Founded in New York in 1893 by a man of volcanic energy and creativity—a quirky, brilliant Irish immigrant named Samuel S. McClure—McClure's stood the staid American magazine industry on its head. Selling copies for a dime apiece when most magazines cost 25 or 35 cents, McClure boosted his magazine's circulation and ultimately the sales of many other magazines in America, which were forced to reduce their prices to compete. Hiring a staff of aggressive, intelligent, hardworking editors and reporters, he also gave America its popular definition of muckraking journalism in the following decade, publishing articles during the Progressive Era that exposed civic, corporate, and union corruption and helped bring about new laws and tougher enforcement of existing laws.
Samuel S. McClure (1857-1949) came to the United States with his widowed mother as a child and was raised in Indiana. He founded his remarkable magazine after working as a magazine editor, freelance journalist, and newspaper syndicator in Boston and New York. Increased demand for advertising, the result of the development of national brands, meant greater opportunities in the 1890s for revenue while advances in printing techniques made it cheaper to produce magazines. McClure meanwhile realized he could get more mileage out of the syndicated fiction and nonfiction articles he sold to newspapers by using them in a magazine. He hoped to capitalize on these advantages by selling a better product at a lower cost.
The inaugural issue of McClure's appeared at an inauspicious time, during the Panic of 1893, and the enterprise struggled financially even though it garnered critical praise ("It throbs with actuality from beginning to end," the editor of The Review of Reviews noted). Zesty and contemporary, early issues included interviews with Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, articles on exciting technological advances of the day, and historical and contemporary pieces. But sales proved disappointing. Of the 20,000 copies of the first issue printed in May, 12,000 were returned unsold.
Initially offered at 15 cents a copy (reduced the following year to ten cents), McClure's soon had to compete with established magazines that were matching its price. It was not until McClure garnered the services of Ida Tarbell, a gifted researcher and writer who previously had written for his newspaper syndicate, that the magazine's fortunes began to turn. Tarbell's well-illustrated seven-part series on Napoleon, which started in November 1894, boosted circulation to 65,000 and eventually to 100,000. After McClure's began publishing her series on Abraham Lincoln in 1895, sales increased to 300,000 and advertising in tandem. Tarbell, who later became an editor of the magazine, also contributed other important historical and muckraking articles. Though the financial picture was improving, McClure still could offer Stephen Crane only $75 for "The Red Badge of Courage," an offer that Crane refused.
Economic hard times in the United States, capped by William Jennings Bryan's failed populist bid for the presidency in 1896, brought more coverage of social issues. In 1897, McClure began hiring a number of writers who would go on to fame, including William Allen White of The Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, Ray Stannard Baker, a Chicago newspaperman, and Lincoln Steffens, a former police reporter for the Commercial Advertiser in New York. The January 1903 issue fired an opening salvo in the era of muckraking, presenting three major articles in "the literature of exposure:" Steffens's "The Shame of Minneapolis," the first in his "Shame of the Cities" series, describing rampant urban political corruption across the United States; Tarbell's "Standard Oil," detailing corporate monopoly and malfeasance; and Baker's "The Right to Work," an indictment of corrupt labor unions based on his interviews with nonstriking coalminers in Pennsylvania who had been harassed by members of the United Mine Workers. Muckraking soon became a central theme, not only for McClure's but for many other magazines. Though they varied in power and in point, most of the muckraking articles shared a common concern: that laws were not being obeyed and that Americans suffered from their own contempt for the law, either through their participation in illegal activities or their apathy about doing anything about lawlessness.
Though historians often have cited muckraking as wildly popular, McClure's circulation barely budged during its muckraking heyday between 1903 and 1906. The articles, however, were influential. Baker's piece on railroad abuses helped bring about passage of the Hepburn Act in 1906, giving the Interstate Commerce Commission power to set rates and otherwise regulate railroads. In the same year President Theodore Roosevelt first used the term muckraker as a pejorative, describing such magazine journalists as "potent forces of evil" who concentrated on "vile and debasing" matters (and probably misinterpreting John Bunyan's Man with the Muck-Rake in Pilgrim's Progress in the process). Though some muckraking articles were shallow, stilted, and even bigoted, such as one on "the Negro Problem," McClure's also published a number of finely reasoned exposes and analytical pieces. Through the years, the magazine also published work by distinguished writers of fiction and poetry, including Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, O. Henry, A. E. Housman, and William Butler Yeats.
Flush with success, McClure soon dreamed of opening new magazines and printing plants. Worried by their boss' excessive enthusiasm and divided by office politics, much of the "the most brilliant staff ever gathered by a New York periodical," including Baker, Tarbell, and John S. Phillips, a longtime McClure partner and editor, defected in 1906 (some to start the American Magazine).
Subsequent events proved them right. The following year, although circulation reached an all-time high, McClure was grappling with new financial difficulties caused by his construction of a giant printing plant on Long Island and issuance of stock to former editors. Burdensome loans he had assumed weighed even heavier during the Panic of 1907. When circulation and advertising began to drop later that year, he was forced to go into partnership with a businessman named Harold Roberts. The magazine continued to run muckraking articles on corrupt civic politics, prostitution rings, and the like, and in 1910 McClure published his last great muckraking series, a seven-part, 60,000-word opus called "The Masters of Capital in America," by John Moody, which attempted to explain the concentration of capital in the country by giving sober and impartial accounts of the lives and careers of industrialists such as J. P. Morgan, John D.
Rockefeller, and Jacob H. Schiff. Although circulation and advertising had rebounded after 1907, McClure continued to stagger under his heavy debt and Roberts forced him out in 1911.
McClure's went downhill thereafter. From 1912 to 1922, it became "a kind of second-rate women's magazine lacking personality, character, conscience, soul, or guts," in the words of a McClure biographer. In 1920 it was sold to Herbert Kaufman, a "checkbook editor" who spent too much money luring writers from other magazines and pushed his own into receivership in only nine months. It reverted to McClure who, short of money and staff, could not revive it and was forced to sell out to Hearst's International Publications in 1925. Hearst made it into McClure's, The Magazine of Romance. When this version also failed, the magazine was sold again. It lingered as The New McClure's: A Man's Magazine until the advent of the Great Depression brought this last incarnation of a once-proud magazine to a merciful death in 1930.
Cather, Willa. My Autobiography: The Autobiography of S. S. McClure. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Lyon, Peter. Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.
Schneirov, Matthew. The Dream of a New Social Order: Popular Magazines in America, 1893-1914. New York, Columbia University Press, 1994.