Magazine Industry, History of

views updated


The first two publications to be categorized as magazines were created in England by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Steele began publishing the Tatler in 1709 and then joined with Addison (who had written for the Tatler) to begin publishing the Spectator in 1711. These publications differed from newspapers because they carried more of an emphasis on entertainment and enlightenment than on pure information and news. Magazines in America began with a similar concept.

The Eighteenth Century

American magazines were chiefly born out of the need to voice political opinions and ideals as the Colonies evolved into a democratic nation. The first magazines in America debuted in 1741: Benjamin Franklin's The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America, which published six issues; and Andrew Bradford's American Magazine, or a Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies, which ran for three issues. Both folded quickly, some say, because America was not yet ready for this new type of publication, showing a general lack of interest.

Another reason there were few magazines in America is because there were few who could read them or afford them. Most literate people were wealthy males, and because it was expensive to produce and distribute a magazine, they were the primary readership. Few women of that time were educated; therefore, magazines carried what was then thought to be male-oriented content such as politics, business, and science.

America's early magazines were filled with reprints of essays and information that was originally published in British magazines, books, and pamphlets. Very little of the work was attributed due to the lack of copyright laws. As the Revolutionary War approached, magazine content became more persuasive and political, and the words of some of the great statesmen of the time were frequently published. Magazine writers, however, did not work for money or fame; no payments were made and bylines were rarely given. In many cases, the publisher of a magazine also edited materials, wrote content, and ran the press.

Much time and labor were needed to produce a magazine before the 1800s. Printing presses had not evolved much past the movable type created by Johannes Gutenberg in 1448. Type was set by hand—letter by letter, page by page—and printed by hand using wooden presses. The stiff rag paper and oil-based ink were also made by hand, unless the printer was fortunate enough to afford imported printing supplies from England. The design of early magazines was bland, and the small type was difficult to read. Illustrations, which typically were found only on the cover or title page, were generated from rough woodcuts, although some publishers could afford the more detailed images of engraved copperplate.

Because magazines were larger and heavier than newspapers, postal stagecoaches often would refuse to deliver magazines because they took up precious space. If the postmaster accepted magazines on board, they were charged a much higher rate than that of other mail. The Postal Act of 1792 provided even lower rates for newspapers and subjected magazines to the higher rates assessed on letters. Two successful magazines of the day, The Columbian Magazine and The American Museum, soon died under the high postal rates. Two years later, the U.S. Congress saw the need to support magazine publishing and lowered postal rates for them, resulting in more new start-ups—a trend that continued into the 1900s. Rates were still high enough, however, to be a burden on the reader, because at that time delivery charges were paid in addition to the subscription price.

The Nineteenth Century

In the 1800s, literacy increased, and by the end of the U.S. Civil War, the majority of Americans could read. Magazines began to seek larger readerships—including the growing middle class that had more disposable income. From 1825 to 1850, approximately 5,000 magazines were launched (although not all of them succeeded), most from the Northeast, with New York replacing Philadelphia and Boston as the magazine-publishing capital. After the Civil War, the magazine industry boomed, increasing from 700 titles in 1865 to 3,330 in 1885. Circulation had grown also, but readerships of 100,000 were still considered huge. By the 1830s and 1840s, paid editors and bylined writers were common, and a new writing professional, the "magazinist," was born.

Magazines published in the nineteenth century sought to broaden their appeal. Meanwhile, magazines that targeted large groups such as religious denominations and trades began to take off during the latter part of the century. Notable mass-market magazines of the 1800s include Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and Scribner's Magazine. Two of the greatest mass-circulation successes that appealed to the growing middle class were Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post. Cyrus H.K. Curtis developed the former in 1879, and when circulation reached the 500,000 mark in 1889, Edward Bok took over the editorship and was the first to cover many new areas of interest for women. In 1904, Ladies Home Journal was the first magazine to reach a circulation of more than one million. Curtis achieved additional success when he acquired Saturday Evening Post, which was struggling, in 1897. Under the editorship of Horace Lorimar, the magazine eventually grew to be regarded as the most successful magazine of the first half of the twentieth century. Curtis is known for recognizing the importance of readership to advertisers and for capitalizing on the increasing demand to place national brand-based advertising.

By the end of the century, magazines owners began to discover that advertising revenue could pay for the actual production, thereby making magazines more affordable for the reader. Frank A. Munsey was one of the first to experiment with this new idea. In 1893, he reduced the annual subscription rate of Munsey's Magazine from $3 to $1 and circulation grew from 40,000 to 500,000 by 1895. As a result, the magazine attracted more advertisers who were developing national advertising campaigns based on brand recognition.

One of the most successful startups of the era was Harper's Magazine, created by Harper & Brothers in 1850. These book publishers used their magazine as a way to make money with their book press during down time and as a vehicle in which to promote their book titles. The elegant publication featured biographies, essays, and articles on travel, leisure, and science. Throughout its successful history, Harper's Magazine attracted a wealthy, educated, upper-class audience. Other magazines that spun off from book businesses include Collier's Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, and Putnam's New Monthly Magazine. In a similar way, the highly successful women's magazine McCall's originated in 1873 when pattern maker James McCall saw it as a viable way to sell his dressmaking designs.

The best known of the early magazines targeting women was Godey's Lady's Book (1830-1898), which emphasized fashion and manners. Sara Josepha Hale, who served as the editor of the magazine for more than forty years, was known for shaping women's magazines of the day. She encouraged publisher Louis Godey, who hired her in 1837, to help educate women by providing articles about subjects other than fashion, such as history, art, music, travel, childcare, and important women. Godey's Lady's Book eventually grew to a circulation of 150,000.

New technology changed the look of magazines through the 1800s. In the early part of the century, magazines began to enhance text with illustrations and engravings. Copperplate engravings were often individually painted by hand with watercolors, such as those found in Godey's Lady's Book, but these engravings were obviously labor-intensive and costly to produce. Woodcuts were a less expensive option than steel or copper plates and were gradually improved to provide durability and detail. Illustrations became more popular as the century progressed, but by the late 1800s, with new engraving technology, photographs began to be more common.

New printing techniques made publishing magazines quicker and easier. The old flatbed press could only print one sheet at a time; in 1822, the steam-powered press accelerated the process, and in 1847, the rotary press made printing even faster. The greatest press advancements appeared in 1871, with the advent of the web perfecting press, which could simultaneously print both sides of a single roll of paper, and in 1886, when the invention of the Linotype machine by Ottmar Mergenthaler virtually dispensed of hand-set type, thereby speeding up the typesetting process nearly eightfold. Meanwhile, handmade linen papers were replaced with wood pulp papers, lowering the cost of the product. All of these new developments saved time and money, which resulted in lower magazine prices for the consumer.

Postal rates, however, continued to be a major monetary concern for magazines. In 1825, Congress enacted rates based on distance traveled, which resulted in magazine circulation being concentrated in the northeastern United States. In 1845, Congress eliminated the distance factor and set rates based on weight alone. Magazine publishers continued to push for better rates, and in 1852, postal rates for magazines dropped again. At this time another significant change was made when publishers were allowed to pay postage on magazines at the mailing office—absorbing costs themselves and eliminating the need for subscribers to prepay postage on magazines at their own post offices. Finally, in 1879, Congress passed the Postal Act, which allowed magazines a lower second-class rate.

The Twentieth Century

Magazine readership flourished in the 1900s. More people were able to read, more people found leisure time in which to read, and more people had discretionary income to spend on magazines. Early in the century, magazines carried over the content focus from the nineteenth century, providing general interest articles and advice; however, this editorial style soon gave way to specialized content that met the needs of specialized audiences. Magazines began to move toward shorter articles, more concise writing, and more service-oriented journalism. Although mass circulation leaders such as Saturday Evening Post and Life remained popular through the early part of the twentieth century, they eventually folded when magazines with uniquely focused editorial concepts began to dominate the industry.

Reader's Digest, created by DeWitt Wallace and his wife Lila Acheson Wallace in 1922, was one of the first notable successes of the twentieth century. The couple tried to meet the needs of busy readers by condensing and reprinting a variety of articles published in other magazines and by printing them in a small magazine format that was easily transported. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden founded Time in 1923 with similar goals of educating busy readers, and their publication broke ground as a weekly news magazine. Meanwhile Harold Ross's New Yorker provided another unique editorial product with its individualistic criticism, sarcastic wit, and slanted profiles.

Other special-interest magazines, such as Sports Illustrated and Modern Maturity, became so popular that they eventually gained large circulations. Sports Illustrated was founded by Time, Inc., in 1954. Although it was hugely popular from the start, it took ten years to turn a profit. Modern Maturity, founded in the 1980s by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), became one of the nation's top-circulating magazines due to the organization's growing membership. A wide variety of special-interest magazines created in the twentieth century were so popular that they eventually gained mass appeal, including such titles asPlayboy (1953), TV Guide (1953), Rolling Stone (1967), Travel and Leisure (1971), and Ms. (1972).

At the end of the nineteenth century, photography became an important part of magazine content. With the invention of the halftone in the 1880s, a photograph could be transferred onto a sensitized printing plate, eliminating the need for an artist and engraver—thereby cutting the cost of providing visual images. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a halftone cost $20, compared to a wood engraving at $300. Many magazines such as McClure's and Munsey's began to use photographs to enhance articles, and Collier's became noted for its news photography after its coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898. It was other magazines, however, such as National Geographic, Life, and Look that took full advantage of this new technology, basing their content on the image before the word. In addition, fashion magazines in the 1920s such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Town & Country, and Harper's Bazaar embraced photographic content.

As readers began to see more photographs and color in magazines, they became more demanding of magazine appearance. Art directors joined the staffs of writers and editors in the 1930s and 1940s. Two of the noteworthy groundbreaking art directors were Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar and Mehemed Fehmy Agha at Vogue and Vanity Fair. They led the way for magazines to gain distinctive visual styles.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, advancements in computers and satellite technology decreased the time needed to place advertising and deliver fast-breaking news. Enhanced computer technology also had an effect on magazine production—first in design and production and later in editorial. Gradually, many magazines moved to computer-to-plate (CTP) production, where no film is shot, decreasing the amount of time necessary to get raw content to the press. At the same time, magazines began to accept digital art from advertisers, further streamlining the production process.

Postal rates remained a concern for magazine publishers throughout the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, transportation systems enhanced methods for delivering magazines, but postal rates became increasingly higher and more complicated. In 1917, editorial material was charged a single rate, while advertising was zoned and assessed fees accordingly. After the 1960s, some publishers actually found it cost-effective to cut circulation. In 1970, the Postal Reorganization Act took the rate-setting power from Congress and turned it over to the U.S. Postal Service. By 1980, postal rates had increased more than 400 percent, which led some publishers to begin experimenting with alternative carriers to combat the cost.

The Twenty-First Century

Despite the prolific use of personal computers to gain access to information and entertainment via the Internet, print magazines have retained popularity in the United States. Newsstands feature new titles regularly, creating competition within even the most narrowly focused niche markets. New technology should continue to make production of magazines faster and easier, while the interests of readers will continue to drive editorial content and garner advertising for one of America's favorite mediums.

See also:Editors; Gutenberg, Johannes; Magazine Industry; Magazine Industry, Careers in; Magazine Industry, Production Process of;Printing, History and Methods of; Writers.


Click, J. William, and Baird, Russell N. (1994). Magazine Editing and Production, 6th edition. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.

Folkerts, Jean, and Teeter, Dwight L., Jr. (1998). Voices of a Nation: A History of Mass Media in the United States, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Johnson, Sammye, and Prijatel, Patricia. (2000). Magazine Publishing. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group.

Mott, Frank Luther. (1939, 1957, 1968). A History of American Magazines, 5 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nourie, Alan, and Nourie, Barbara, eds. (1990). American Mass-Market Magazines. New York: Greenwood Press.

Peterson, Theodore. (1964). Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sloan, Wm. David, and Startt, James D., eds. (1996). The Media in America: A History, 3rd edition. Northport, AL: Vision Press.

Tebbel, John, and Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. (1991). The Magazine in America, 1740-1990. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wood, James Playsted. (1971). Magazines in the United States. New York: Ronald Press.

Tracy Lauder