Munsey's Magazine

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Munsey's Magazine

In 1893, a former telegraph operator named Frank A. Munsey made his namesake the first nationally distributed and mass-read magazine. Munsey, who had grown up poor in rural Maine, recognized that most of the growing American middle class could not afford magazines, so he dropped the cover price of his failing literary monthly from twenty-five to ten cents per copy. Advertisers made up the difference by paying more for and increasing the number of their ads. Munsey also proved that sex sold magazines, publishing a regular page called "Artists & Their Work" which featured a half-tone photograph of a draped or undraped female in an artistic setting. Munsey's Magazine jumped in readership overnight, becoming the world circulation leader by 1907, and came to be recognized as the prototype of the modern popular magazine. As he made his magazine universally available, Frank Munsey also paved the way for what is now called the Information Age.

The first two American magazines, published by Andrew Bradford and Benjamin Franklin, appeared in 1741, but the periodical industry grew slowly over the next century. Thousands of titles appeared, but all but a very few were financial failures with low circulations, little or no advertising, and poor revenue. None could claim a wide national readership. Several "quality" literary journals, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Century, began to appear and prosper around 1850, but they cost between twenty-five and thirty-five cents an issue, much too expensive for the newly emerging educated middle class, especially by yearly subscription. A few women's magazines, Ladies' Home Journal, Delineator, and Woman's Home Companion, built mass circulations after the Civil War, but they were very specialized in their viewpoint, featured editorial content strongly influenced by advertisers, and were overlooked by most advertisers and the magazine industry because women had not yet been recognized as a viable national mass market.

Frank Munsey was born on August 21, 1854, and grew up on a series of struggling farms near Augusta, Maine. He began making his own way in the world at the age of seven, but it was a visit to the 1876 World's Fair that inspired him to build the first magazine and newspaper publishing empire. At Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition Munsey saw one of a new breed of R. Hoe & Company's stereotype plate rotary presses spewing out thousands of newspapers per hour and resolved that he would be the proprietor of such an impressive machine one day. To make his dream come true, Munsey wrote freelance articles for local newspapers and saved money earned as a telegraph operator. He also convinced several Augusta businessmen of his prospects, and was able to raise enough capital to move to New York City on September 23, 1882. There he founded Golden Argosy: Freighted with Treasures for Boys and Girls. The first issue featured several articles including "Do and Dare, or a Brave Boy's Fight for a Fortune," a short story written by self-success advocate Horatio Alger, Jr. that could have been Munsey's own story.

The market for juvenile magazines was crowded in late nineteenth-century America and Munsey was often broke and always in debt for the first five years of Argosy. He began changing the direction of the magazine away from children and more toward teenaged boys and men by 1885 but his periodical still failed to capture the public's imagination. Frustrated, Munsey used his own writings and the contributions of the small Argosy editorial staff to fill the inaugural issue of the adult literary magazine, Munsey's Weekly, on February 2, 1889. The magazine seemed inexpensive at ten cents per copy, but a yearly subscription was still too expensive for most potential middle-class readers and it lost thousands of dollars over the next two years even though it built a circulation of 40,000.

In October 1891, Munsey took a gamble. He changed his namesake to a monthly, gave it the same size and look as Harper's and the other profitable literary monthlies, and raised its price to twenty-five cents per copy. To differentiate himself from his competitors, he concentrated on light, easy-to-read articles and novelettes, "a complete novel in each number," instead of serious literature and criticism. He also featured the cutting-edge publishing technology of halftone photographs instead of the fine-line wood engravings featured in most other magazines. Still, Munsey's lost money. The depression of 1893 made it even more difficult for Munsey to borrow money to keep his floundering magazine business afloat, so he took yet another gamble, dropping Munsey's cover price to ten cents per copy and the cost of a subscription to one dollar a year.

Munsey's was not the first magazine to sell at ten cents, nor even the first to make a dramatic price cut. The moderately successful Drake's Magazine had sold for a dime in the 1880s and Ladies Home Journal built its circulation by selling for a nickel before it raised its price to ten cents in the early 1890s. S. S. McClure dropped the price of his soon-to-become famous magazine to fifteen cents an issue in June 1893, and in response, John Brisben Walker cut the price of his new general-interest monthly, Cosmopolitan, from twenty-five to twelve and one-half cents in July. Munsey's didn't fall to ten cents until September. But in cutting his price, Munsey made his periodical the first that was truly affordable to the nation's middle class. To help build circulation at such a cheap price, Munsey bypassed the expensive wholesale magazine distribution monopoly then in existence and advertised to readers directly, using mailed circulars and newspaper advertising.

The result revolutionized the magazine industry. Munsey's monthly circulation climbed from 40,000 before its price change to 100,000 in late 1893, 500,000 in 1895, and 700,000 by 1897. His four magazines, Munsey's, Argosy, Scrap Book, and All-Story, peaked in March 1906, with a combined circulation of 2.1 million. An average turn-of-the-century Munsey's featured 160 pages of text and as many as 100 pages of ads, unprecedented figures for the day. Advertising revenues alone averaged $25,000 to $35,000 per issue and more. Munsey toned back the nudity in his "Artists & Their Work" section beginning in 1895 but not before a reputation and market had been created. He featured a monthly section on famous personalities long before celebrities became a magazine mainstay. He solicited fiction and non-fiction writings from well known authors and public men such as Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Theodore Roosevelt, but most of his contributors were modestly paid unknowns. Munsey produced his magazine cheaply on his own printing equipment. Even his signature half-tone photographs were gotten cheaply, reproductions of art works, theatrical pictures, or portraits. Munsey claimed that he cleared $500,000 a year from his magazines by 1900, $1.2 million in 1907.

One aspect of turn-of-the-century magazines that Munsey never embraced was muckraking. The January 1900 Munsey's featured two articles critical of industrial trusts and monopolies, the basic fodder of muckraking, but that was all. While McClure's, Cosmopolitan, and other muckrake periodicals built their fame and circulations with exposé-style journalism, Munsey stayed with lighter, less critical fare. " Munsey's Magazine has never been committed to the muck-raking theory, and never will be," Munsey explained in 1910. "Muck-raking is one thing, and progress is quite another." Munsey was a strong political supporter of progressive Theodore Roosevelt, becoming the primary financier of Roosevelt's ill-fated third-party bid in 1912, but he never considered his magazines a platform for the crusading reforms that marked Progressivism.

Munsey admired millionaires, especially J. Pierpont Morgan, the prime financier of American industrial monopolies at the turn of the twentieth century. Like Morgan, Munsey resolved to knit the disparate United States together into one mass marketplace for his product, information, using the newest technology. Beyond half-tones and high speed presses, Munsey's used two other recent innovations to make his magazines a success. The telephone allowed quick contact with faraway distributors, eliminating the need for middle-man news agencies. Improved railroad shipping services, especially to the untapped markets of the West, made timely distribution of a national magazine like Munsey's possible for the first time in American history.

The profits from his magazines gave Munsey capital to branch out into the newspaper industry, and he owned some of the best known papers in the country, such as the New York Daily News, New York Sun, New York Herald, Washington Times, Philadelphia Evening Times, Boston Journal, and many others, at one time or another. As with magazines, Munsey tinkered with his newspapers, reducing and raising prices, using red ink for headlines and other typographical innovations, and adding more photographs, human interest, and other magazine-style features. Some of his changes pleased readers but they infuriated his newspaper employees, who considered him ignorant of the newspaper business. However, Munsey's most irritating business practice was the constant purchase, merging, or elimination of what he considered to be superfluous or competitive publications, in a bizarre manner at times. He likened his newspaper and magazine acquisitions to a grocery store chain he owned. The New York World insulted him as of "one of the ablest retail grocers that ever edited a New York newspaper." Others, many of them his own employees, considered him the "Grand High Executioner of Journalism."

Munsey's Magazine and its publisher's empire declined after 1907, more so after Roosevelt's defeat in 1912. Munsey's set a then record of 265 pages in one 1918 issue. The magazine became an all-fiction pulp in 1921 but never achieved the circulation it had known in its earlier years. When he wasn't merging or killing off publications, Munsey would make impossible demands such as ordering politically unpleasant information withheld, firing entire editorial departments, eliminating pages or sections, or punishing uncooperative employees. He paid $4 million for the New York Herald in 1920 in part so he could fire the paper's editorial cartoonist for an unflattering drawing of Munsey in 1916. He never married, had no family, lived most of his life alone in hotels, and claimed he did not care for money except for what he could accomplish with it.

Munsey died of appendicitis on December 12, 1925. Other great publishers founded schools of journalism or at least insisted that their publications carry on after their death. Munsey ordered that all of his properties, magazines and newspapers included, be sold for cash although much of the profits were used to found New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ironically, its new publisher combined Munsey's Magazine with Argosy All-Story in October 1929, eventually dropping the Munsey name altogether. Meanwhile, Munsey, the founder of mass media and the precursor of the Information Age, was eulogized by journalist William Allen White as such: "Frank Munsey contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer, and the manners of an undertaker. He and his kind have about succeeded in transforming a once-noble profession into an eight percent security. May he rest in trust!"

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

Britt, George. Forty Years—Forty Millons: The Career of Frank A. Munsey. Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1935, 1972.

Mott, Frank L. "The Magazine Revolution and Popular Ideas in the Nineties." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Spring, 1954, 195-214.

——. "Munsey's Magazine." A History of American Magazines. Vol. 4. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957, 608-19.

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

Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. 3rd ed. New York, Ronald Press, 1971, 93-96.