Cats dressed up and behaving like people have long been on the fringes of pop culture. In the 1940s and ’50s, Mainzer Dressed Cat postcards hit the scene, showing felines in then-contemporary costumes riotously pursuing leisure activities from sports to watching movies, or simply having picnics.
These anthropomorphic cats have seen revived interest due to social media, being popular on sites where people can share images. They are also featured on internet auction sites.
Some busy and whimsical compositions seem inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, with little details spread across the space hinting at a complex background story. Others are more straightforward.
While the Mainzer name is connected with these images, they were actually made by Swiss painter Eugen Hartung starting in the 1940s.
Instead of a signature, he put a stylized heart with a loop in the corner of his images. The postcards originally had scalloped or deckled edges, which both fell out of fashion and were hard to reproduce. The images in modern times are usually cropped into neat rectangles, and in many cases the heart signature is partly or entirely cut off.
Dressed up cats weren’t his only animal theme. His images of dressed dogs, mice and hedgehogs, though, never achieved the same level of interest.
In the dressed cat series, the anthropomorphic felines sometimes have pet dogs or mice, who are not dressed up. Dogs can be seen taking the place of horses pulling a carriage, or causing trouble by fighting and getting underfoot. Rabbits attack a sleeping dressed cat hunter.
Many of the dressed cat images have a sense of impending disaster. What should have been a simple event is unraveling in a cascade of errors.
One image is of a dinner interrupted by mice running under the table. Richly dressed cats react in horror, one standing on a chair for safety, while another cat in a maid’s uniform drops her tray holding a cake.
Intruding mice also ruin the taking of a lovely family photograph with the idyllic setting disturbed by a young kitten who can’t resist giving chase, to the consternation of his family and the photographer.
Another domestic scene has a well-dressed female cat complete with gloves and handbag walking into a bathroom which a group of kittens are happily flooding.
Even outdoors, cats are not safe from disaster as depicted in one postcard showing young male cats fleeing in panic from swarms of attacking bees and another capturing the moment where a player in a doubles tennis match is hit in the face by the ball.
Hartung, who lived from 1897 to 1973, came from an artistic family, and began as a landscape and portrait painter. He was far more successful as an illustrator of covers of youth magazines and children’s books. He also created murals for Swiss schools.
His work has long been a part of the Swiss cultural experience. A book of children’s songs called Chömed Chinde, mir wänd singe (Come Children, Let’s Sing), originally published by soup company Maggi from their adverting budget in 1946, is filled with illustrations that were a part of Swiss family life for decades.
His cats were originally published as postcards by Max Kunzli of Zurich. That company ceased operations and was deleted from the Swiss commercial registry in 1974.
Several hundred of the cat images in the 1940s were licensed by New York–based publisher Alfred Mainzer Company, which in recent decades has mainly published scenic postcards of New York as well as Christian-themed greeting cards and calendars.
Once Mainzer acquired the rights, they moved the printing of the postcards first to Belgium and then other countries such as Spain, Turkey and the United States. Quality varies over time. Early examples from Switzerland were soft-colored lithographs on matte paper, while more modern copies are glossy photographic prints with saturated colors.
Company founder Alfred Mainzer, who was Jewish, left Germany in 1936 due to the worsening political climate. He began his greeting card company in 1938, and the early staff was almost all fellow refugees. They made discount greeting cards by pasting already printed images of flowers onto heavy paper and folding that into a greeting card with any number of sentiments printed inside.
Mainzer originally imported the printed cat postcards along with flower postcards from Switzerland. Since collecting or sending whimsical cards was not a fad in the United States, the publisher converted them into humorous greeting cards via his usual pasting and folding technique. Later, apparently starting sometime in the 1950s, they were sold as standard postcards.
The Mainzer offices moved several times in the New York area, and collectors can date the cards based on the company address on the back of the postcard. Cards bearing “118 East 26th Street” were printed before 1955, while “Long Island City” was in use between 1955 and ’77. The address after that is “27-08 40th Ave. Long Island”.
The cards were last reprinted by Mainzer in 2005 as collectors items, and many of these were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2009. Those not destroyed quickly sold out. The company’s website is no longer active, but they did recently offer a 2019 Christian wall calendar and a small range of Bible-text greeting cards before going dark. No dressed cat items were listed on the last cached version of the website.
The cats also made a late appearance on the German-speaking market. Six books of Hartung’s cat pictures, with rhymes by actor Jörg Schneider, were also compiled in the late 1980s by publisher Theophil Maag. The books gather together the cat images by themes — the year, family, school, adventures, sports and free time. These, as well as the illustrated song book, are still in print.
For collectors, the cards printed by Max Kunzli are more highly prized due to their rarity, better print quality and inclusion of the complete heart signature.