Magazines, Men's

views updated


Men's magazines are, and have been throughout American history, a varied lot. Girlie magazines, business periodicals, sports reviews, physique pictorials, veterans' newsletters, scientific journals, gay-themed publications, science-fiction "fanzines," and certain professional and alumni magazines have been aimed at a male readership. Even the Saturday Evening Post, which is justly remembered as the quintessential family magazine, was, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a men's magazine. Moreover, family and non–gender-specific magazines promote and reflect certain cultural notions of masculinity. Rather than exhaustively covering the history of magazines with a male readership, this review outlines changing representations of masculinity in American magazines aimed at men. It situates this discussion in histories of gender and magazine publishing within the United States.

The Development of the American Magazine Industry

American magazines before the Revolution were, in general, poor imitations of successful London magazines such as Gentlemen 's and the London Magazine. The Boston Weekly and the American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle directly mimicked the established style of these magazines by placing political articles, commentary on manners, plays, and sermons side by side. In many cases, the articles for early American magazines were copied directly out of English publications. Although men wrote (and presumably read) the bulk of the material, many pre-Revolutionary magazines also included verse written by and for women. The magazines, then, provided for a gendered, but not homosocial, middle-class and elite readership.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, three changes in American magazine publishing occurred: (1) many magazines became Americanized in content rather than imitations of British publications; (2) separate magazines for women and men emerged; (3) increasingly, periodicals were aimed at specialized audiences. In keeping with the ideals of the Revolution, magazines such as Royal American and United States Magazine sought to textually demonstrate independence by printing articles that examined American politics, manners, and fashion. The emergence of an ideology of republican motherhood and the concomitant emphasis upon separate masculine and feminine spheres resulted in the establishment of publications for women. Conversely, a greater number of editors at "general" magazines began to assume an exclusively male readership.

The masculine ideal promulgated by these magazines was a man of responsibility and independence: a self-reliant American who filled his station with dignity. M. L. Weems's portrayal of a virtuous George Washington, who was unable to tell a lie, epitomized this representation of republican manhood. Selections from his Life of George Washington, particularly the famous story of the cherry tree, appeared in numerous post-Revolutionary publications.

The early nineteenth century marked the development of market segmentation within the American magazine industry, a process begun by religious communities seeking to communicate with the faithful. By 1825, there were magazines focusing upon such diverse topics as child rearing, agriculture, antislavery, colleges, the theater, travel, and partisan politics. In part, this segmentation reflected (and produced) the greater social prominence of the male scientific expert. Magazines such as The Medical Repository (1791–1824) created and supported homosocial communities that developed in scientific fields such as medicine and mineralogy. Most of these scientific publications were circulated to interested amateurs and gentlemen scholars, although they were the precursors of modern professional journals. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's work examining the life of midwife Martha Ballard aptly demonstrates one of the consequences of this discursive production of the masculine expert: the discrediting of women's (and non-bourgeois men's) forms of knowledge in areas increasingly deemed to be under the purview of science.

However one should not think of the magazine industry during this "golden age" as solely the purview of the privileged classes. The market diversification also allowed for the emergence of publications written for the common reader, albeit a literate one. "Miscellanies" flourished throughout the country, circulating information within farming communities and sometimes purveying national news. "Pornographic" circulars (with depictions of scantily clad women) seem to have been distributed relatively widely in mid-century working-class saloons and among Civil War soldiers. These publications circulated in a "sporting male" culture that emerged in northern urban areas in the 1830s and 1840s, reflected in The Spirit of the Times, a newspaper dedicated to reporting on sports such as horse racing, rowing, and especially baseball. Additionally, two publications aimed at African Americans emerged in 1838, The Mirror of Liberty and The National Reformer. Although both publications proved to be short-lived, they set the stage for later magazines with a predominantly black readership.

The Rise of Mass Circulation Magazines

Immediately following the Civil War, the magazine industry expanded in step with the rapidly developing American economy. There were 700 magazines at the close of the war; twenty years later, in 1885, there were approximately 3,300 magazines. Fully a quarter of these magazines were published in New York City, indicating the extent to which the developing industry was tied to the urbanization and commercialization endemic to the period. The rural "miscellanies" did not disappear. Many professional journals also emerged in the late nineteenth century—to name but one example, the Journal of the American Medical Association was founded in 1883. But neither the professional journals nor rural publications formed the basis of the development of the magazine industry in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Magazines that served as accompaniments to middle-class leisure activity and consumerism drove the increase in the number of publications and their circulation figures. This was the case prior to 1893, but especially after this date magazines were to become a central medium of consumerism in the emerging modern, mass culture. Within a few months of one another in 1893, Munsey's, McClure's, and Cosmopolitan slashed their newsstand prices and relied upon advertising revenue to reach audiences that would soon number in the hundreds of thousands. Munsey's and McClure's are justly remembered for their sensationalistic, muckraking articles, but it was as cornucopias of marketing that they changed the face of the industry. By 1898, Munsey 's contained roughly eighty pages of advertisements in each issue. Other publications soon followed suit, and these newly commercialized magazines became staples at newsstands around the country. Although advertisements in these magazines were aimed at both men and women, the advertisers made their appeals on different grounds. As Historian Tom Pendergast has written, "While women were being taught the logic of desire, a logic based upon what the product could do for them, men were schooled in the more familiar logic of reason, a logic based upon the intrinsic quality of the merchandise. For women goods could transform; for men goods would perform" (p. 60).

If magazines at the time of the Revolution presented the honorable man of stature as the masculine ideal, by the late nineteenth century the "cult" of the self-made man was increasingly central to the rhetoric of magazines. This is true of Munsey's and McClure's—both publishers were veritable Horatio Algers themselves—but, given the lack of editorial vision in both publications, their representation of masculinity necessarily lacked consistency. A more constant vision of masculinity was to be found in another magazine that developed a mass circulation in the wake of the transformations of 1893: the Saturday Evening Post. Although it had nominally been in circulation for many years, the modern Post was expressly developed as a men's magazine in the late nineteenth century. The masculine ideal represented in the magazine was that of a self-made, successful businessman mastering the rapid capitalist expansion of the period. Yet his success was attributable to old-fashioned values that would not have seemed out of place in Revolutionary publications: honesty, diligence, and thrift. This hegemonic representation of masculinity—the Post remained one of the widest circulating magazines well into the twentieth century—can be termed the self-made businessman of worth. Largely absent from the pages of the publication were the competition and conflict so central to turn-of-the-century capitalism. Instead, the heroes of the Saturday Evening Post were men who (naturally) rose to the top of their chosen profession because of the strength of their character. This traditionalist rhetoric was remarkably successful: long after Munsey's and McClure's had folded, advertisers and middle-class readers flocked to the Saturday Evening Post .

The National Police Gazette was another, very different magazine that emerged as a mass circulation publication at the same period. Founded in 1845, by the 1890s its advertising rates and circulation had risen dramatically along with other mass-market publications of the era. The Police Gazette had long printed stories covering crime and mayhem, and particularly cases associated with sexuality and urbanity. During the first decades of its run, it managed to maintain a veneer of moral approbation. By the 1880s, this veil had been lifted, and the articles and line drawings reveled in the sensationalism and titillation of urban vice. It also included a host of articles on boxing and other "manly" sports. The Saturday Evening Post 's traditionalist man of character would presumably be at odds with the Police Gazette 's representation of pugilistic, sexualized manhood. As Howard P. Chudacoff demonstrates, the Police Gazette flourished in an urban bachelor subculture; the Post was the magazine for the family man. Yet, both publications were popular among middle-class men, and probably attracted many of the same readers, a complication to simplistic accounts of the history of masculinity. What the Police Gazette lacked in paid circulation it made up for in informal circuits of exchange: it was ubiquitous in saloons, barbershops, and firehouses.

Consumerist Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Magazines

During the first decades of the twentieth century, a number of mass circulation magazines emerged with a distinctly masculine focus. In addition to the Saturday Evening Post, consumers had the option of choosing Vanity Fair, American Magazine, Collier's, Athletic World, or Sporting Life. Each had a somewhat different readership to match their varying presentations of manhood: American Magazine appealed to a more urbane audience than Collier's, but was less elitist than Vanity Fair. Despite the focus on men in each, none of these magazines was explicitly a men's magazine, including the Saturday Evening Post after 1908. The same was true of the magazines with a predominantly black readership that began publishing during this period, including Booker T. Washington's Colored American, J. Max Barber's The Voice of the Negro, and W.E.B. DuBois's Crisis. Whether advocates of a success ethic for black men (Colored American) or critical of racist barriers to success (The Voice of the Negro, Crisis), these publications forwarded a vision of idealized masculinity similar to the Saturday Evening Post 's hardworking patriarch with moral self-discipline.

The masculine ideal was presented very differently in Esquire, launched in 1933. Esquire was written for the urbane man-about-town, or at least for a man who so imagined himself. Rather than moral self-discipline, Esquire 's man of distinction was noted for his style, wit, and consumption. Line drawings of scantily clad women, the famous Vargas Girls, first appeared in the magazine in 1940, but since Esquire's founding, its attitude toward sexuality (and the masculine gaze) was markedly different from its mainstream predecessors. The period from 1930 to 1960 was central to the transformation of American men's clothing. Style, leisure, and color all became increasingly central to men's wardrobes, and Esquire was seen by many contemporaries to have created the trend (though a menswear trade publication begun in 1931, Apparel Arts, can best claim that distinction). Through its features on subjects such as clothing, home furnishings, literature, and music, to name but a few, Esquire represents the integration of men into the consumerist logic of desire: the man of distinction is increasingly judged by the quality of his tastes, not character.

This forging of masculinity with consumerist desire became even more explicit in Playboy, first published in 1951 by former Esquire writer and editor Hugh Hefner. By the end of the 1950s, Playboy had become by far the most widely circulated men's magazine in the United States, indicating a transformation in masculinity writ large. Playboy 's nude pictures of women were the most obvious draw for readers. But the other features of the magazine were more than just window dressing: there were many other, more explicit magazines available with much more limited circulations. The discourse in Playboy centered upon the pursuit of pleasure and a "cool" aesthetic based upon urbanity, high culture, and modernity. The Playboy bachelor was definitively anti-marriage, yet resoundingly domestic. Above all, he was a consumer. The magazine served as an etiquette manual of sorts to guide the self-made man to independence and pleasure through consumption. Playboy mobilized elements of European aristocratic culture and consumerist femininity for middle-class, masculine readers. The result is a rhetoric that is deeply invested both in independence and conformity, sexual rebellion and domesticity. If Hefner depicted himself and his idealized man as something of a rebel, it represented a limited challenge, since Playboy commodified rebelliousness itself in the service of the spectacle of consumer capitalism.

Other important magazines emerged mid-century that would forward consumerist masculinity, if in more limited form. Sports Illustrated began in 1954 by writing about yachting, cricket and other blue-blood sports, but soon followed the Eisenhower-era spectator sports boom to cover more popular, and marketable, athletics. Physique Pictorial literalized consumerist masculinity by placing male, muscular bodies on display as commodities for homosexuals and others. Ebony, though not a men's magazine, became the first commercially successful magazine for African Americans after 1945 by depicting images of black success and the baubles that served as rewards for this success. In this new positive spin on the black experience, gone was the Victorian moral code of hard work, thrift, and honesty. Also absent was any substantial discussion of racism. Finally, in the wake of Playboy 's success, a slew of ever more sexually explicit men's magazines were formed, the most notable being Penthouse and Hustler .

By the 1970s, the connection between masculinity and consumerism was so established that product-driven men's magazines had emerged to match every masculine interest in America: cars, sports, sex, tools, bodybuilding, guns, camping, and many others. This trend has continued since 1990 with the launch of a new crop of men's publications led by Maxim. Though little work has been done examining these magazines, this proliferation would seem to provide historians with a way to move beyond unitary conceptions of masculinity and instead map a range of possibility. And certainly as both cause and symptom of mass consumer culture, magazines and print cultures can continue to provide a wealth of information about the historical development of American consumerism.

See also: Comic Book Reading, Comic Magazines, Genre Reading, Magazines, Women's, Men's Leisure Lifestyles


Chudacoff, Howard P. The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, 1741–1850. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1930.

Osgerby, Bill. Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth and Leisure-Style in Modern America. Oxford, U.K.: Berg, 2001.

Pendergast, Tom. Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900–1950. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

William R. Scott

About this article

Magazines, Men's

Updated About content Print Article