Harper's New Monthly Magazine

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What do Mathew Brady, Santa Claus, Little Dorrit, Wild Bill Hickok, Winslow Homer, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mark Twain, and Boss Tweed hold in common? All debuted before a national audience in monthly or weekly magazines published by Harper & Brothers between 1850 and 1870. Beyond such firsts, the firm's magazines themselves stand as landmarks in American mass media history. By closely associating word and image, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1850) and its spin-off, Harper's Weekly (1857), set the course for general magazines for generations to come. In so doing, they fundamentally, if unintentionally, fostered American literature.


Quickly growing from its 1817 foundation in New York City to become the nation's top book publisher, Harper & Brothers brought to its magazines much organizational experience. By each specializing in executive, financial, operational, and editorial functions, the four brothers—James, John, Joseph Wesley, and Fletcher—developed a quasi-modern managerial system that easily adopted innovations like steam-powered presses, stereotyping, and integrated factory production. The productive capacity readily found far-flung outlets via transportation lines increasingly linking New York to the nation. This nexus of production and distribution yielded an immense business—by January 1854 Harper counted 1,549 "works on hand . . . in editions varying from five hundred to fifty thousand" ("A Word of Apology," p. 147).

The firm's success with books gave rise in June 1850 to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, later described by Fletcher Harper (1806–1877), the chief editor of Harper and the youngest of the four brothers, as "a tender to our business" (p. 85)—that is, a promotional sampler. Indeed the magazine advertised only Harper imprints and frequently excerpted them. The contents of the magazine more subtly reflected the firm's book business too. Diffusing risks by juggling biographical, historical, reference, scientific, theological, and travel titles as well belles lettres and textbooks, Harper & Brothers had ample editorial resources for a general magazine. The firm's many schoolbook and family library series provided precedents for marshaling miscellaneous material to maintain reader interest. In pursuing this, the brothers learned that illustrations sold books; their first-rate artists soon served the magazine so well that it became known for its illustrations. Finally, Harper had prospered by reprinting British works unprotected by international copyright. The magazine naturally followed house tradition in serializing British best-sellers.


Harper's transatlantic orientation sparked controversy in a time of literary nationalism. Some observers accused the firm of piracy, of "simply stealing" foreign work, as it was stated in the July 1852 American Whig Review (p. 16) and thus not funding native talent. True, the magazine published British superstars such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Dickens, Mary Russell Mitford, Agnes Strickland, and William Makepeace Thackeray. However, the Harpers did at times buy from them advance sheets—Dickens's Bleak House (April 1852–October 1853) cost them $1,728—to scoop local rivals pirating the eventual British edition.

Whether Harper's discouraged American writers is also unclear. In the 1850s most articles were anonymous, making nationality claims hard to assess. Still, some prominent Yankee contributors' names, like those of Jacob and John Abbott, did commonly appear. The magazine even occasionally publicized American literati in passing. For instance, the February 1856 introduction to Dickens's Little Dorrit (January 1856–July 1857) summoned Nathaniel Hawthorne's "P's Correspondence" (1845), about a lunatic envisioning alternate histories, to ponder the cultural impoverishment that would have ensued had Boz—the pen name Dickens (1812–1870) used—died before finishing The Pickwick Papers, which had been published serially in 1836–1837.

More substantively, by the late fifties Harper's paid at least five dollars a page for all American work, thus furthering professionalism. Herman Melville (1819–1891) was one writer who turned magazinist via Harper's, where he published several stories, including "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (April 1855). Despite Melville's conformance to the house style of "nonpartisan sentiment" (Post-Lauria, p. 167), in this story a paper mill serves as a grim synecdoche for the very industrialization the Harper factory represented—some indication of the forbearance granted local talent. The national presence increased over time, for by December 1861, when nearly all authors were being identified, all but two were Americans, including notable women like Louise Chandler Moulton and Elizabeth Stoddard. The trend continued throughout the 1860s, even for novices. For example, in January 1864 came "A Sacrifice Consumed" by the nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) who would publish the bestselling The Gates Ajar in 1868, while the December 1866 issue contained "Forty-three Days in an Open Boat" by Mark Twain (1835–1910; Twain's name was mistakenly printed as Mark Swain), who was at that point in his career a complete unknown. In short, Harper's New Monthly Magazine not only launched and sustained many careers; it also stimulated a national market for current literature.


At the outset Harper's Monthly predicted that it would "make its way into the hands or the family circle of every intelligent citizen" ("A Word at the Start," p. 2), and it soon seemed progressing toward that goal. Priced reasonably at twenty-five cents an issue or three dollars annually, the magazine had after six months a circulation of 50,000 and by 1860 about 200,000—almost seventeen times more than the average monthly. Like other magazines, Harper's benefited from 1852 federal regulations that shifted postage fees from receiver to sender, while dramatically lowering them. Unlike competitors, however, Harper's had the advantage of a brand name, sumptuous pictures of exotic places, rare access to British literary lions, a steady stable of writers, and above all deep pockets to survive economic downturns.

These elements might not have jelled without the brothers' truly national aspirations, shaped by their Methodist ethic of getting the word out to everywhere and everyone through inoffensive and informative entertainment. Indeed in The House of Harper (1912), J. Henry Harper credits his grandfather Fletcher Harper's weekly dinners with prominent ministerial raconteurs returning from the road as the source for the magazine's humorous and highly popular "Editor's Drawer" (p. 34). Borrowing and secularizing that entertaining oral sensibility throughout their magazine, the Harpers made it an ideal vehicle for the common social practice of reading aloud.

Who actually read the magazine remains uncertain because of circumstantial and fragmentary evidence. Scholars have variably seen Harper's expressing upper-or middle-class interests, but such terms scarcely encompass the complex mid-century social formations from which it drew readers. Correspondence and diaries show the magazine being read nationwide by laborers and the leisured alike, with wide availability through libraries and informal lending. Still, the magazine's tone bespoke refinement, reflected in coffee-table-book pictorialism that culminated in the January 1857 founding of Harper's Weekly. It would be a chronicle for the times, whereas the nonpartisan monthly stood for the ages; together they opened Americans' eyes to a new visual universe.


The extent and quality of illustrations uniquely characterized Harper magazines. The monthly had "the most striking pictures for many years," especially of exotic places, and thus faced "no competition" until the 1870s, according to the firm's historian J. Henry Harper (p. 88), while the weekly (itself with circulations over 100,000) far outpaced its two serious rivals, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and the derivative New York Illustrated News. In an era before cheap photomechanical reproduction would make the glossy magazine commonplace, Harper's ably served a reading public hungry for visual imagery.

In obliging its audience, Harper's spared no expense for illustrations. While in its earliest issues the magazine sported few but diverse images of authors (or their homes), fashions, wondrous locales, and scientific processes, decorations for poetry and fiction, and cartoons, it slowly multiplied the number. As of December 1865 the magazine boasted printing over ten thousand wood engravings, the average of which cost about thirty dollars—then an extraordinary figure. It is no wonder, for the process was long and complex and involved an array of artists. A field sketch, photograph, or studio drawing was often copied, even altered, by a chief artist before being transferred to the polished surfaces of boxwood blocks. These were then carefully cut by engravers, set on a page along with type, and by 1865, electrotyped onto metal plates ready for the press. What the engravers did not chisel away, namely the drawing's lines, absorbed ink and appeared black when printed, while carved areas yielded white. During the Civil War the staff of Harper's Weekly labored around the clock to translate images rushed from the battlefront into printed illustrations. For less timely subjects the magazine was not averse to requisitioning woodblocks from its book department and copying illustrations from other publications.

Harper's magazine illustrations advanced the reputations of many artists and popularized visual renditions of celebrated, notorious, and fictitious figures. The magazine's numerous Mathew Brady (1823–1896) portraits whetted rather than sated appreciation of the celebrated New York photographer's artistry. The popularity of the Civil War sketches and drawings of everyday scenes that Winslow Homer (1836–1910) did for the magazine presaged his later renown as a painter. So faithful was his depiction of the positions of Union forces in First Days' Firing at Yorktown that cautious generals censored its publication. Scathing caricatures of "Boss" Tweed (William Marcy Tweed, 1823–1878) as the bloated kingpin of the corrupt Tweed Ring (1866–1871) that debased New York City politics secured both his timeless infamy and the reputation of the cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902), who repeatedly depicted Tweed and his nefarious doings in Harper's and other periodicals. Nast also conjured up beloved characters in 1860s issues, including the quintessential Santa Claus: portly, jolly, and hoary bearded. The magazine's February 1867 engravings of the flowing haired, mustachioed, gun-toting Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler Hickok, 1837–1876), when coupled with a thirteen-page derring-do adventure, helped fashion a national folk legend from a regional curiosity.

Competition from Scribner's Monthly around 1870 only spurred Harper's on to greater heights in the number and quality of its graven images, which became increasingly refined, even ethereal. However, the era of fine wood engraving was nearing its end as inexpensive photographic processes supplanted the costly and laborious procedure while satisfying the taste for greater realism. Harper's legacy, however, remains wedded to the heyday of wood engraving, when it won the hearts of an audience who not only read but also beheld and imagined what was rarely seen.

See alsoBook Publishing; Editors; English Literature; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; Photography; Publishers


Primary Works

Guernsey, Alfred H. "Making the Magazine." Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1865, pp. 1–31.

"A Letter to the Proprietors of Harper's Magazine." American Whig Review 16 (July 1852): 12–21.

"A Word at the Start." Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1850, pp. 1–2.

"A Word of Apology." Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1854, pp. 145–158.

Secondary Works

Allen, Frederick Lewis. "Harper's Magazine," 1850–1950: ACentenary Address. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1950.

Barnhurst, Kevin G., and John C. Nerone. The Form of News: A History. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.

Beam, Philip C. Winslow Homer's Magazine Engravings. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Belk, Russell W. "Materialism and the Making of the Modern American Christmas." In Unwrapping Christmas, edited by Daniel Miller, pp. 75–104. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Exman, Eugene. The Brothers Harper: A Unique PublishingPartnership and Its Impact upon the Cultural Life of America from 1817 to 1853. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Exman, Eugene. The House of Harper: One Hundred andFifty Years of Publishing. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Harper, Joseph Henry. The House of Harper: A Century ofPublishing in Franklin Square. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.

Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Meredith, Roy. Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man: Mathew B. Brady. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1946. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1974.

Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vol. 2, 1850–1865. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Pearson, Andrea G. "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly: Innovation and Imitation in Nineteenth-Century American Pictorial Reporting." Journal of Popular Culture 23 (1990): 81–111.

Post-Lauria, Sheila. Correspondent Colorings: Melville in theMarketplace. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum EconomicDevelopment and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. Everyday Ideas: Socio-Literary Experience in Antebellum New England. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming.

Ronald J. Zboray Mary Saracino Zboray