Introducing Harry Whittier Frees, World-Famous Animal Photographer

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Long before William Wegman (born 1943) began photographing dogs – primarily his own Weimaraners, beginning with his first, Man Ray, whom he acquired in 1970 – wearing clothing and costumes, Pennsylvania native Harry Whittier Frees (1879–1953) became famous for his unusual photographs of young cats, dogs, rabbits and chickens wearing all sorts of garments and engaged in a variety of activities. Frees created images for magazines, calendars, books and postcards for more than a half century from 1902 to 1953. He began to pose fancifully garbed animals in 1905; because of their popularity they became his signature work. Frees became a staff animal photographer for the Rotograph Company of New York.

Frees was born in the Berks County seat of Reading on June 8, 1879, the second son of Henry Luther and Harriet Frees. The family appears in the 1880 Census for Reading with the elder Henry working as a saddler, Harriet, a homemaker, and two sons, Edward L., age two, and one-year-old Harry W. Accounts about the family’s later residence are conflicting. According to Life magazine, the Frees moved to Montgomery County, where the young photographer Frees set up a studio in Audubon. Other sources claim he worked in Oaks, also in Montgomery County, 18 miles northwest of Philadelphia. What is known is that following the deaths of his parents, Frees, who never married, moved in the early 1940s to Clearwater, Pinellas County, Florida, where he lived until his tragic death in 1953.

According to an article, which appeared in the March 1, 1937, issue of Life, Frees began his career purely by accident. Shortly after the opening of the 20th century one of the Frees brought a paper hat to the dinner table for a birthday celebration. The family gaily passed the hat from head to head until, in a final burst of hilarity, someone placed it on the head of the family cat who, up until that time, had taken no part in the fun. Then and there Frees took a photograph of the fashionable feline. The odd picture was so much admired that he took others and sold some to a postcard printer. The printer clamored for more. And so an unconventional career commenced.

Frees’s photographs were uncommon because he used live animals and no tricks were involved. He initially added a bow, a hat or some small clothing accessory to his four-legged subjects. About 10 years into his career, Frees began expanding the animals’ wardrobe (making it easier to pose them) and created elaborate settings for his models. He attired them in dresses, work uniforms, smocks, shawls, robes and aprons made by his mother or his housekeeper Annie Edelman. The clothes were held in place by pins so the animals could be quickly dressed and undressed. They were then posed in human situations – ironing clothes, cooking on an old-fashioned cast-iron stove, hanging laundry, playing a piano, pumping water, even casting votes in a wooden ballot box! The work was challenging, time-consuming and nerve-wracking. It caused Frees so much anxiety that he photographed his furry subjects for only three months a year. To make the situation even more difficult for Frees, only about 30 negatives out of every 100 could be used. Consequently, he needed the remainder of the year to recuperate from exhaustion and formulate new ideas.

In 1925 Little Folks, published in England from 1871 to 1933, featured an article explaining Frees’s working method. Illustrations accompanying the article showed him arranging a tableaux for a photo shoot. He contended the position of the camera and the proper shutter speed were extremely important to the process.

In the Life feature, he described his work. His photographic exposures were taken at one-fifth of a second. Kittens were easily distracted by moving objects and puppies’ attention was diverted by barking dogs. “These unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times,” Frees said. He borrowed pets from neighbors and rented animals from nearby pet stores.

The most popular model for his work was his cat Rags, who was later joined by Fluff, an Angora kitten. Rags was an ordinary short-haired cat and the model Frees photographed the most. According to the article in Little Folks, Rags evidently enjoyed being photographed and was a good model. “Rags possesses an unusual intellect for a cat. He has been known to keep a pose for several minutes without as much as the flicker of a whisker. When the very limit of his endurance has been reached he will give a protesting little murmur. A short romp on the ground, together with a choice bit of meat as a reward, will at once restore him to his former amiability.”

Frees also photographed puppies, bunnies, chicks, even a piglet. Four Little Kittens tells the story of Buzz, Fuzz, Suzz and Agememnon, who also appeared in More about Four Little Kittens, Four Little Kittens’ Christmas, The Little Kittens’ Nursery Rhymes and The Little Kittens’ Mother Goose Rhymes. Four Little Puppies relates the story of Wags, Tags, Rags and Obadiah, and Four Little Bunnies follows Fluff, Puff, Muff and Algernon. Popular through the late 20th century the books were reprinted in the 1980s by the Merrimack Publishing Corporation and in the 1990s by the B. Shackman Company.

Frees’s photographs attracted widespread popularity in the United States, Europe and New Zealand. They illustrated articles in magazines of the day such as Woman’s World, Child’s Life and American Magazine. The September 1922 issue of American Magazine carried an article entitled “The Three Secrets of Getting on With Animals or With Human Beings.” In several of his magazine articles and books Frees wrote a story and illustrated it with his photographs, chronicling stories of village life, family life, children’s games, circus life and school days. He also rewrote classic children’s stories such as Mother Goose, fairy tales and nursery rhymes. His magazine work included The People of Petland series, a selection of 12 stories for children “telling of Petland – the Place Where Pets Go – and of the Gay Antics of the Little Animal Friends Who Live There,” exclusive to Woman’s World. The second in this series, “The Tabbytails’ New Year’s Breakfast,” appeared in the January 1927 issue and featured twin kittens Sniffy and Snuffy.

Woman’s World also featured “Tales of Animal Isle.” The September 1930 issue contained “Rolly and Polly Puff Meet with a Surprise on Their First Day at the Catnip School.” Rolly and Polly were sister kittens. In 1932 Woman’s World offered a set of five Frees books, published by the Manning Publishing Company of Chicago, to renewing subscribers: Circus Day at Catnip Center, Kitty’s First Day at Catnip School, The King Who Never Smiled, Mr. Bunny and the Magic Pool and The Pot of Gold at Rainbow’s End. Other articles included “The Tabby’s Hunt for Treasure,” “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger,” “The Adventure of Princess Bunny,” “The Stolen Easter Rabbit,” “It’s Christmas Eve in Merry Petland,” “The Fairy Godmother,” “Grandma’s Secret” and “Peter Purr’s Prank.” Child’s Life magazine published two holiday-themed contributions, “Kitten Valentines,” a centerfold of five kitten valentines in the February 1936 issue, and “Easter Cards,” a centerfold of rabbit pictures, in the April 1936 edition. His photographs became so popular that the American Osteopathic Association included one in the July 1936 edition of Osteopathic Magazine to accompany an editorial titled “Cat Naps.”

In 1915 Lothrop, Lee and Shepard of Boston released his first book, Little Folks of Animal Land, which he wrote to showcase his photographs. “I sincerely hope that others will derive as much pleasure from the antics of the Little Folks of Animal Land as I experience in picturing and telling about them,” Frees wrote in his introductory note. The Bunnies of Bunnyboro was published in 1916 by Parker P. Simmons Company, which once had offices in New York, Boston and Chicago. Boston’s Page Company published his next four books, The Sandman: His Animal Stories (1916), The Sandman: His Kittykat Stories (1917), The Sandman: His Bunny Stories (1918) and The Sandman: His Puppy Stories (1920).

Frees’s most successful book was Animal Mother Goose, with Characters Photographed from Life, published by Lothrop, Lee and Shepard in 1921. The book features the familiar rhymes of Mother Goose illustrated with pictures of kittens, puppies and piglets. He dressed his models in costumes to illustrate characters such as Little Bo Peep and Old Mother Hubbard. The preface emphasizes the humane way the author and photographer treated his posers. “Every subject in them was a living, healthy, active animal brought into position by patient kindness. No drugged animals much less any that was artificial or stuffed, could give the results shown in this book.”

The preface to Animal Land on the Air, published in 1929, explained the painstaking work involved in producing the book. “Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable of taking many ‘human’ parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal. The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion. The best period of young animal models is a short one, being when they are from six to ten weeks of age. An interesting fact is that a kitten’s attention is best held through the sense of sight, while that of a puppy is most influenced by sound, and equally readily distracted by it. The native reasoning powers of young animals are, moreover, quite as pronounced as those of the human species; and relatively far surer.”

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Frees published numerous books with Rand McNally including Four Little Kittens, Four Little Puppies and Four Little Bunnies. In 1937 the publishing company released The Story of Bill Bunny, a lonely bunny who finds new meaning in life through an orphaned baby bunny. Offerings also included The Puppy and Pussy Book, Whiskers, Yip and Yap, Toodles and Her Friends and Snuggles. Toodles and Her Friends tells the story of Purr-cilla Mewriel, a young feline known as Toodles by her friends. Many of these books were part of Rand-McNally’s Elf Book series and were reprinted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Frees’s photographs continued being used as illustrations in books through the 1970s. The Ideals Corporation published Big Bunny Family Album, a selection of illustrations of finely attired rabbits illustrating the tale of Barney Bunny and his family, in 1979. Through the years, beginning in the early 20th century, writers illustrated their books with photographs by Frees. In 1922 New York’s Century Company published Edward Anthony’sThe Pussy and Princess: A Fairytale for Boys, Girls, Parents and Their Children which includes a series of photographic animal studies by Frees. Animal Fun and Frolic by Jesse Pope and The Pets Party: Attended by Real Live Pusses, Puppies, Bunnies and Chicks and Mrs. Collie’s Puppy Band and Other Stories written by Patreen O’Neill, also employed work by Frees.

In addition to book and magazine publishers, advertising companies found value in Frees’s photography. In 1935 Utica and Mohawk Cotton Mills Inc. released a booklet, Restful Sleep, the first five pages of which depict Snowy, a cat, as she purchases sheets, launders and irons them and, finally, correctly makes a bed. The company employed Snowy as its corporate symbol through the 1940s. Kitten’s Party, a photograph of a feline pouring glasses of milk for three others seated at a table, was used in a promotional campaign for the Dairymen’s League Co-Operative Association.

For Frees timing was everything. As he embarked on his career, picture postcards were becoming exceptionally popular and millions were purchased, mailed or collected annually. The Rotograph Company signed Frees for its animal studies series. The Manning Publishing Company, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, and the Nyce Manufacturing Company located in Vernfield, Montgomery County, in eastern Pennsylvania, published Genuine Frees Animal Series cards. Printers in England, Holland and Italy distributed postcards bearing his curious images. In the 1980s a number of companies, including the Ideals Corporation, reprinted his postcards.

While his illustrations for magazines were popular, his postcards seemed to sell well and his commissions enviable, they evidently did not guarantee Frees financial stability. He never married, devoting his life to his photography and caring for his parents. After their deaths in the 1940s, Frees moved to Clearwater, Florida, where he lived in isolation. Suffering from cancer and nearly destitute, he took his own life on March 6, 1953. The March 19, 1953, St. Petersburg Times carried his obituary under the headline “Clearwater Man Is Ruled Suicide in Death by Gas.”

“Desponded over what he regarded as an incurable disease, Harry Whittier Frees, 74, of 709 Seneca Street, took his own life sometime Sunday by turning on the gas stove in the kitchen.

“This was reported yesterday by Deputy Parker Jackson who was called by a neighbor to enter the man’s house after he had not been seen for several days.

“The County medical examiner released the body and Magistrate Olin Blakely investigated as coroner.

“Jackson said a note was found in which Frees said he was taking his own life because of an incurable disease.”

The obituary made no mention of his noteworthy photography and its widespread publication. Because he died impoverished, there was no provision for marking his final resting place.

In the early 1970s Anne R. Bradford of London, England, began collecting Frees’s books and postcards. In 1974 she discovered the article in Little Folks, which she reprinted in her first book. Corresponding with postcard clubs, booksellers and publishers, she learned the name of the daughter of Frees’s cousin who told her he had moved to Florida. She doggedly pursued leads and discovered his grave in Clearwater Municipal Cemetery was unmarked. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frees in 1979, Bradford published The Animal Magic of Harry Whittier Frees: A Tribute. In the book Bradford wrote his grave lacked a headstone – an undeniably sad ending to the story of an individual who gave so much delight to children and adults during his lifetime.

After this was featured in the Sunday supplement of the London Times, Bradford published her second book entitled More Animal Magic of Harry Whittier Frees. With the proceeds from the sales of her books, she purchased a headstone for Frees’s grave, featuring his photograph All is Vanity.

Today Frees’s unusual work remains popular, thanks to the continual reprinting of books, photographs and postcards. Four Little Kittens, the cover design featuring four kittens in nightshirts and posed on stairs with one kitten holding a candle, has been used in a college course “Elements of Book Design and Illustration.” Animals Aloft (2005) written by Allan James and featuring photographs from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, includes a Frees photograph entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Kittens, originally captioned by its creator as “Susie and her little sister were a little nervous when they began their first ride on the transcontinental blimp express. Only the pilot appeared confident.”

Most recently, Cats, Dogs and Other Rabbits: The Extraordinary World of Harry Whittier Frees was published in England in 2006. This book highlights a selection of black and white prints now owned by the government of France as well as postcards featuring Frees’s photographs. Harry Whittier Frees created a special type of photography using dressed animals to an extent not accomplished since. The fascinating contributions of this native Pennsylvanian continues to delight – and intrigue – audiences of all ages throughout the world. And it all began in the Keystone State more than a century ago.


LOL Cats

The web is buzzing with LOLcats, hilarious images combining a photograph of a cat with brief text intended to evoke humor. The caption, generally idiosyncratic and grammatically incorrect, is known as LOLspeak. LOLcat is a compound word of the ubiquitous acronym LOL (“laugh out loud”) and the word cat.

Many creators of LOLcats attribute the origins of these unusual compositions to late 19th-century British portrait photographer Harry Pointer who published a series of cartes-de-visite of cats in various poses. To these cards he usually added amusing text to further enhance their appeal. A notable figure in the United States frequently cited for his originality and his seminal work with animal models, especially cats, is early 20th-century photographer Harry Whittier Frees, a native of Reading, Berks County. Frees not only posed funny furry felines to mimic human activities, professions and hobbies, but also clothed them in outfits to draw even greater attention.

Frees photographed animals in all kinds of garments for decades. For a man who delighted in publishing his photographs as magazine, book and postcard illustrations to make people happy, it’s sadly ironic he took his own life in 1953.


Mary L. Weigley, Richland, Lebanon County, has collected postcards, especially those featuring cats, for many years. Her article “Dressed Cat Postcards” appeared in the September 2005 issue of Postcard Collector. She earned a B.A. in American history from LaRoche College, Pittsburgh, and is currently working on a book entitled Little Folks in Animal Land: The Photography of Harry Whittier Frees. She welcomes information and comments from readers, who can e-mail her at