rare black cat magazine art
Cats,  Feline Fine Art

Rare Black Cat Magazine Art and History

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The Black Cat: A Literary Magazine Art Journey

Over the years, I’ve posted a wide variety of the vintage Black Cat Magazine covers. This year, I found some rare February covers. I cleaned them up, restoring them to their original bright colors. Many have a Valentine’s Day theme or Carnivale.

As charming as the artwork is, the magazine had nothing to do with cats. Read on, to learn more the intriguing Black Cat magazine.



Origins and Vision

In the twilight of the 19th century, a literary gem emerged from the shadows: The Black Cat. Founded in 1895 by the enterprising Herman Umbstaetter, this American fiction magazine prowled onto the literary scene with a unique mission. Unlike its contemporaries, it exclusively featured short stories, fostering a reputation for originality and nurturing budding writers. They were early proponents of offering prizes.

Unconventional Editorial Approach

Umbstaetter’s editorial philosophy was as enigmatic as the titular feline that graced its covers. Here’s what set The Black Cat apart:

  1. Affordable Price: At a mere five cents, this literary cat welcomed readers of all walks of life.
  2. Merit-Based Pay: Instead of measuring stories by length, Umbstaetter rewarded authors based on merit. A refreshing departure from convention!
  3. Championing New Voices: Rather than relying solely on established names, Umbstaetter actively sought out fresh talent. He even hosted story contests, enticing amateur writers to share their tales.


Iconic Cover Art

Ah, the iconic black cat! It slinked across the magazine’s covers, casting an enchanting spell on readers. Little did they know that the artist behind this bewitching emblem was none other than Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter, Herman’s wife. Her deft strokes immortalized the charming and enigmatic feline, forever entwined with the magazine’s legacy.


Nelly Littlehale Umbstaetter Murphy (1867–1941) was an American artist and a key figure in the captivating history of The Black Cat Magazine.

  1. Artistic Legacy:
    • Nelly was born in Stockton, California, and later moved to Boston after marrying her first husband, Herman Umbstaetter.
    • She left an indelible mark on The Black Cat, the magazine Herman edited from 1895 to 1912. He died in 1913.
    • She married, artist Hermann Dudley Murphy in 1916.

The early years were full color covers and I think the most beautiful. In 1905, a collection of covers were offered for free for subscribers. The designs gradually turned more simple.



In later years, after Nelly left, plain red and black designs but with the iconic black cat head remaining.



Literary Luminaries

Within its pages, The Black Cat hosted a parade of literary luminaries:

  1. Jack London: His 1899 story, “A Thousand Deaths”, found refuge here just as he teetered on the brink of abandoning his writing dreams.
  2. Henry Miller: In 1919, Miller’s incisive short fiction critiques graced the magazine’s pages, marking his debut.

And that’s not all! The roster included O. Henry, Rex Stout, and the enigmatic Clark Ashton Smith. Many of the stories are as thrilling as ever. You can access most of them for free since they are in the public domain.

Shifting Hands

In 1912, Umbstaetter passed the torch to Samuel Cassino, publisher of Little Folks. The magazine’s circulation, once robust, dwindled during this era. Essanay Studios even adapted some of its stories into films. Alas, in 1919, Fox Film acquired the magazine, and its flame flickered.

But wait! Like a cat with nine lives, The Black Cat resurfaced in 1922, thanks to William Kane. Yet, circulation waned, and by early 1923, the final curtain fell.

The Black Cat remains a literary curiosity—a mysterious blend of innovation, artistry, and the allure of midnight tales. Many of the covers are for sale online as prints and printed on t-shirts and other products.


What’s your favorite cover?


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