mr Weir was nervous as to how the show would proceed. Would it be successful etc.? It was a great success.
Harrison Weir was pleased with the conversion of his cat hating friend. He says, "This is not a solitary instance of the good of the first Cat Show in leading up to the observation of, and kindly feeling for, the domestic cat."
It is clear to me that the cat show as founded by Mr Weir was about educating the public as well as allowing people to show cats. Perhaps that original purpose should be re-introduced. Modern cat shows are not about educating the public. However, there are many symptoms of ignorance about the cat (cat hatred and subsequent abuse) that would be cured with a bit of judicious education.
I would ask the cat associations to consider widening the appeal of the cat shows and introducing a section where people can learn about the cat.
Associated: The History of the British Shorthair
Note: I have quote from Our Cats And All About Them by Harrison Weir. The book is published by Read Country Books who I believe have acquired the copyright. I have been unable at this time to contact them for permission to quote short extracts. The quotes promote the book and do not detract. The article is educational. Accordingly, I claim fair use.