Scribner's Magazine

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Remembered chiefly for its comprehensive art criticism, beautiful illustrations, detailed cultural and social studies, and diverse literary offerings, Scribner's Magazine quickly became a respected quality monthly in the late 1880s, joining the work of the other prominent family house magazines of the period, including Harper's New Monthly Magazine, the Century Magazine, and the Atlantic Monthly. Associated with the reputable Scribner publishing firm, the magazine was aimed at middle-class readers who were interested in a high-quality monthly at a slightly lower price than its competitors—twenty-five cents per issue and three dollars for an annual subscription, versus thirty-five cents per issue and four dollars for an annual subscription to Harper's, Century, or the Atlantic. Although some periodical historians have noticed an American emphasis in the magazine, Scribner's is more accurately characterized as a distinctively cosmopolitan monthly with a particular focus on the arts, one that consistently attracted both discriminating readers and aspiring authors.


Although the Scribner publishing firm had been associated with two earlier monthly magazines—Hours at Home (1865–1870) and Scribner's Monthly (1870–1881)—it was with Scribner's Magazine (1887–1939) that the publisher made its mark in the periodical world. Founded in 1887, just six years after the firm severed its ties with the earlier Scribner's Monthly, which had been reorganized as the Century in 1881, the new magazine was edited for nearly three decades by Edward Livermore Burlingame (1848–1922). Burlingame brought impressive intellectual rigor, a cosmopolitan perspective, and practical newspaper and publishing experience to the enterprise. Before the age of fourteen, he had attended Harvard University and served as a private secretary to his father, Anson Burlingame, who had been appointed the U.S. minister to China in 1861. Over the next several years, Burlingame not only assisted his father but also continued his education, becoming fluent in French and German and studying in Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg before earning a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Heidelberg in 1869. After his father's death in 1870, Burlingame returned to the United States, where he gained experience working for the New York Tribune and the Appleton publishing firm. He also translated a volume of essays by the German composer Richard Wagner (Roberson, p. 90).

Burlingame's extensive travel, European education, and social connections with world leaders, artists, and writers no doubt attracted the interest of the Scribner publishing firm; his early publishing experience also made him a viable candidate. Charles Scribner's Sons hired him as a book editor in 1879 and appointed him the editor of Scribner's Magazine in 1886; the firm was planning the first number of the magazine for January 1887. Until he retired from this post in 1914, Burlingame and his able staff and contributors created a monthly that was well received both nationally and internationally. He had sound editorial skills and was particularly adept at negotiating with writers to contribute stories, articles, and series to the magazine. During the height of Scribner's success in the early twentieth century, the Scribner firm sent Burlingame to Europe almost every summer to seek suitable material from writers and artists (Roberson, p. 93).

Although the first few years of Scribner's Magazine were difficult because of the financial strain of offering a monthly at a reduced price, circulation rose to about 110,000 by the early 1890s and continued to grow until it reached slightly more than 200,000 by 1909 (Mott, p. 723). Soon after reaching this peak, however, circulation dropped sharply to 100,000 in 1911, primarily because of increased competition from cheaper periodicals and a shift in the taste of the middle-class reading public. Following Burlingame's retirement in 1914, the associate editor, Robert Bridges (1858–1941), took the helm, maintaining most of the successful policies initiated by Burlingame (Mott, pp. 723, 729). Bridges was correct to continue Burlingame's emphasis on quality contributions and sound editorial standards, but without strategic changes in format or content, it was inevitable that the circulation of Scribner's would continue to decline. In an attempt to shore up its financial base by making the magazine more attractive to advertisers, the magazine decreased its advertising rate from $300 a page to $250. Despite this adjustment, the magazine was only able to muster about eighty pages of advertising per month, down from the one hundred pages in its most successful period. Circulation fell to about seventy thousand in 1924 and continued to drop during most of the rest of Bridges's tenure, except for a brief return to seventy thousand in 1930, the year of Bridges's retirement (Mott, pp. 726, 729).


Although Scribner's Magazine did not immediately reach the high standard for quality illustration set by the Century Magazine, within a few years it was attracting almost as much interest from readers and critics. Like the Century, Scribner's at first featured mostly wood engravings by the new school of American engravers, whose work was praised for its accurate representation of the original. Wood engravers such as W. B. Closson, G. T. Andrew, George Kruell, Frederick Juengling, and Elbridge Kingsley filled the early numbers of the magazine with detailed engravings that often appeared to transcend the restrictions of wood by simulating brushstrokes, crayon textures, or the intricate degrees of light and shade of the work of art it was rendering. In the early 1890s Scribner's added to its illustration processes halftone engraving and chromolithographs, which allowed it to reproduce the work of many prominent artists, including J. W. Alexander, W. L. Taylor, R. F. Zogbaum, Charles Dana Gibson, Kenyon Cox, Will H. Low, W. T. Smedley, A. B. Frost, Robert Blum, Ernest C. Peixotto, and Maxfield Parrish. In the late 1890s and following, Scribner's was highly regarded for its color illustrations. One of the most striking examples may be found in John La Farge's essay "Puvis de Chavannes" (1900), which included full-color plates of the artist's work. Scribner's innovative experiments in illustration were highly praised by both readers and critics (Mott, p. 726).

Scribner's was best known in the art world for its art criticism. In 1896 the magazine founded the department "The Field of Art," which included signed contributions by Russell Sturgis, Frank Weitenkampf, Will H. Low, and many others. This department covered the entire range of visual art by including pieces on architectural decoration, portraiture, sculpture, painting, interior design, posters, and even bookbinding. In addition, nearly every number included a substantial essay on either an artist or some aspect of the art world. Scribner's was strategic in finding ways to reach readers who might not otherwise read an essay focused explicitly on art. For example, Robert Blum's popular and beautifully illustrated series "An Artist in Japan" (1893) was primarily a travel piece, but it included Blum's astute visual perspective on the arts and crafts of Japan, even in his description and illustration of a "clog maker." By blending the discussion of art into other essay topics, Scribner's gradually introduced readers to the aesthetic aims of the magazine.


Part of the success of Scribner's in its first three decades stemmed from Burlingame's ability to balance challenging literary scholarship, fiction, and poetry with lighter literary fare. In the first several years, for example, Scribner's printed Jane Octavia Brookfield's edited series "Unpublished Letters of Thackeray" (1887) and Andrew Lang's biographical piece "Molière" (1889). These serious offerings were carefully balanced by lighter contributions of fiction and literary biography, including Andrew D. White's illustrated piece "Walter Scott at Work" (1889) and Margaret Sutton Briscoe's sentimental story "Apples of Gold" (1892).

Scribner's was especially strong in local color fiction, a mode that nicely complemented its illustrated travel articles. During the same years that Scribner's printed local color stories by Sarah Orne Jewett, Thomas Nelson Page, Duncan Campbell Scott, Bret Harte, J. M. Barrie, Octave Thanet, and A. T. Quiller-Couch, it also printed illustrated travel essays that appealed to readers' desire for authenticity. For example, Edward Penfield's "Holland from the Stern of a Boeier" (1903) and Ernest Thompson Seton's four-part series "The Arctic Prairies" (1910–1911) were both illustrated by the authors, a feature that not only underscored the magazine's expertise in printing high-quality illustrations but also gave these pieces a realistic, documentary look.

Although late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century monthlies are not known for distinguished poetry, Scribner's printed more than the typical sentimental poems found in other magazines of the period. Poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson were well represented in the magazine, as were the poems of Edith Wharton, Henry Van Dyke, David Morton, Arthur Davison Ficke, Andrew Lang, Archibald Lampman, Katharine Lee Bates, and Robinson Jeffers, among others. Drawing on its strength in printing fine illustrations, Scribner's frequently framed poems with attractive borders and sometimes even with full-color plates. This attention to design suggests that Scribner's poetry, fiction, travel essays, and other illustrated pieces were connected to the larger visual world that the magazine brought to readers each month.

Perhaps the greatest literary achievement of Scribner's, however, may be found in its fiction. Serialized novels were plentiful, including the work of George Washington Cable, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton, F. Hopkinson Smith, John Galsworthy, John Fox Jr., Harold Frederic, and Robert Grant. From a purely literary point of view, the most important serials in the first decade of the twentieth century were Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), which included a striking frontispiece illustration by A. B. Wenzel, and her novella Ethan Frome (1911). Scribner's was also strong in short stories, most notably Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1897), Octave Thanet's "Stories of a Western Town" (1892), and Rudyard Kipling's ".007" (1897). Other important contributors of short fiction included Henry James, Frank R. Stockton, Kate Douglas Wiggin, William Allen White, Robert Herrick, Richard Harding Davis, and Margaret Crosby. Finally, even though the magazine began its long decline in 1911, it continued to bring important literary works to the American reading public. Short works by Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson, D. H. Lawrence, Conrad Aiken, Langston Hughes, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and Josephine Herbst filled the pages of Scribner's with fresh fictional offerings.

As mentioned earlier, Burlingame set the tone for Scribner's in its first three decades by carefully balancing the content. This same principle was applied to literary criticism, with a balance being sought between serious literary essays and lighter domestic commentary on writers. In 1889, for example, Andrew Lang's essay "Alexander Dumas" stood in contrast to Oscar Browning's more domestic literary commentary in his essay "Goethe's House at Weimar." Scribner's secured contributions from many other leading literary critics of the day, including Bliss Perry, Brander Matthews, W. C. Brownell, Robert Grant, and Augustine Birrell.


Although Scribner's was not as strong as other month-lies in its discussion of social issues, it did print a number of important studies about different cultures and classes. W. C. Brownell's extensive "French Traits" series (1887–1889) covered everything from "The Social Instinct" to "Intelligence" and "Manners." There were many features on Japan and Japanese culture, which reflected a broader interest in Asian art, culture, and politics than was found in the other monthlies of the period. At least in terms of its content, Scribner's rooted itself firmly in the perspective of the middle- and upper-middle-class reader when it printed essays such as Jacob A. Riis's "How the Other Half Lives" (1889) and Walter A. Wyckoff's series "The Workers" (1898). Just before and during World War I, Scribner's printed many different perspectives on the war effort, including Price Collier's "Germany and the Germans" (1913), John Galsworthy's "Thoughts on War" (1914), and Edith Wharton's "The Look of Paris" (1915). Regular contributions by the war correspondents Richard Harding Davis and E. Alexander Powell also provided more thorough descriptions of the war than in newspaper accounts.


For a little over fifty years, Scribner's Magazine printed beautiful illustrations, noteworthy art criticism, and important literature and literary criticism. The magazine made a lasting contribution to American life and letters, especially in its consistent attempts to maintain a cosmopolitan perspective rather than a strictly American one. In so doing, Scribner's Magazine succeeded in creating a unique space in American magazine print culture that acquainted middle-class readers with an intelligent and aesthetically inclined viewpoint of the world, one that avoided the "genteel" label sometimes ascribed to other periodicals.

See alsoCentury Magazine; Periodicals


Secondary Works

Benert, Annette Larson. "Reading the Walls: The Politics of Architecture in Scribner's Magazine, 1887–1914." Arizona Quarterly 47, no. 1 (spring 1991): 49–79.

Burlingame, Roger. Of Making Many Books: A Hundred Years of Reading, Writing, and Publishing. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946.

Doyle, James. "Duncan Campbell Scott and American Literature." In Duncan Campbell Scott Symposium, edited by K. P. Stich, pp. 101–109. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1980.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930–1968. See 4: 717–732.

Nash, Andrew. "'A Phenomenally Slow Producer': J. M. Barrie, Scribner's, and the Publication of Sentimental Tommy." Yale University Library Gazette 74 (October 1999): 41–53.

Roberson, Patt Foster. "Edward Livermore Burlingame." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 79, American Magazine Journalists, 1850–1900, edited by Sam G. Riley, pp. 90–93. Detroit: Gale, 1989.

Sait, James E. "Charles Scribner's Sons and the Great War." Princeton University Library Chronicle 48, no. 2 (1987): 152–180.

James Arthur Bond