The Saturday Evening Post

views updated

The Saturday Evening Post

Long before Time and Newsweek recapped the events of the world for millions of Americans, long before Reader's Digest and Life condensed the world's news in words and pictures, the Saturday Evening Post was truly America's magazine. Born at the turn of the century, with roots in colonial America, the Saturday Evening Post quickly became required reading for anyone who wished to stay in touch with the issues that mattered in American culture, politics, or the economy. The Post, as it is widely known, dominated the American magazine landscape for the first thirty years of the century, both in circulation and in influence. In its heyday, the Post was the voice of American common-sense conservatism. When that brand of conservatism declined, so did the magazine, but for a time the Post reached its editor's goal of being America's "indispensable magazine."

The modern Post was born when magazine magnate Cyrus H. K. Curtis, who published the nation's leading magazine, the Ladies' Home Journal, purchased it from Andrew Smythe in 1897 for $1,000. Curtis liked the magazine's pedigree—it claimed to be the oldest magazine in America, and was once printed in Benjamin Franklin's print shop (though historians now doubt that Franklin had anything to do with the publication)—but the content of the magazine was without distinction. Curtis soon hired as his editor one George Horace Lorimer, a young preacher's son with a clear idea of how to pitch a magazine to the great middle class. Lorimer believed that the cultural values of the nineteenth-century American middle class—honesty, integrity, hard-work, and self-reliance—would sustain the nation as it entered a new century. By retaining final say on every word that was printed in his magazine, Lorimer made sure that every issue echoed his vision for America. And he soon found readers who agreed with him.

The Post's circulation reached one million per week in 1908, two million in 1913, and three million in 1937. Lorimer had devised what became known as the " Post formula," a mix of equal parts business, public affairs, and romance, with sports, humor, illustrations, and cartoons thrown in for spice. The magazine published fiction, much of it in serial form, and much of it romantic, and it published nonfiction articles that celebrated American achievement. The Post rarely opposed the status quo and seemed perfectly attuned to the tastes of the "average" American, as long as that American was white, middle-class, middle-aged, and comfortable. Norman Rockwell, who began to illustrate covers for the Post in 1916, perfectly captured the tone of the magazine. While the contents of the magazine remained largely the same for the better part of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, so did the price: until 1942, an issue cost just five cents. The stable price was a measure of the magazine's success, for the magazine attracted so many advertisers eager to peddle their products before the Post's readers that the publisher could cushion his readers from the rising costs of the magazine's production.

Critics complained that the Post was sugarcoating the rise of big business in America. They had a point. While other notable American magazines like McClure's drew attention to the dangers posed by the rise of large monopolistic corporations, the Saturday Evening Post largely applauded the effects that big business was having on the American landscape. As long as pro-business politicians were in office, editor Lorimer was an optimist, for his magazine benefited as much as any large business from the Republican party's dominance over national politics in the first third of the century. But when the political and economic tide turned, Lorimer turned into a scold. It wasn't the stock market crash of 1929 that changed Lorimer's mood—in fact, Lorimer saw the crash and the ensuing economic depression as a healthy correction to an economy that had grown dangerously speculative. Rather, it was the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administration of his New Deal programs that turned Lorimer and the Post from the spokesman for the common-sense majority into the shrill voice of American conservatism.

Lorimer deplored Roosevelt's New Deal because he felt that what Americans needed to do most was tighten their belts and return to the "old values" he had long promoted in the Post. In opposing the New Deal, Lorimer "changed the Post from an organ of entertainment and enlightenment into a weapon of political warfare," writes magazine historian Theodore Peterson. Lorimer's views were popular with many Americans, but fighting these battles took the steam out of the aging editor, who left the Post in 1937 with the magazine reaching more Americans than ever before. The magazine experienced a sharp decline during World War II, when the magazine's unpopular isolationist stance and a nasty article on Jews drew bitter criticism, but it soon revived in the post-War boom.

The Post reached four million readers in 1949, five million in 1955. While such continually increasing circulation figures would have once convinced both editors and advertisers that the magazine was healthy, major changes in the American magazine market instead revealed the Post's tenuous position in an increasingly competitive market. First, increasingly sophisticated means of tracking magazine readership allowed advertisers and marketers to determine precisely which readerships were likely to bring revenue to potential advertisers. The Post, with its aging readership, was no longer the best medium for carrying advertising. Second, the number of magazines on the market had exploded in the 1940s, meaning that the Post had more competitors, and the arrival of television in the 1950s meant even more competition for the newly choosy advertising dollar. Hoping to return the Post to its former position as the leading medium for advertising in the United States, the Curtis Company experimented with a number of changes to the magazine's format and contents. But the venerable Saturday Evening Post was losing so much money that it ceased publication in February of 1969. The Post returned from the grave two years later, and was published into the 1990s in one form or another, but it never reclaimed its status as a major magazine.

In its later years the Saturday Evening Post was just one among many American magazines struggling to attract enough readers and advertisers to survive, but during its heyday the Post was a true phenomenon. According to Jan Cohn, author of Creating America: George Horace Lorimer and the "Saturday Evening Post," "Despite the vast changes in American society between 1899 and 1936, what the Post achieved was the fullest expression of a broad American consensual view." Bringing together enthusiasm for the benefits of modern society—economic growth, a wealth of new goods, exciting developments in technology—with a healthy respect for old American truths—reverence for hard work, belief in honesty and sincerity, and love of the home—the Post spoke in a language that calmed Americans during a period of dramatic social change. Even during the tumultuous 1920s, a period known for its crazes, enthusiasm, and for its flaming youth, the Post managed to contain the burgeoning energy of popular culture within its pages, publishing stories from Jazz Age icon F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.

Anyone wishing to understand America during the first decades of the century must surely turn to the pages of the Post. The story told by the Post, week after week, year after year, is not the story of all of America, but of the Americans who wielded power and influence, or at least voted for and revered those who did. It was a consensus magazine for a time when Americans believed that a consensus still existed. The magazine's demise is representative of changes in America as well, for it occurred amid the splintering of American identities that characterized the 1960s. Today, no one magazine could aspire to represent all Americans, but for a brief span of time the Post truly was, as it often claimed to be, "America's magazine."

—Tom Pendergast

Further Reading:

Bigelow, Frederick S. A Short History of "The Saturday Evening Post": "An American Institution" in Three Centuries. Philadelphia, Curtis Publishing Co., 1927, 1936.

Cohn, Jan. Creating America: George Horace Lorimer and the "Saturday Evening Post." Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Curtis Publishing Company. A Short History of the "Saturday Evening Post." Philadelphia, Curtis Publishing Co., 1953.

Friedrich, Otto. Decline and Fall. New York, Harper & Row, 1969.

Mott, Frank L. "The Saturday Evening Post." A History of American Magazines. Vol. 4. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957, 671-716.

Tebbel, John. George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday Evening Post. Garden City, New Jersey, Doubleday, 1948.

Wood, James Playsted. "Magazine Reflection of a Nation: The Saturday Evening Post. " Magazines in the United States: Their Social and Economic Influence. 3rd ed. New York, Ronald Press, 1971.