Mass Market Magazine Revolution

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Mass Market Magazine Revolution

Before the nineteenth century, few Americans read newspapers or magazines or engaged in public entertainment. By 1900, scheduled sporting, entertainment, and mass cultural events had become commonplace in the United States, and there was a small, but growing, number of magazines with circulation in excess of one-half million copies. Americans were becoming increasingly dependent upon these magazines to define important aspects of their lives.

There were many reasons for the transformation of American society from isolated regional communities into a single national mass culture, but the emergence of national mass market magazines beginning in the 1890s was a significant factor. With titles such as Munsey's, McClure's, Ladies Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan, these new magazines provided information on society, fashion, literature, entertainment, celebrities, sports, and current events. The consumption of mass market products not only kept readers up-to-date, but helped to make them more socially conversant and economically prosperous. In turn, the mass market magazine revolution made possible the development of twentieth-century mass culture, from sound recordings to the Internet, to the rise of the Information Age.

For most of civilization, people depended upon each other for information and entertainment. Talking, gossiping, singing, story telling, dancing, and the playing of homemade musical instruments were basic forms of amusement, combined with informal competitive activities, such as athletic contests for males and domestic competitions for females. Quieter pleasures such as walking, riding, boating, or skating were augmented by rougher pastimes like organized sports, gambling, drinking, and gaming. Even centuries after the invention of moveable printing type in 1453, the overwhelming majority of people still entertained themselves in local societies, within a few miles of their birthplaces. The only respites from such homemade amusements were occasional visits by traveling professionals, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, exotic animal trainers, and wagon shows, the ancestor of the circus. The only other public entertainment came via civic and religious ceremonies, church activities, public lecturers, elections, court days, holidays, and similar events.

Printed "mass" communications such as books, newspapers, and magazines played a relatively minor role in most people's lives even in the early years of the United States. With the exception of the bible, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and a few other texts, most books were discourses on religion and politics meant for only a few. There were 92 newspapers and seven magazines in 1790, all supported by small readerships in highly localized settings. The early Federalist party attempted a national newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, but Thomas Jefferson's Anti-federalists championed the Postal Act of 1792, which based postage rates on the distance a newspaper or magazine had to be delivered through the mail. The result discouraged the development of national publications well into the nineteenth century, except at subscription prices that only the upper class could afford. The Federalists were more successful in efforts to standardize American English. Federalist Noah Webster's dictionary, first published in 1784 and which eventually sold more than 60 million copies, helped insure that all educated Americans read and wrote the same language even if they did not communicate with each other.

The character of entertainment changed in the early nineteenth century as people began to experience some of the characteristics of mass culture. For the first time, thousands who did not know each other came together to witness such events such as the first major horse race in the United States, which attracted 100,000 spectators to a Long Island, New York, race track in 1823 or a well-publicized ten-mile human foot race at the same track in 1835, which attracted 30,000 people. Boston's "Peace Jubilee" concert of 1869 featured an orchestra of 500, a chorus of 10,000, and an audience of 50,000 and helped define "classical" music. These events were not formally organized or regulated in the way that professional baseball would be after 1876. Instead, they were more like spectacles, emphasizing the extraordinary or unique. Showman Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum, which opened in New York in 1842, was the same kind of attraction showcasing more than 600,000 exhibits and acts, from giants and white elephants to George Washington's nurse. The only unifying theme of Barnum's exhibits was their oddity, but they attracted thousands of paying customers each year and provided nearly everyone else in the country with something to talk about. Barnum also staged mid-century traveling exhibitions, such as midget Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind, who played to sold-out audiences in cities and towns across America, along with celebrity actors and actresses such as Edmund Kean, the Kembles, and the Booths.

Even during the age of Barnum, most books, newspapers, and magazines did not represent mass culture. Influential books and pamphlets such as Uncle Tom's Cabin had massive readerships but were few in number. Cheap books were available; pirated novels by Dickens and other European authors; popular "dime novels," and romance stories by "belles lettres" authors like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Lydia H. Sigourney, and Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth. These popular volumes sold thousands of copies, but their publishers lacked organizational and mass marketing techniques and often operated more for a love of books than profit. Penny newspapers appeared in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities, boasting unheard of circulation, but they still spoke mainly to their particular urban area. A select few newspapers circulated more widely. Copies of the weekly edition of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune were used as chinking in log cabins built in Illinois, Missouri, and places further west, but the paper was an extension of Greeley's personal political and moral peccadilloes. So-called "Family House" magazines, Harper's Monthly, Century, Scribner's, and Atlantic Monthly were produced by the major book publishing houses. These had many readers and reached their peak in influence between 1865 and 1893. However, their cost, twenty-five to thirty-five cents per issue, was much too expensive for anyone outside the upper class, and their "gospel of culture" mission to replace the waning influence of religion with high culture as society's civilizing force failed to capture the middle class' imagination. A few women's magazines, Delineator, and Woman's Home Companion, built-up mass circulation after the Civil War, but they were specialized in their viewpoint, featured editorial content strongly influenced by advertisers, and were overlooked by many advertisers and the rest of the magazine industry because women had not yet been recognized as a viable national mass market.

The urbanized and suburbanized later-nineteenth-century America was the breeding ground for the magazine revolution and the first mass culture. Even though the percentage of urban residents did not surpass the percentage of people living in rural areas until 1910, American cities mushroomed during the second half of the nineteenth century. Most major cities doubled in size between 1865 and 1900, and 100 U. S. communities doubled in the 1880s alone. As they grew, the walking cities of the early nineteenth century disappeared. New York City, once an easy stroll from one end to the other, encompassed almost 300 square miles by 1900. The nation's second largest city, Chicago, covered 185 square miles. No resident could have a personal, sensuous grasp of the physical precincts, the processes, or the peoples of such large cities. As the inner portions of cities filled with working-class inhabitants, a new American social class, the professional-managerial class, began to collect in homogeneous neighborhoods beyond the center city. Professionals, physicians, managers, prosperous merchants, and other businessmen were attracted to the modern comforts of the suburbs; large lots, good streets, good schools, and public utilities, and they could afford the more expensive housing and transportation costs.

The new suburban homes reflected the growing status of the professional-managerial class but imposed previously unknown demands upon their occupants. Ownership was a new development for a population that had previously been urban renters. Beyond rudimentary concerns such as plumbing and heat, owners struggled to define what was appropriate and necessary for the proper exterior images of their homes. Individuality was prized, but exhibitionism was not, and a degree of uniformity came to be considered a virtue, especially within individual neighborhoods, where residents saw each other's houses each day. Front yards, unknown in center cities, presented new and daunting decorating challenges. Interior housing spaces represented yet place to make a statement to visitors while preserving the individuality, utility, and privacy of their owners. Parlors, also known as best or sitting rooms to Victorians, were especially important. Theologian Henry Ward Beecher's dictum that a house was "the measure of [a man's] social and domestic nature" was put to the test in the design and decoration of a parlor. Furnishings needed to display a family's tastes in design and art while simultaneously revealing their history through judicious display of portraits, photographs, and other personal mementos.

These new surroundings and the development of a unique social sphere for the professional-managerial class contributed to new, reconfigured standards of social decorum as well. For example, traditional Victorian society depended upon the strict ritual of calling cards; printed slips of paper that were used to express condolence, congratulation, friendship, courtship, and many other aspects of social interaction. By the 1880s, the emerging professional-managerial class began to view such scripted behaviors as confining and unnecessary. Informality became more socially acceptable. Social clubs helped ease the process of interaction, but home ownership in the suburbs was often enough to signal respect and suitability to neighbors. In turn, the character of families changed. High school and college education became more common and family members were encouraged to express their own interests and tastes in socializing, reducing the once strong influence of the nuclear family upon its individual members. Even children were allowed to develop their own spheres of friends, activities, and tastes.

All of these factors contributed to a previously unknown need for ready answers to the challenges of everyday life. The mass market magazine revolution did not come about to serve a previously unknown type of magazine reader, for the professional-managerial class already existed in American society. Instead, the demise of the closely monitored circles of local acquaintances that had traditionally provided information to the professional-managerial class left an informational void that was filled by the mass market magazines, the so-called educators of the late nineteenth-century's "whirlpool of real life" as it was described by Cosmopolitan's John Brisben Walker. Munsey's Magazine was the first and most popular of the mass magazines. Created in New York City in 1889 by Frank Munsey—a Maine farm boy who departed Philadelphia's Centennial World's Fair in 1876 determined to possess his own version of a high speed rotary printing press that he had seen there—his magazine lost money for years before it dropped its cover price from twenty-five to ten cents or one dollar per annual subscription in 1893. Munsey's circulation zoomed from 40,000 before the price change to 500,000 in 1895 and 700,000 in 1897. Combined with three of his other titles, Frank Munsey sold more than two million magazines in March, 1906, an unthinkable feat only a few years before.

Munsey's was joined in the magazine price war by Samuel S. McClure. An Irish immigrant who once taught the social gospel,McClure's was founded in 1893 and grew to a circulation of 60,000 at a cover price of fifteen cents by 1894. The circulation climbed to 250,000 by 1896 following a price cut to a dime. McClure boasted the most expensive advertising rates in America, charging as much as $400 for a single page display ad in 1905. Another issue that year had 200 pages of advertising and a circulation of 450,000. It was said that McClure's carried more advertising that any other magazine in the world. Munsey's and McClure's were challenged by John Brisben Walker's Cosmopolitan. Walker was a speculator and businessman who applied aggressive business techniques to the then genteel business of magazines. In 1891, to promote his newly purchased magazine, Walker hired a railroad coach filled with subscription canvassers and had it transported across different parts of the country. He also offered college scholarships to successful Cosmopolitan salespeople. Walker broke the fifteen cents per copy magazine price barrier in 1893, dropping his price to the unwieldy twelve and-one-half cents in 1893, only to be eclipsed by Munsey. Cosmopolitan rivaled McClure's in circulation but never approached Munsey's, even after it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1905. Founded in 1883, the Ladies Home Journal reached a circulation of over one-half million by the turn of the twentieth century and was the first to cut its price to ten cents. Edited for 30 years by Edward Bok, a Dutch literary writer who became the highest paid editor of the day, the Journal called itself the "Bible of the American home," a claim journalist Mark Sullivan said had "a measure of allegorical truth."

The mass market magazines were characterized by their eclectic contents, living up to the literal definition of the word magazine as a storehouse of odd and notable information. They all had a great number of illustrations. Munsey's specialized in halftone photo engravings, the first real published pictures that many readers had ever seen. Paging through an issue provided the eye with a blur of visual images unknown in earlier magazines. Munsey's had topical separations called departments, from "Artists and their Works," which for a time featured reproductions of classical nude paintings, and "In the Public Eye," a People -style column on celebrities, to brief fiction, called "Storiettes" and sections on music, poetry, literature, and theater. Cosmopolitan had similar cultural departments as well as features on science and England. Ladies Home Journal had so many departments that some appeared together on the same page. McClure's did not have departments, organizing its stories by theme or topic depending on the issue. Advertisements filled each mass market magazine issue with news of brand name goods and services that often became like part of the family. For the first time, the ads went beyond simple product announcements to make emotional pitches toward health, social status, and even sexuality. As a result, the mass market magazines provided domestic, decorating, and cultural information for women, fashion and sporting news for teenagers, economic and current events information for men, and consumption information that promised to help every family member buy the "right" products and succeed within their individual and collective spheres of life.

The mass market magazine revolution did not offer something for everyone. The working class and poor were conspicuously absent from the magazines' portrayal of "real life," except as objects of moral reform waiting to be civilized and uplifted by their social betters. They would have to wait for movies and other publications such as confession magazines to experience mass culture. The state of race relations, especially the debased social status of African Americans living under Jim Crow racism, was ignored by the mass market magazines. Editors did not want to cloud the sunny optimism of early twentieth-century whites—who had a "common sense" assumption of racial supremacy—because it would be disruptive to the magazine's commercial messages. Women represented a majority of mass market magazine readers, but they were trivialized, dismissed, and stigmatized in the magazines, especially the New Woman movement of the late nineteenth century. Celebrities were excused, as were selected achieving women, but the remainder of women were permitted only traditional social roles, practical domesticity or stereotypical narratives of romance and marriage, in articles and advertisements.

In spite of such omissions, McClure's, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal did engage in what was initially called "civic consciousness" but later labeled simply as muckraking. Beginning in 1893, the same year cover prices were dropped to ten cents, McClure's and Cosmopolitan printed accounts of conditions among working women and the urban poor and the efforts to revamp the nation's educational system. From that beginning, McClure's came to epitomize muckraking in the nation's consciousness, especially in seminal series such as Lincoln Steffen's "Shame of the Cities," Ida M. Tarbell's "The History of the Standard Oil Company," and Ray Stannard Baker's anti-union "The Right to Work," all published after 1900. S. S. McClure was not a radical reformer and preferred a middle of the road approach to most of his muckraking, refraining from direct assaults against big businesses and encouraging his writers to support their accusations with documented facts. In contrast, Cosmopolitan took a more sensationalistic approach to its muckraking, especially after the magazine was purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1905. Socialists Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Charles Edward Russell wrote extensively for Cosmopolitan. David Graham Phillips' "The Treason of the Senate," which was published in Cosmopolitan, provoked an angry President Theodore Roosevelt to apply the term "muck raker" to the mass market magazines. Ladies Home Journal was ahead of the other, better known muckraking titles. It stopped accepting patent medicine advertisements in 1892, holding that many were harmful to their female and child readers and the magazine attacked the entire patent medicine industry in 1904 and 1905, leading to passage of the first federal Food and Drug Act in 1906. It also published a seminal article on venereal disease in 1908, encouraging public discussion on a previously forbidden subject. Meanwhile, Munsey's never muckraked, except for two articles in 1900, yet maintained its high circulation and profitability.

Muckraking diminished in popularity after 1906, and most of the mass market magazines either changed their editorial focus, usually toward fiction, or perished, as McClure's and Munsey's did, before 1930. However, mass culture continued to grow in scope and influence through other magazines and publications, and in motion pictures, radio, paperback novels, television, national newspapers, and cable and satellite television. The professional-managerial class gave way to a larger, more homogenous audience for mass culture in the twentieth century at the same time that many traditional forms of self entertainment, from folk music to story telling, became almost extinct. The advent of the Information Age in the late part of the century, with its emphasis on knowledge as a salable commodity, became only the most recent manifestation of the unquenchable demand for information ignited by the mass market magazines. Since its invention, mass culture and society have been inseparable, as historian Richard Ohmann observed. "Asking whether we want the mass culture we have is almost the same as asking whether we like the social relations of advanced capitalist society."

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

Bennion, Sherilyn Cox. "Reform Agitation in the American Periodical Press, 1920-29." Journalism Quarterly. Vol. 48, No. 4, 1971, 645-51.

Gans, Herbert J. Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste. New York, Basic Books, 1974, 67-93.

Gordon, Lynn D. "The Gibson Girl Goes to College: Popular Culture and Women's Higher Education in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920." American Quarterly. Vol. 39, No. 2, 1987, 211-30.

Ohmann, Richard. Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century. London, Verso, 1996.

Radway, Janice A. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Ryan, Susan M. "Acquiring Minds: Commodified Knowledge and the Positioning of the Reader in McClure's Magazine, 1893-1903." Prospects. Vol. 22, 1997, 211-38.

Scanlon, Jennifer. Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture. New York, Routledge, 1995.

Schneirov, Matthew. The Dream of a New Social Order: Popular Magazines in America, 1893-1914. New York, Columbia University Press, 1994.

Scholnick, Robert J. "The Galaxy and American Democratic Culture, 1866-1878." Journal of American Studies. Vol. 16, No. 1, 1982, 69-80.

Smith, James Steel. "America's Magazine Missionaries of Culture."Journalism Quarterly. Vol. 43, No. 3, 1966, 449-58.