Ten-Cent Magazines

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Ten-Cent Magazines


A Pricing Revolution. In June 1893, to compete with popular monthly periodicals such as Munseys, which was founded as a weekly in 1889 and became a monthly in 1891, and Cosmopolitan, founded in 1886, S. S. McClure founded a new monthly, McClures, and set the price at ten cents, forcing its rivals to lower their prices to match. (Many weeklies cost thirty-five cents.) Over the next ten years other new magazines that sold for ten or fifteen cents appeared, and by 1903 they represented about 85 percent of the total magazine circulation in America. At the turn of the century the most profitable magazines were McClures, Munseys, Argosy, and Cosmopolitan. While some tried lowering their prices even further, only The Saturday Evening Post, a weekly revived in 1897 by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, prospered at a nickel.

A Market Revolution. The new monthly magazines took advantage of improved printing technologies to publish many pleasing illustrations. Their contents varied, but they paid particular attention to contemporary social problems and reform movements. The sons and daughters of the working and middle classes took up the habit of reading as never before, and a national market for mass-circulation magazines was created. In 1865 there were 700 periodicals in the United States; in 1880 there were 2,400; and in 1885 there were 3,300.

Competition with Newspapers. The growth of the national advertising industry fueled the explosion of mass-circulation magazines, which competed with newspapers for advertising. In response newspaper owners formed the International Circulation Managers Association in 1898 and the Newspaper Advertising Executives Association in 1900 to fight for their share of the market. To survive, magazines such as Atlantic, Scribners, and Century had to follow the new publications in their coverage of social issues. Although they were outstripped in circulation, these older, elite periodicals retained their prestige and influence. General weeklies such as Harpers and Leslies Illustrated and humor weeklies such as Life, Puck, and The Judge, also had to compete for readers and advertising revenue.

The Seedbed of Muckraking. Ten-cent magazines were usually well written. Julian Hawthornes coverage of the Spanish-American War in Cosmopolitan was popular among many readers. McClures published fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Everett Hale, Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, and O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), whose first story was submitted from the Federal Penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. Ida M. Tarbells serialized profiles of Napoleon in 1894 and Abraham Lincoln in 1895 each doubled the circulation of McClures. In 1898-1899, after the Spanish-American War, McClure serialized Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahans The War on the Sea and Its Lessons, which dominated American military planning for decades. As the century turned, the formula for activist social writing that spurred government reforms had been set in place, and the ten-cent magazine became the engine for the most vigorous reformist period in the history of American journalism, that of the muckrakers.

The Newsstand

During the late nineteenth century nearly every city street corner had a newsstand. Pedestrians could find not only newspapers but a variety of magazines at these locations. The magazines, many of which are still published, addressed a variety of interests and were reasonably priced. The following magazines were among the most popular.

 Founded Cost
Puck187710 cents
The Judge188110 cents
Life188310 cents
Home & Fashion  
Ladies Home Journal18836 cents
Good Housekeeping188510 cents
The Golden Argosy188210 cents
Cosmopolitan Magazine188610 cents
Colliers Once a Week18887 cents
EverybodyMagazine189910 cents
The Saturday Evening Post18215 cents
Munseys Weekly188910 cents
McClures Magazine189310 cents
Scribners Magazine188725 cents
Atlantic Monthly185735 cents
Harpers Monthly185025 cents
Harpers Weekly185735 cents
Century Magazine187035 cents

Sources: Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 5 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930-1968).


Louis Filler, The Muckrakers (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968);

John Tebbel, The American Magazine: A Compact History (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969).