During their first 175 years of existence, American magazines preached long and occasionally in loud tone on personal morality, but rare was the published foray into the real lives of lower-class Americans. That oversight ended in 1919 with the introduction of True Stories, the first of what came to be known as confession magazines. Founded by health and physical fitness zealot Bernarr Macfadden, True Stories "had the conscious ring of public confession, such as is heard in a Salvation Army gathering, or in an old-fashioned testimony meeting of Southern camp religionists," according to Macfadden's first biographer Fulton Oursler.
It and other confession magazines were "a medium for publishing the autobiographies of the unknown," as one editor explained, a substitute among the poor for lawyers, doctors, and educators. Although True Stories eventually reached a circulation of 2.5 million during the 1930s, it cost less to produce than most other magazines, and therefore earned as much as $10,000 a day for its founder. True Stories and other confession magazines also provided a valuable outlet for otherwise disconnected people to learn appropriate private and public social behavior. During times of rapid change, these magazines helped women to re-establish their identities through the experiences of other women like themselves. Most importantly, in an era when sex was rarely mentioned in public, the confession magazines taught both women and men that sex was natural, healthy, and enjoyable under appropriate circumstances.
The first American magazines were written for upper-class men. Beginning in the 1820s, sections and eventually titles were aimed at upper-class women, but they were written in a highly moralistic tone because women were considered to be the cultural custodians and moral regulators of society. Belles lettres, popular moralistic fiction, became the staple of mid-nineteenth century women's magazines such as Godey's Ladies Book and Peterson's. Writers sentimentalized about courtship and marriage but offered little practical information on sex to readers. Another generation of women's magazines appeared after the Civil War, including McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. These magazines attracted massive circulations, but were focused on the rapidly changing domestic duties of women, still carried a highly moralistic tone, and had little to say about sex. Even into the twentieth century, the advertising and editorial content of women's magazines reflected prosperity, social status, and consumerism; hardly the core problems of everyday existence for the lower classes.
The first confession magazine publisher was born August 16, 1868, in Mill Springs, Missouri. Before Bernarr Macfadden was ten, his father had died of an alcohol-related disease and his mother from tuberculosis. Relatives predicted the sickly, weak boy would die young as well. Shifted from relative to relative, the young Macfadden dropped out of school and worked at an assortment of laborer jobs, learning how to set newspaper type in 1885. But he was drawn into the world of physical culture as a teen. He studied gymnastics and physical fitness in St. Louis and developed his body and health as he coached and taught others. To raise money to promote his ideas on exercise and diet, he wrestled professionally and promoted touring wrestling matches. In 1899 he founded Physical Culture, a magazine that was devoted to "health, strength, vitality, muscular development, and the general care of the body." It was the forerunner of contemporary health and fitness publications. Macfadden argued that "weakness is a crime" and offered instruction on physical development. Macfadden's diets were opposed by medical authorities and the nude or nearly nude photographs in his magazine and advertising circulars came under the scrutiny of obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock and his followers. Macfadden was fined $2,000 for a Physical Culture article in 1907 and the magazine is considered to be the start of the nude magazine industry.
Physical Culture was immensely popular, climbing to a circulation of 340,000 by the early 1930s. Macfadden made large profits with it and other publishing ventures including books such as What aYoung Husband Ought to Know and What a Young Woman Ought to Know. His wife Mary later claimed that she suggested he expand his publishing horizons beyond physical fitness around the time of World War I. She had read the thousands of letters to the editor that poured into Physical Culture detailing why punching bags, lifting dumbbells, and doing deep knee bends did not always change an individual's love life. Other letters revealed how so-called fallen women who had discovered physical culture had found new lives for themselves as wives and mothers. "The folly of transgression, the terrible effects of ignorance, the girls who had not been warned by wise parents—a whole series of tragedies out of the American soil were falling, day after day, on the desk of [ Physical Culture 's] editor," Macfadden's biographer Fulton Oursler explained.
In May 1919, the first issue of True Story appeared with the motto "Truth is stranger than fiction." For 20 cents a copy, twice the price of most other magazines, readers received 12 stories with titles such as "A Wife Who Awoke in Time" and "My Battle with John Barleycorn." Most of the protagonists were sympathetic characters, innocent, lower-class women who appealed to a feminine readership. Instead of drawings, live models were photographed in a clinch of love or clad in pajamas while a man brandished a pistol, adding more realism to the confessions. The first cover featured a man and woman looking longingly at each other with the caption, "And their love turned to hated!" The magazine also offered "$1,000.00 for your life romance," a cheap price compared to what many magazines paid for professional contributions. The result was an immediate success, selling 60,000 issues, and the circulation quickly climbed into the millions.
Between 1922 and 1926, Macfadden capitalized on True Stories by producing a host of related titles, including True Romances, True Love and Romances, and True Experiences. Young Hollywood hopefuls such as Norma Shearer, Jean Arthur, and Frederic March were used in True Story photographs. Movie shorts featuring dramatizations of the magazine's stories were shown in theaters simultaneously with publication. A weekly "True Story Hour" started on network radio in 1928, and editions were published in England, Holland, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. Imitators quickly appeared, each using some combination of the words true, story, romance, confessions, and love. The most successful was True Confessions, founded by Wilford H. Fawcettin 1922, who was a onetime police reporter for the Minneapolis Journal. Fawcett's first publication, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, started as a mimeographed naughty joke and pun sheet in 1919, and went on to become the male magazine metaphor for the 1920s decline of morality and flaunting of sexual immodesty. Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was memorialized in fellow Minnesotan Meredith Willson's 1962 Broadway musical Music Man in a recitation attached to the song "Trouble." True Confessions attracted a circulation in the millions and became the cornerstone of Fawcett Publications, which eventually included titles such as Mechanix Illustrated and comic books like Captain America.
By its own 1941 account, True Story and its imitators were magazines for the lower classes, readers too unsophisticated, uneducated, and poor to be of interest to other magazines or advertisers. They "made readers of the semi-literate" as the wife of one editor said. Still, a rise in the standard of living during the 1920s meant that lower-class readers finally had enough income to buy magazines. The confession magazines gave them a forum to air their concerns and share solutions in ways not possible in any other publications. Magazine historian Theodore Peterson maintained that confession magazines were not a new innovation, just another spin on the old rule that sex and crime sell. Before confession magazines there was sob sister journalism, the sentimentalized reporting of crimes of passion and other moral tales in newspapers. Before newspapers, there were fictionalized first-person narratives detailing the temptations of young women such as Moll Flanders. And before novels there were seventeenth-century broadsides, written in the first person with a strong moralizing tone, describing the seductions and murders of scullery maids and mistresses. Bernarr Macfadden and his wife Mary simply rediscovered an old formula and applied it the magazine industry.
The mainstream press was predictably critical of confession magazines. At their best, they were considered mindless entertainment for the masses. At their worst, confession magazines parlayed to the worst common denominator of the lower classes; sex and reproduction. Time maintained that True Story set "the fashion in sex yarns." A writer in Harper's complained that "to pound into empty heads month after month the doctrine of comparative immunity cannot be particularly healthy" and that "it is impossible to believe that the chronic reader of 'confessions' has much traffic with good books." Interestingly, a 1936 survey of True Story readers showed that a majority believed in birth control, thought wives shouldn't work, opposed divorce, and were religious yet tolerant of other faiths. A study of True Story between 1920 and 1985 revealed that the magazine reinforced traditional notions of motherhood and femininity, and challenged rather than supported patriarchal class relations.
Macfadden continued to champion genuine reader confessionals in his publications during the 1920s and ordered that manuscripts should be edited for grammatical mistakes only. Subsequent editors established more control over their productions, beginning with True Stories ' William Jordan Rapp in 1926. Professionals were hired to rewrite and create stories, especially after Macfadden was successfully sued for libel in 1927. Still, a survey of 41 True Story contributors in 1983 revealed that 16 had written of personal experiences, had never published a story before, and did not consider themselves to be professional writers. Macfadden lost interest in his confession magazines, becoming involved in the founding of the New York Daily Graphic newspaper in 1924, "the True Confessions of the newspaper world." The newspaper failed in 1932, losing millions of dollars but it created a sensation among lower-class newspaper readers.
By 1935, the combined circulation of Macfadden's magazines was 7.3 million, more than any other magazine publisher, but he was forced to sell his holdings in 1941 following accusations that he had used company funds to finance unsuccessful political campaigns, including a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1936. Macfadden died a pauper in 1955, succumbing to jaundice aggravated by fasting, failing to live 150 years as he had predicted. True Stories took a more service-oriented path after World War II, offering food, fashion, beauty, and even children's features. The major confession magazines had an aggregate circulation of more than 8.5 million in 1963. The successors of Macfadden Publications acquired the major contenders to True Stories; True Confessions in 1963 and Modern Romances in 1978, and continue to publish confessional magazines, but circulation and advertising revenues have dropped. Soap operas, made-for-television movies, and cable channels such as Lifetime and the Romance Channel compete for potential readers along with supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer. As well, lower-class readers are better educated and have more options for guidance or help in their personal lives. In the end, the ultimate legacy of the confession magazines, beyond giving readers information on sex and appropriate social behavior, will be that they truly put the word mass in mass media.
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