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Digging Through the Archives of ‘PURRRRR!,’ the Premier Cat Newsletter of the 1980s

Before the internet, people got their feline fix in analog form.

A sampling of issues of "PURRRRR! The Newsletter for Cat Lovers."
A sampling of issues of “PURRRRR! The Newsletter for Cat Lovers.” Atlas Obscura/Carol Page

A couple of years ago, Carol Page was taking the elevator up to her apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts when a new, intriguing leaflet caught her eye. A couple of her neighbors, it seemed, had found themselves needing to rehome a cat. Page had recently lost a cat of her own, and this one—a sweet black furball named Molly—was just her type. She went back to her apartment and made a few calls.

Within a day, Molly was prowling happily around Page’s apartment. Within a week, Page says, it was as though she’d never lived anywhere else. “Everyone told [the cat’s former owners], ‘You can’t do better than to give a cat to Carol Page,’” Page reminisced recently, smiling, sitting in a deep armchair. Nearby, Molly yowled: a reporter had rudely displaced her from her own dedicated seat.

Page is clearly an ideal cat companion. She’s got an almost feline mix of playfulness and calm, and at 68 years old, she’s happy to provide a consistent lap. But whether or not Molly knows it, her human’s cat credentials actually extend much further. Back in the early 1980s—before anyone had ever made a Lolcat image, binge-watched Maru videos, or hashtagged #catsofinstagram—Page created PURRRRR! The Newsletter for Cat Lovers, an eight-page, cat-themed booklet that she produced six times per year, all from her Boston-area apartment. In its near-decade-long heyday, PURRRRR! could be found in thousands of homes all over the world. And if you look closely, you can still see PURRRRR!’s footprints all over the current cat-themed media landscape.

The first page of the first issue of PURRRRR!, released in April 1982.
The first page of the first issue of PURRRRR!, released in April 1982. Carol Page

Page is the kind of person who, if asked, can easily divide her life into cat-based eras. When she started PURRRRR!, at age 32, she was living with three of them: Benny the Bargain, O’Brienette, and a white behemoth named Amazing Grace, who she trotted out for press pictures. (At the time, her own name was Carol Frakes—she changed it to Page later on, after she had become something of a media mogul, and grown tired of people mishearing it.) “I appreciate dogs,” she says, “but I am a cat person, and that will never change.”

By the early 1980s, the rest of the United States was catching up: cats had successfully slunk onto Broadway and the cover of Time, and a cat merchandise craze was in full swing, spurred by the offbeat drawings of cartoonist B. Kliban. The accompanying backlash—one popular book was called 101 Uses for a Dead Cat—just added more fuel to the feline fire. Even compared to the present moment, Page says, “cats were huge.”

Page found herself uniquely positioned to take advantage. Grace, Benny and O’Brienette were all great muses, and she had just completed a newsletter-making course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Plus, her freelance writing career was off to a rocky start, which provided her with crucial motivation. “I was getting a lot of rejections,” she says. “So I said, ‘Screw this! I’m going to be my own editor.’”

One of Richard Titus's drawings, from the August/September 1985 issue.
One of Richard Titus’s drawings, from the August/September 1985 issue. Richard Titus/Carol Page

She solicited contributions via an ad in Writer’s Digest, and brought in an artist friend, Richard Titus, to design the logo: a chubby cat with a cheerful smirk. Titus also spiced up each issue with a number of interstitial drawings and cartoons, and Page attributes some of the publication’s charm to him. But everything else was hers, from the color scheme—brown and peach—to the title, with its distinctive tail of extra R’s. “I thought, ‘Purr—that’s a great name,’” she remembers. “But I wanted to achieve some onomatopoeia.”

By April of 1982, the debut issue was ready to ship. Like her subject matter, Page has an eye for empty niches, and in a first-page editorial, she claimed PURRRRR!’s. “While many cat lovers enjoy an occasional cat show, pages and pages of cat show listings aren’t of interest to them,” she wrote. “Neither are breeder advertisements or feature articles on the special breeding problems of the Rex or Himalayan.” In other words, while other cat publications might lean, well, fancy, this one was proudly populist: as she wrote, “PURRRRR! is for cat lovers, not just breeders.”

That first issue set the tone for the rest of the run. Useful articles, like “Catproofing Your Home,” are snuggled alongside feline-human-interest pieces, like a profile of a pet-focused dating service. There’s a humor column, a vet advice corner, and a recipe of the month (for “Tuna Treat”: dry cat food, minced parsley, and the leftover juice from a tuna can). All fit into a neat eight pages, and are written with a kind of clubhouse knowingness: If you’re a cat person, you’ll keep reading and nodding. If you’re not, feel free to trot along with a tennis ball in your mouth.

The newsletter occasionally published "contributions" from cats themselves.
The newsletter occasionally published “contributions” from cats themselves. Carol Page

PURRRRR! took off quickly enough that it was immediately a full-time job for Page. “I did everything myself,” she says, from soliciting contributions to putting stamps on the envelopes. Some of this work came from managing readers: one testy cancellation, typed directly onto a subscription renewal notice, explains that “reading time is precious … and caring about cats makes that reading time even more valuable.”

Most of it, though, was straight hustling. The milk crate is full of back-and-forths with more storied publications and personages—NPR; Dear Abby; Playboy—in which she makes the case for PURRRRR! coverage. “I really believe that the appetite of the cat-loving public for cat-related news is insatiable,” she once wrote to the Washington Post.

Although some bigwigs didn’t take the bait—Cosmopolitan, she says, really gave her the runaround—plenty did, including the NPR radio program All Things Considered and NBC television’s The Today Show, which each brought Page on for a segment. She also got coverage from many local publications, which clearly enjoyed the opportunity to write headlines like “Newsletter Kitty-Corners the Market” and “Catering to Cats Catnip for Carol.”

Her biggest break, she says, came from the New York Times Book Review, which published an author’s query in which she requested interesting cat names for a recurring feature. “I got 440 new subscribers,” she says. Even better, she got a bunch of great names: Conway Kitty; Cat-A-Tonic; Wisteria, “because he’s just hanging around.” Remembering these still makes her grin. “I had a guy in Iceland who named his cat Tenzing Norgay,” she says, after Edmund Hillary’s guide during the first-ever summit of Everest.

A PURRRRR! subscription card.
A PURRRRR! subscription card. Carol Page

Paging through the archives of PURRRRR! reveals a remarkably consistent sensibility. Features came and went—book reviews; historical roundups; a tongue-in-cheek column called “Ms. Meowser,” for which Page impersonated a cat advice columnist—but the focus and tone remained. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the newsletter boasted about 3500 subscribers from all over the world. Still, the operation never budged from her apartment. “Once every other month, I’d go downstairs and dump all the PURRRRR!s in the mailbox,” says Page, “I’m sure the mailman was like ‘Oh, shit.’”

Even the best job in the world gets tough if you do it for too long. Around 1989, Page says, she burned out. She sold the newsletter at a small profit, and continued working as the editor; eventually, she quit that, too. In February of 1991, Page got a letter from the new owner. “PURRRRR! is going to fold,” it read. “Sorry to report the demise of your brainchild.”

Carol Page in 2017, with her cat Molly.
Carol Page in 2017, with her cat Molly. Atlas Obscura

Page had already moved on to other things. Her next few decades were full of ventures and adventures: since the newsletter’s demise, she has traveled to dozens of countries, taught journalism at Emerson College in Boston, covered the psychology beat for the National Enquirer, and run a PR firm. (“Everything I used there, I learned from PURRRRR!” she says.) Now that she’s retired, she enjoys traveling, collecting hats, and hanging out with her boyfriend, “Guatemalan John,” with whom even Molly is happy to share a chair. Her remaining cat curation energy goes into a number of Pinterest boards, including “Interesting Markings,” “Cats On Glass Tables,” and “Bellies I’d Like To Smooch.”

The enduring appeal of cats does not surprise her. “People have come to understand that although cats can be assholes, most are not,” she says. “They’re soft, they’re warm, you can leave them for a while if they’re fed and cleaned.” Media trends may come and go, but cat fans will always find a way to read about cats.

If you would like to peruse PURRRRR! on your own, we have digitized the first issue here.