Field and Stream

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Field and Stream

Field and Stream magazine, America's fishing and hunting bible, was born in a Minnesota duck blind in 1895. With contemporaries such as Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, it challenged the nineteenth-century stereotype that hunting and fishing were the domain of fur trappers and frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Christopher "Kit" Carson, or amusements for the idle rich. Coupled with technological innovations that made shooting and fishing more accurate and easier, the new magazines demonstrated that hunting and fishing were recreational activities that could be enjoyed by all, especially the growing middle class. Through the twentieth century, Field and Stream has crusaded for conservation measures, developed a library of wildlife film and video, and commissioned wildlife images by well-known artists and photographers without ever forgetting its basic purpose, to provide the stuff of dreams for generations of hunters and fishermen.

The Civil War marked a new interest among Americans in sporting activities, most notably horse racing, boxing, track and field, and the relatively new sport of baseball, but also in hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. The Sporting News debuted in St. Louis in 1885, and its quick success encouraged newspaper publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer to add sporting news sections to their daily newspapers. Sports were considered entertainment and a form of escapism from what the late nineteenth century considered a frantic lifestyle, but they also taught an important lesson, especially to the young. Like life, sports had rules, and one needed to learn and obey them to succeed and win. The alternative, disobedience, meant failure, disgrace, and perhaps even death in a society obsessed with social Darwinism.

Magazine publishers were not far behind their newspaper counterparts in filling the new void for sports information. Sports Afield was founded in 1887, followed by Outdoor Life, which began as a Denver-based bicycling magazine in the early 1890s. John P. Burkhard and Henry W. Wack were talking in their duck blind in September 1895 about the wholesale slaughter of wildlife by so-called sportsmen. The conservation movement was in full swing, inaugurated by the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and fanned by advocates such as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Burkhard and Wack disapproved of thrill shooting and set out to preach the new gospel of conservation to middle-class hunters and fishermen in their publication, Western Field and Stream, which was published in their hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first of many notable conservationists to appear in the publication. Writing in January 1899, the president-to-be noted of the grizzly bear, "He has been hunted for sport, and hunted for his pelt, and hunted for the bounty, and hunted as a dangerous enemy to stock, until, save the very wildest districts, he has learned to be more wary than a deer." Another article on childhood hunting observed a few years later, "All little boys crave the out-of-doors—when they don't get enough of it." The magazine was moved to New York in the first years of the twentieth century and its title modified, but it continued to struggle financially. Reportedly Henry Ford offered Burkhard and Wack $1,200 worth of stock in his new motor car company in 1905 in exchange for twenty full-page advertisements, but the pair turned him down because they were desperate for cash. Eltinge Warner, a printing salesman and circulation manager, took over the business side of the magazine in 1906 and purchased the publication upon Burkhard's death in 1908.

Circulation climbed, and Field and Stream prospered as conservation measures advocated by the magazine increased animal and fish populations. Warner became involved in the motion picture industry and published other magazines using profits from Field and Stream, but his first magazine kept to its original course. "When trout are rising, hope is strong in the angler's heart, even though he may not have determined in what position or upon what insects the fish are feeding," a Field and Stream article on fly-fishing maintained in 1912. An article on a shark attack in 1933 portended, "terrible things… there in the murky water and the misty moonshine." The magazine also featured the self-depreciating humor of Gene Hill and the off-the-wall antics of Ed Zern.

A boon in men's magazines during and after World War II expanded the circulation of Field and Stream. By 1963, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Field and Stream had a combined circulation of 3.7 million. Warner sold Field and Stream to the book-publishing house of Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1951, which was subsequently absorbed by CBS magnate William S. Paley and reorganized into the CBS Magazine division in 1971. The magazine peaked in size at about 200 hundred pages per issue during the 1970s, because of the payment method for writers. "We don't pay by the word any more," said managing editor Margaret Nichols in 1995. "Long ago, when we paid a nickel a word, some people let their stories drag on and on. Fish would jump, then jump again and again and again." The circulation plateaued at two million during the 1980s and 1990s, but the venerable Field and Stream faced two new challenges. It was sold twice, ending up with Times Mirror Magazines, the publisher of Outdoor Life, in 1987. And a host of more health and fitness-conscious men's outdoor magazines, with titles such as Outside, Backpacker, and Bike,stagnated advertising and circulation rates and left more traditional outdoorsmen's publications like Field and Stream hunting for a new image.

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

Egan, D'Arcy. "Hunting, Fishing Bible Turns 100: Field & Stream Takes Readers Back to the Adventures They Grew Up On." Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 14, 1995, 9D.

Merritt, J. I., and Margaret G. Nichols. The Best of Field & Stream: 100 Years of Great Writing from America's Premier Sporting Magazine. New York, Lyons and Burford, 1995.

Mott, Frank L. "The Argosy." A History of American Magazines. Vol. 4. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957, 417-423.

Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Urban, University of Illinois Press, 1964, 367-368.

Tanner, Stephen L. "The Art of Self-Depreciation in American Literary Humor." Studies in American Humor. Fall 1996, 54-65.