Born as a struggling weekly for adolescents in 1882, Argosy became the first adult magazine to rely exclusively on fiction for its content and the first to be printed on rough, pulpwood paper. "The story is worth more than the paper it is printed on," it was once said of Argosy, and thus was born the "pulp magazine." Between 1896 and its demise in 1979, Argosy introduced or helped inspire pulp fiction writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Mickey Spillane, Earl Stanley Gardner, Zane Grey, and Elmore Leonard, and helped familiarize millions of readers with the detective, science fiction, and western writing genres.
Publisher Frank Munsey arrived in New York from Maine in 1882 with $40 in his pocket. Ten months later, he helped found Golden Argosy: Freighted with Treasures for Boys and Girls. Among the publication's early offerings were stories by the popular self-success advocate Horatio Alger, Jr., but the diminutive weekly fared poorly in the face of overwhelming competition from like juvenile publications "of high moral tone." Munsey gradually shifted the content to more adult topics, dropping any reference to children in the magazine in 1886 and shortening the title to Argosy in 1888. A year later, Munsey started another publication, what would become the highly profitable Munsey's Magazine, and Argosy languished as a weak imitation.
Munsey made two critical changes to rescue Argosy in 1896. First, he switched to cheap, smelly, ragged-edged pulpwood paper, made from and often sporting recovered wood scraps, as a way to reduce costs. More importantly, he began publishing serial fiction exclusively, emphasizing adventure, action, mystery, and melodrama in exotic or dangerous locations. No love stories, no drawings or photographs for many years, just "hard-boiled" language and coarse, often gloomy settings that appealed to teenaged boys and men. Circulation doubled, peaking at around 500,000 in 1907.
Munsey paid only slightly more for his stories than his paper. One author recalled that $500 was the top price for serial fiction, a fraction of what authors could make at other publications. Argosy featured prolific serial fictionists such as Frederick Van Rensselaer Deay, the creator of the Nick Carter detective series, William MacLeod Raine, Albert Payson Terhune, Louis Joseph Vance, and Ellis Parker Butler. It also published the writings of younger, undiscovered authors such as James Branch Cabell, Charles G. D. Roberts, Susan Glaspell, Mary Roberts Rinehart, a young Upton Sinclair, and William Sydney Porter (before he became known as O. Henry). Beginning in 1910, Munsey began merging Argosy with a variety of weaker competitors, a practice Munsey called "cleaning up the field." The new combination featured stories by authors such as Frank Condon, Courtney Ryley, Octavus Roy Cohen, P. G. Wodehouse, Luke Short, Van Wyck Mason, C. S. Forester, and Max Brand.
Munsey died in 1925 and ordered that his $20,000,000 magazine empire, including Argosy, be broken up and sold, but not before Argosy and the pulps had become a dominant force in American popular culture, making characters such as Tarzan, Zorro, the Shadow, Sam Spade, and the Phantom Detective household names. It was purchased by William T. Dewart, but the Depression and declining interest in pulp fiction reduced circulation to 40,000 by 1940. Renamed New Argosy in 1942, it was temporarily banned from the mails for "obscenity." Two months later it was sold to Popular Publications, Inc. Under the supervision of Henry Steeger, Argosy abandoned its all-fiction format and began featuring news and war articles. Influenced by the success of newly founded men's magazine Esquire, the renamed Argosy—The Complete Men's Magazine became a "slick," with four-color layouts, quality fiction, and adventure, sports, crime, science, and humor stories.
One of the most popular features was the "Court of Last Resort." Written by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of attorney Perry Mason, the "court" presented the cases of men considered unjustly convicted of crimes. The feature helped free, pardon, commute, or parole at least 15 persons. Gardner was assisted by a criminologist, lie detector expert, detective, prison psychologist, and one-time FBI investigator.
The reformulated Argosy succeeded for a time. As Steeger explained to Newsweek in 1954, "After the Second World War 15 million veterans were no longer content to accept the whimsy and phoniness of fiction." By 1953, it had a circulation of 1,250,000 and charged over $5,000 for a single full-color page advertisement. An Argosy editor described an average reader to Writer magazine in 1965 as "factory-bound, desk-bound, work-bound, forced by economics and society to abandon his innate maleness and individuality to become a cog in the corporate machine."
But more explicit competitors such as Playboy and Penthouse, a shifting sense of male identity, and the prevalence of television doomed men's magazines such as Argosy. Popular Publications, Inc. was dissolved in 1972 with the retirement of Henry Steeger. Argosy and other titles were purchased by Joel Frieman and Blazing Publications, Inc., but Argosy was forced to cease publication in the face of postal rate increases in 1979 even though it still had a circulation of over one million. The magazine's title resurfaced when Blazing Publications changed its name to Argosy Communications, Inc., in 1988, and Frieman has retained copyrights and republished the writings of authors such as Burroughs, John Carroll Daly, Gardner, Rex Stout, and Ray Bradbury. In addition, the spirit of pulp magazines like Argosy survives in the twentieth-century invention of the comic book, with fewer words and more images but still printed on cheap, pulpwood paper.
Britt, George. Forty Years—Forty Millions: The Career of Frank A. Munsey. Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1935, 1972.
Cassiday, Bruce. "When Argosy Looks for Stories." Writer. August1965, 25.
Moonan, Williard. "Argosy. " In American Mass-Market Magazines, edited by Alan and Barbara Nourie. Westport, Connecticut, Green-wood Press, 1990, 29-32.
Mott, Frank L. "The Argosy. " A History of American Magazines. Vol. 4. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957, 417-23.
"New Argosy Crew." Newsweek. May 17, 1954, 62.
Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 314-16.
Popular Publications, Inc. Records, c. 1910-95. Center for the Humanities, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
Server, Lee. Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines, 1896-1953. New York, Chronicle, 1993.
A popular men's magazine published in the United States from 1888 until 1979, Argosy was the first of the "pulp" magazines (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), so called because of the cheap, rough paper on which they were printed. It was also the first adult magazine to rely almost exclusively on fiction for its content, usually adventure, detective, science fiction, or western stories that were thought to appeal to a male readership.
Argosy traced its roots to Golden Argosy: Freighted with Treasures for Boys and Girls, a magazine created by Frank Munsey (1854–1925) in 1882 to appeal to young people. By 1886, Munsey was publishing adult stories in the magazine, whose name he changed to Argosy two years later. In 1896, he shifted to pulp paper and began publishing serial fiction (stories that were "serialized," or broken into sections across several issues) exclusively, with an emphasis on action, adventure, and mystery stories. By the time of Munsey's death in 1925, Argosy had helped popularize fictional characters like Tarzan (see entry under 1910s—Print Culture in volume 1), Zorro (see entry under 1910s—Print Culture in volume 1), The Shadow (see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2), and Sam Spade. It featured stories from some of the most noted authors of the day.
By 1907, Argosy had a circulation (the total number of copies sold) of five hundred thousand, but the magazine had a checkered history in the twentieth century. Circulation declined to forty thousand by 1940. The magazine was renamed New Argosy in 1942 but was banned from the mails for "obscenity." Sold to Popular Publications, a major publishing company, the magazine was renamed Argosy: The Complete Men's Magazine in 1946 and became a "slick" periodical with four-color layouts and better-quality adventure, sports, and humorous stories. By 1953, the circulation had increased to 1.25 million. Popular Publications was dissolved in 1972 and the magazine was sold to Blazing Publications, Inc. It finally folded in 1979, a victim of rising postal rates.
For More Information
"The Argosy & Related Magazines." Magazine Issues.http://www.pulp-gen.com/pulp/biglist/mags/argosy.html (accessed December 14, 2001).
Moonan, Willard. "Argosy." In American Mass-Market Magazine. Edited by Alan and Barbara Nourie. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Server, Lee. Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines, 1896–1953. New York: Chronicle, 1993.
ar·go·sy / ˈärgəsē/ • n. (pl. -sies) poetic/lit. a large merchant ship, originally one from Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) or Venice.