Recognized by its splashy color photographs displaying Arizona's scenic wonders, Arizona Highways is the best known and most widely circulated state-owned magazine. Founded in 1925 with a starting circulation of 1,000 issues, Arizona Highways evolved from a drab engineering pamphlet laced with ugly, black-and-white construction advertisements to a full-color, advertisement-free, photographic essay promoting Arizona. Today, with subscribers in all fifty states and 120 foreign countries, it is the state's visual ambassador and an international proselytizer of the romanticized Southwest.
Arizona Highways was one of twenty-three state-published magazines that began with the expressed purpose of promoting the construction of new and better roads. Arizona, like many Western states, saw tourism as an important economic resource, but did not have the roads necessary to take advantage of America's dependable new automobiles and increased leisure time. This good-roads movement, which swept the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrested power from the railroads and helped to democratize travel. The movement reached its peak in Arizona during the 1930s when the federal government began funding large transportation projects as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's larger plan to help steer the country out of the Great Depression. The New Deal brought Arizona Highways the road construction it requested and gave the magazine a new cause in tourism.
The Great Depression shrank advertisers' budgets, forcing several Arizona-based travel magazines to either cease publishing or transform their missions. Arizona Highways, which survived because it received a regular state subsidy, was then able to aggressively pursue the wide-open tourist market. In 1939, the magazine's sixth editor, Raymond Carlson, stopped selling advertising in order to improve the magazine's visual appeal and avoid competition for advertising dollars with other Arizona-based publications. Carlson, also the magazine's philosophical architect, edited the magazine from 1938 to 1971 and is given most of the credit for the magazine's success. His folksy demeanor, home-spun superlatives, and zealous use of scenic color photography transformed the magazine into Arizona's postcard to the world.
The invention of Kodachrome in 1936 significantly advanced color photography and allowed Arizona Highways to better exploit the state's scenic wonders. The magazine's photographically driven editorial content emphasizes the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon, saguaro cactus, desert flora, and the state's other readily recognized symbols like the monoliths of Monument Valley, made famous by many appearances in John Ford's Western films, and the Painted Desert. In December 1946, Arizona Highways led the nation in the use of color photography and published the first all-color issue of a nationally circulated consumer magazine. The all-color format became standard for all issues starting in January of 1986.
In the 1940s, continuing in the tradition of Charles Lummis's California-based Land of Sunshine magazine and the Santa Fe Rail-road's turn-of-the-century advertising campaigns, Arizona Highways began portraying a romanticized view of Arizona's natural beauty, climate, open land, Native American cultures, and Old West history. The Anglo-American pioneers—cowboys, ranchers, miners, and military figures—were portrayed as strong and fiercely independent, Hispanics were descendants of gallant explorers and brave frontier settlers, and Native Americans represented nobility, simplicity, and freedom. In addition to these sympathetic and sentimental portrayals, the magazine included the masterpieces of Western artists Ted DeGrazia, Frederic Remington, and Lon Megargee; the writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, Frank Waters, and Tony Hillerman; the photography of Ansel Adams, Joseph and David Muench, and Barry Goldwater; the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mary Colter, and Paolo Soleri; and the creations of Native American artists Fred Kabotie, Harrison Begay, and Allan Houser.
Undoubtedly the magazine's romanticization of the Southwest also benefited from the popularity of Western films, television and radio network programs, and pulp fiction. In fact, the mass media's portrayal of the West blurred the distinction between the mythic West and the real West in the American mind. Carlson's agrarian philosophy worked well with this blurred West because it enabled the increasingly industrial nation to, in the words of historian Gerald Nash, "escape from this new civilization, even while partaking of its material and other benefits and comforts." Although many readers do visit Arizona, much of the magazine's appeal outside the state is the reassurance it gives readers that the West—a place of opportunity and open land—still exists. The magazine's cultural influence as a symbol of this American identity was so powerful in 1965, during the height of the Cold War, that Arizona Highways was labeled subversive literature by the Soviet Union and banned there because it was "clearly intended to conduct hostile propaganda among the Soviet people."
The magazine's circulation reached a high of over 600,000 in the 1970s, but increased subscription rates (brought on by higher labor, postage, and paper costs) and competition from other magazines caused the circulation to drop to nearly 400,000 by the late 1990s. Even so, Arizona Highways has become a self-supporting operation that no longer requires state appropriations. The magazine accomplished this by marketing related products—books, calendars, cards, maps, and clothing—through bi-annual catalogs which account for approximately 40 percent of total revenue. To remain competitive and increase circulation, Arizona Highways maintains a delicate balance between satisfying the editorial appetites of its current subscribers, most of whom are over sixty, while pursuing a new generation of younger readers through more active magazine departments and the internet.
Farrell, Robert J. Arizona Highways: The People Who Shaped a Southwestern Magazine, 1925 to 1990. Master's thesis, Prescott, Arizona, Prescott College, 1997.
Nash, Gerald D. "The West as Utopia and Myth, 1890-1990." In Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890-1990. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1990, 197-257.
Pomeroy, Earl. In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America. New York, Knopf, 1957.
Topping, Gary. "Arizona Highways: A Half-Century of Southwestern Journalism." Journal of the West. April 1980, 71-80.