Unwashed Furry Masses: Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928)

For the feline minded, there is rarely too much of a good thing when it comes to cats; Wanda Hazel Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928) tells a tale that proves the rare exception. Considered the oldest American children’s book still in print, it continues to delight the contemporary eye. A superbly talented lithographer, Gág helped popularize the double-page spread in illustrated children’s literature, collaborating on this volume with her brother, who lettered the text by hand. In 1928, The Nation placed Millions of Cats on its list of distinguished titles, and it won a Newbery the following year, a rare award for picture books.

The story opens on an elderly couple: they are so very lonely. The woman lands on an idea — “If we only had a cat!” — and her husband sets off to find one. He trudges across sunlit landscapes and cool valleys until he comes across a hill completely covered with cats. Trillions of cats. Which one to choose? They are all so pretty. He picks a white one and then a black and white one and then a fuzzy gray one and then brown and yellow one . . . eventually he picks them all. Once he brings his new friends home, the old woman is more practical — trillions of cats is just a few too many — and decides they will ask the cats to choose. This is a mistake. “’No, I am the prettiest! . . . No, I am! I am! I am!’ cried hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of voices, for each cat thought itself the prettiest.” They begin to quarrel and hiss and claw and scratch. After a while, all falls silent. The couple look outside and cannot find a single cat. “‘I think they must have eaten each other all up,’ said the very old woman, ‘It’s too bad!’” But there is, of course, one runty kitten hidden out in the high grass, whom they welcome in and feed and raise. “‘It is the most beautiful cat in the whole world,’ said the very old man. ‘I ought to know, for I’ve seen — Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats — and not one is as pretty as this one.’”

Lithograph of trillions of catsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Born into the German-speaking community of New Ulm, Minnesota, Wanda Gág (1893–1946) was raised by immigrants from Bohemia. Her father was a photographer, the son of a woodcutter, and entrusted her with the family’s artistic legacy on his deathbed: “Was der Papa nicht thun konnt’, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen” (What father couldn’t do, Wanda will have to finish). And she did. Gág won a scholarship to the Minneapolis Art Institute, where she became interested in socialist and anarchist writing, before relocating to New York in 1917 for the Arts Student League and to make a living as a commercial artist and illustrator. She hung out with the other kind of Bohemians — leftist artists in Greenwich Village — contributed to socialist magazines like The Liberator and New Masses, and eventually married the labor organizer Earle Marshall Humphreys, who would become her artistic collaborator. But before she accepted his hand, she made her intentions firm: “I would marry no man unless he would promise to run the house during my drawing moods and would excuse me from scrubbing floors.” (A few years after their marriage, she published Gone is Gone: or, The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.) The couple had no children; Gág’s inspiration arose from something within: “I don’t write books for children. . . . I write for the child I am myself”, assembling material from “all the helpless fringes and frayed edges of our groping lives”. Her focus on the lives and plights of others caught the attention of Ernestine Evans, an editor impacted by the politically engaged children’s books produced in the Soviet Union, who agreed to publish Millions of Cats.

It’s easy to read Millions of Cats as a simple story about the pleasures of pets — a Good Dog, Carl for the fairer species, a tale about the subjective beauty of a chosen cat. But Gág’s politics create tempting flights of interpretation. Julia L. Mickenberg, in Learning from the Left (2005), goes so far as to write that “Millions of Cats tells a very disturbing story about the barrenness of bourgeois living, greed, competition, environmental degradation, and senseless violence.” Viewed through this lens, the couple live in isolation, walled off from meaningful community; the trillion cats consume entire ponds and ecosystems and remain unsated; they devour their brethren and are devoured in turn — all to earn a spot in the couple’s family structure, their bourgeois home. Curiously, the trope of cats eating themselves up entirely can be found in The German Ideology: “the two Kilkenny cats in Ireland, which so completely devoured each other that finally only their tails remained.” Marx and Engels evoke this tale while pitting Max Stirner against Ludwig Feuerbach, but Gág seems to draw upon a similar image to portray a form of blindness. The beauty of a new family member trumps the deaths of a trillion starving orphans. It’s like they never existed: they simply melt into air.

RightsUnderlying Work RightsPD Worldwide
Digital Copy Rights

No Additional Rights

  • Labelled “Not in Copyright” by source
  • We offer this info as guidance only