By the early decades of the 20th century, science fiction (sf) stories were frequently seen in popular magazines. The Munsey Company, a major pulp magazine publisher, printed a great deal of science fiction in these years, but it was not until 1926 that Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine specializing in science fiction appeared. Munsey continued to print sf in Argosy during the 1930s, including stories such as Murray Leinster's The War of the Purple Gas and Arthur Leo Zagat's "Tomorrow", though they owned no magazines that specialized in science fiction. By the end of the 1930s science fiction was a growing market, with several new sf magazines launched in 1939. That year Munsey took advantage of science fiction's growing popularity by launching Famous Fantastic Mysteries as a vehicle for reprinting the most popular fantasy and sf stories from the Munsey magazines.
The first issue was dated September/October 1939, and was edited by Mary Gnaedinger. The magazine immediately became successful and went to a monthly schedule starting in November 1939. Demand for reprints of old favorites was so strong that Munsey decided to launch an additional magazine, Fantastic Novels, in July 1940. The two magazines were placed on alternating bimonthly schedules, but when Fantastic Novels ceased publication in early 1941 Famous Fantastic Mysteries remained bimonthly until June 1942. Munsey sold Famous Fantastic Mysteries to Popular Publications, a major pulp publisher, at the end of 1942; it appears to have been a sudden decision, since the editorial in the December 1942 issue discusses a planned February issue that never materialized, and mentions forthcoming reprints that did not appear. The first issue from Popular appeared in March 1943, and only two more issues appeared that year; the September 1943 issue marked the beginning of a regular quarterly schedule. It returned to a bimonthly schedule in 1946 which it maintained with only slight deviations until the end of its run.
In 1949, Street & Smith, one of the longest established and most respected publishers, shut down all of their pulp magazines: the pulp era was drawing to a close. Popular Publications was the biggest pulp publisher, which helped their titles last a little longer, but Famous Fantastic Mysteries finally ceased publication in 1953, only a couple of years before the last of the pulps ceased publication.