Seventeen magazine first appeared on newsstands in September, 1944, and it forever changed the media and consumer market for teenage girls. It was not the first publication to notice teenage girls, but it was the first that successfully reached a large teenage audience by devoting an entire magazine to them. Physically larger than today's magazine, Seventeen was initially 10 3/8-by-13 1/8 inches, printed on quality, thirty-five pound paper. The reader was first attracted to the colorful cover that promised "Young fashions and beauty, movies and music, ideas and people," as well as the section headings dividing the entire magazine into well-defined categories; "What You Wear," "How You Look and Feel," "Getting Along in the World," "Your Mind," and "Having Fun." Inside its covers, Seventeen offered a world of advertising, shopping, responsibility, and advice in the voice of a big sister or aunt, older and experienced, yet friendly and concerned. From the beginning, Seventeen was remarkably popular with teenage girls—all 400,000 copies of the first issue sold out in six days. By February, 1947, circulation exceeded one million, and over two-and-a-half million copies sold monthly by July, 1949. This success has continued for over 50 years, and despite stiff competition in the 1980s and 1990s, Seventeen is still the most widely read magazine for teenage girls.
In 1944, publisher Walter Annenberg of Triangle Publications decided to overhaul a dying movie screen magazine called Stardom. Helen Valentine, promotional director at Mademoiselle, agreed to become editor-in-chief of the new magazine if she could design it as a service magazine for teenage girls. She borrowed the name from Booth Tarkington's novel, Seventeen, because she thought it fit the thirteen-to eighteen-year-old age group she wanted to reach. While the bulk of the new magazine was designed to focus on fashion and beauty, Valentine insisted that it treat teenage girls seriously and respect what she perceived to be their emotional and intellectual needs. In addition to helping teenage girls choose their first lipstick and survive their first dates, Valentine wanted to teach them about the world and their place in it as responsible citizens.
At a time when advertisers, manufacturers, and media producers were beginning to recognize the economic importance of teenagers, the magazine's editors and publishers invested substantial resources in interpreting and promoting their definition of a prototypical teenage girl, whom they dubbed "Teena." In an effort to help develop the image of the teenage girl as a consumer of the magazine and the products advertised within its covers, Seventeen's promotional staff created an advertising advisory board to encourage age-appropriate advertisements and unite advertising and editorial content into a seamless product. Rejecting ads for dark red nail polish or shoes with spiked heels, and discouraging ad copy with heavy slang, Seventeen preferred to advertise a "wholesome" teenage girl who dressed neatly and conservatively for high school and dates. Triangle Publications initially invested over $500,000 in a lavish promotional campaign to create and distribute these images, attract advertising, and strengthen the teenage market.
The content balance of Seventeen shifted over the years in response to internal institutional changes as well as external social and political changes. During Seventeen's early years, articles addressed serious issues such as the political system, preparing to vote, development of the new United Nations, postwar inflation, and atomic energy. Book reviews further encouraged teenagers to read about community forums, the World Youth Conference, and college and career options for young women. These messages were always embedded in a magazine primarily devoted to fashion and beauty that encouraged girls to spend endless hours learning to fix their hair, shape or enhance their body types, pick the right clothes, read up on sports to be interesting for their dates, and learn to cook, decorate, and prepare the perfect party. But reader letters confirm that many of the magazine's consumers read the political articles seriously, could articulate their opinions intelligently, and wanted more coverage of these issues.
As the median age of marriage dropped during the postwar years and more women married in their teens, Seventeen's editorial message—not to marry young—was increasingly in conflict with its proliferation of wedding-related advertising for engagement rings, hope chests, silver, linen, china, and carpets. Advertisements pictured dreamy-eyed young women in their new homes with their new, handsome husbands, or sitting in their bedrooms happily collecting china or silver in anticipation of their wedding day. The magazine sought to present a variety of options and to continue to reach its readers who were marrying right out of high school as well as those going on to college and work.
In 1951, Helen Valentine was fired as editor-in-chief due to conflicts within the corporation. The woman who brought the original vision and inspiration to the magazine and her supporters moved on to create other magazines. Seventeen retained its basic structure but entered a period of transition toward closer ties with advertisers and away from encouraging responsible citizenship. Categories like "Your Mind" disappeared and "Getting Along in the World" became "You and Others." The sections entitled "What You Wear," "How You Look and Feel," "Home Food and Doings," and "Having Fun" became noticeably longer, encompassing most of the magazine by the mid-1950s.
Seventeen responded to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s with a shift towards self-development and independence. Articles on the Peace Corps, new careers in science, teen democrats and republicans, and prejudice joined the preponderance of articles on clothes, looks, and domestic talents. The thirtieth anniversary edition in September, 1974, heralded the new opportunities that had opened for teenage girls since the 1940s, when their futures were centered around home and family. In the 1970s, the article claimed, discrimination based on sex no longer existed in the workplace. Girls could be anything they wanted to be and could successfully combine their careers with family life. The conservative 1980s, however, marked a return to more domestic and traditionally feminine content, and a decline in articles encouraging self-development. The more serious content, therefore has changed with the years, but the magazine never regained its initial commitment to politics, current events, and civic consumerism.
For over 50 years Seventeen has remained a fashion and beauty magazine that addresses teenage girls' interpersonal concerns with boys, family, and friends above all else. Other magazines have tried to copy this formula, but it wasn't until Sassy entered the market in the late 1980s that Seventeen faced serious competition. Sassy was more outrageous and tried harder to imitate the language that readers spoke. Magazines like Young Miss also began put more emphasis on boys and sex. While Seventeen responded in kind, it tried to remain balanced—to continue to cover fashion, beauty, relationships, school, and entertainment as well as boys.
Seventeen emerged amid economic, social, cultural, and institutional changes that provided the basis for the emerging "teenage girl." The decreasing presence of teenagers in the full-time work force along with growing high school attendance enhanced the separation of teenagers from the adult world and increased the potential for a distinct, age-specific identity. Teenagers began to rely more heavily on their peers and on commercial popular culture, such as movies and music, for guidance and entertainment. With their growing access to disposable income, especially in the years following World War II, they created an opportunity for a magazine that spoke to them directly about issues that were important to them. It is clear that Seventeen's messages were significant for the millions of teenage girls who continued to read the magazine and praise its efforts. The magazine played a central role in identifying and constructing teenage girls as a distinct group and in establishing their economic viability as a distinct market.
In the 50th anniversary edition, September 1994, the editorial staff reflected on half a century of Seventeen, concluding that it is undoubtedly a different magazine in the 1990s because teens are growing up in a different world. Teenagers today no longer look to adults for information, guidance, and taste. They are more focused on their peers and more likely to reject direct advice. Today's issues, such as gun violence, AIDS, and homelessness, personally affect teenagers who have been exposed to adult topics, violence, and sexuality, whether in their own lives, on talk shows, news, or in movies, far more than their counterparts in the 1940s. Though they may be more knowledgeable and jaded on one level, this veneer of sophistication does not necessarily make teenage girls more mature than they were in the 1940s. Regardless of how much a teenage girl knows about the range of sexual preferences and acts, infidelity, and relationship problems, her first date is still scary and her first kiss still exciting. Although "Teena" in the 1990s is more likely to be Black, Latina, or Asian American, consumer culture for teenage girls is permanently established and continues to thrive. Seventeen still interprets teenage girls for advertisers, manufacturers, and society at large, but it is no longer the only voice doing so.
Budgeon, Shelley, and Dawn H. Currie. "From Feminism to Postfeminism: Women's Liberation in Fashion Magazines." Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 18, No. 2, 1995, 173-86.
McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women's Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. New York, St. Martin's, 1993.
Palladino, Grace. Teenagers: An American History. New York, Basic, 1996.
Peirce, Kate. "A Feminist Theoretical Perspective on the Socialization of Teenage Girls through Seventeen Magazine. " Sex Roles. Vol. 23, No. 9/10, November 1990, 491-500.
Schlenker, Jennifer A., Sandra L. Caron, and William A. Halteman."A Feminist Analysis of Seventeen Magazine: Content Analysis from 1945 to 1995." Sex Roles. Vol. 38, No. 1/2, 1998, 135-49.
Schrum, Kelly. "'Teena Means Business': Teenage Girls' Culture and Seventeen Magazine, 1944-1950." In Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures, edited by Sherrie A. Inness. New York, New York University Press, 1998, 134-63.
"Seventeen: A Unique Case Study." Tide. April 15, 1945, 19-20.
Seventeen is known to U.S. readers as the title of a 1916 novel by Booth Tarkington (1869–1946). It also is the name of a popular monthly magazine for teenaged girls that has been continuously published since 1944.
The full title of Tarkington's novel is Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and the Baxter Family, Especially William. Once required reading for generations of high school students, the novel is a humorous account of life as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy growing up in the early part of the twentieth century.
The magazine Seventeen helped define the culture of American youth after World War II (1939–45). The magazine was the first publication entirely devoted to the needs and likes of adolescents, more specifically to "young fashions and beauty, movies and music, ideas and people." Founding editor Helen Valentine borrowed its title from Tarkington's novel to appeal to the age group she wanted it to reach. From its start, Seventeen was highly successful, with its circulation jumping from one million in 1947 to two and a half million by 1949. By the turn of the twenty-first century, it remains the most widely read magazine amongst teenaged girls.
By urging its advertisers to tailor their promotions specifically to the needs of its adolescent readers, Seventeen helped promote the idea that U.S. teenagers represented a distinct market segment. It set high standards for the advertisements it carried. Ads for spike heels and bright nail polish were rejected in favor of products that enhanced the image of the "wholesome" teenaged girl. Editorially, the magazine presented thoughtful articles on education and world affairs, urging its readers to get involved in school and community projects. Seventeen also advised its audience on the latest fashion tips, makeup styles, and dating etiquette. Every month, millions of girls turned to its pages to help guide them through the pitfalls of dating and establishing relationships with the opposite sex. With the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, Seventeen published articles encouraging its readers to be more independent and self-reliant. By the 1980s, sexual matters were discussed more openly in its pages, although not with the hipness of rival publications like Sassy (see entry under 1980s—Print Culture in volume 5) and Young Miss. By the 1990s, Seventeen was trying to address contemporary issues like AIDS (see entry under 1980s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) or crime and to appeal to a more racially and culturally diverse readership.
For More Information
McCracken, Ellen. Decoding Women's Magazines: From Mademoiselle toMs. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Schrum, Kelly. "'Teens Mean Business': Teenage Girls' Culture and Seventeen Magazine, 1944–1950." In Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. Edited by Sherrie A. Inness. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
sev·en·teen / ˌsevənˈtēn; ˈsevənˌtēn/ • cardinal number one more than sixteen, or seven more than ten; 17: seventeen years later a list of names, seventeen in all. (Roman numeral: xvii, XVII) ∎ seventeen years old: he joined the Marines at seventeen. ∎ a set or team of seventeen individuals.DERIVATIVES: sev·en·teenth / ˌsevənˈtēn[unvoicedth]; ˈsevənˌtēn[unvoicedth]/ adj. & n.