They’re sly, mysterious creatures, sometimes considered harbingers of bad luck, or devious conspirators to witches — not to be trusted, and certainly to be avoided.
But Barbara Bonazzoli has been, well, bewitched by them.
The Hudson octogenarian has spent decades collecting likenesses of black cats — and just in time for Halloween, several of her antique figurines are on display at the Hudson Historical Society Museum.
“I’ve always loved cats,” 83-year-old Bonazzoli said as she sat in the cavernous room in the Hudson Mill Business Center that houses the museum. “I’m cat crazy.”
Throughout history, felines of all kinds have inspired both devotion and disdain. But a particular mythos and mystique has developed around the shiny-coated, yellow-eyed black cat.
In the United States, they’ve become a Halloween cliché — many a lawn ornament has the familiar silhouette of arched back, claws out, fur standing on end — and, of course, there’s that ominous, well-known warning should one appear in your path.
But history shows that many cultures have linked them with good omens rather than bad.
‘Most of the time, I just ignore them and they get dusty. . . . It’s just something we like, I guess.’
In ancient Egypt, for instance, black cats were considered sacred; a home that kept one was blessed (they were said to capture the setting sun in their eyes and hold it safe until morning) and killing one was punishable by death, according to Hudson Historical Society Museum curator Peggi Sullivan, who did research for the exhibit.
Meanwhile, they were given as wedding gifts in England, and kept as “ship’s cats” on boats for good luck (with sailors’ wives doing the same at home to ensure their husbands’ safe return). Others around the world and through the course of time have seen them as a token to ward off evil, maintain a happy home, or ensure prosperity.
“The black cat has always gotten a bad rap,” said Sullivan. “It’s hard to understand black cats.”
But is Bonazzoli superstitious about them?
“No,” she said with a laugh, “not at all.”
As for Halloween? Although she gladly gives out candy to trick-or-treaters (and keeps some for herself, too), she said: “I don’t like it. Never did.”
Her collection began simply by chance and grew as the years accumulated: She got her first (a teapot cover) from her late mother, Anne LiPetri.
“It was just a casual thing. She happened to have one,” said Bonazzoli, a retired secretary and mother of nine and grandmother of three. “I’m vague on when it all started.” (Maybe around 1980, she thinks.)
Since then, she’s amassed hundreds of cats — specifically post-World War II red clay figures made in Japan — that are occasionally repaired or tinkered with by her husband of 57 years, 82-year-old Richard Bonazzoli.
On display among the more than 50 pieces at the museum are whimsical whiskey decanters, ash trays, pepper shakers, planters, creamer and sugar pots, mugs, boiled-egg holders, cookie jars – all cats in one shape or another, most with green eyes and red ribbons around their necks.
One teapot takes shape with a curled tail as a handle and demure paws as spouts; a small figurine has a tongue that pulls out to become a tape measure and a red felt back that serves as a pin cushion; another has a back that looks like a slinky (meant to hold letters or recipes); and there’s even a working cigarette lighter (a kitty curling up beside a miniature lamp).
Bonazzoli picked them up over time at flea markets and yard sales, and got others as gifts from family members (many of whom have since started their own collections). Usually, they’re displayed in a hutch in her kitchen, and added to now and again — most recently on her birthday in March.
“Most of the time, I just ignore them and they get dusty,” chuckled Bonazzoli, who has two live feline companions, as well.
She added with a shrug, “It’s just something we like, I guess.”
And are they valuable? “Only to me, probably.”
Not true, said Sullivan, noting that the museum aims to show off more collections from locals — other recent displays have included dental instruments, nutcrackers, and baby bottles.
Because collectively, she said, they tell the story of Hudson and its residents.
“It might not be significant to the world,” she said, “but it’s significant to our town.”
The exhibit will be on display through the end of October. The museum is open Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m.