Magazine First Issues: Telling America’s Story

29 Jun

My good friend David Leishman collects first issues, the initial printed edition of a magazine; or generally known as Volume 1 Number 1, though there are some exceptions. He has a comprehensive collection of first issues for 20th century American magazines. And, along with the notable collection of Dr. Steven Lomazow, one of the finest first issue, private repositories in the country.

David’s at work on a book about American magazines in the previous century. He has a website that gives you a small visual taste, as it were, of 100 years of U.S. magazine publishing design and vitality at www.firstissues.com .

As my career has mostly involved working on print magazines, I have great interest in his work as well as a deep respect for it and his knowledge of publishing history. I have asked him to share a smidgeon of his insight in a recent e-mail exchange.

Crosian Views: When did you start collecting first issues? Why?

David Leishman: Well, I first started collecting one magazine. I got a subscription to Baseball Digest for my tenth birthday. My very own magazine, one that no one else in my family was allowed—nor likely wanted—to read. And it was all about baseball: players, stats, legends and stories, with ads for meaningful products, especially bats and gloves. What person in their right mind wouldn’t want to collect ’em? It took me awhile to realize some people would prefer a different topic, but the model was near perfect.

At 15 and 16, I spent Summer Saturdays working at Candlestick Park or climbing through stacks of Digests at Macdonald’s and Holmes’ bookstores in downtown San Francisco, hoping to find old issues and especially the first issue—a challenge that became a quest. I’d come home with the front of my shirt and pants caked with printer’s ink and dirt, and, if I was lucky, a magazine or two. My mother was not thrilled with my hobby.

And right about 1965, there was a modest explosion of new magazines covering what I thought were increasingly relevant topics: sex, rock and roll, and politics. And, again, the ads were important: concert announcements, bookstores, coffee houses, and record shops. So I picked up the first issues of the Bay Guardian and KYA Beat, and a handful of others over the next couple years, and I was hooked.

CV: How many 20th century American first issue magazines do you have in your collection?

DL: About 2,000, and maybe 200 from the 18th and 19th centuries.

CV: What is the estimate of individual magazines published in the previous centuries?

DL: Regarding the 18th century, there were only 18 American magazines published before the Revolution, and just one during the war, so I’d guess 50 is a good top-side bet.

As for the 19th century, it’s almost “pick a number you like.” Steve Lomazow estimates 450 titles were published between 1800 and 1820, but extrapolating from that the number of magazines published after the Civil War is a non-starter. The country and its population were sprouting and spurting like mad. Let’s say four thousand titles for the century. How’s that for science? And to put that in perspective, 7,000 new magazines a year was not uncommon by the mid-20th century.

CV: Why are first issues important? What do they tell us of our history and culture?

DL: Bear in mind, you’ve walked into the cave of an obsessive, so the answers will be a little long.

Throughout the 20th century, magazines ran like an artery carrying the heartbeat’s new blood to the nation, adapting as needed to stay alive. And the freshest breath of that life is often found in first issues. They are a singular representation of Americans’ devotion to optimism, to the new, to a belief in their vision and its usefulness, and even perhaps redemption. The Publisher’s Statement or the Editor’s Note speaks to and of an aim to “find a need and fill it” regardless of the odds…sometimes with a tone of the zealot, sometimes just for fun, but almost always from the heart.

As George Marsh wrote in 1908, “My policy in this magazine (Marsh’s) is to be consistently progressive. A frank, unbiased discussion of current issues and movements of national importance will form a very important part of its message. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,’ applies to-day as never before…..My single purpose will be to find out what the people want and to give it to them. Doing this at a price within the reach of millions, I am confident that I shall not only earn but receive the loyal support of the American public.”

Jann Wenner in 1967 described the derivation of his newly founded magazine’s title as, “…from an old saying, ‘A Rolling Stone gathers no moss,'” and closed his Letter by noting, “We’ve been working quite hard on it and we hope you can dig it. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bullshit, and bullshit is like gathering moss.” Forty-some years later, his magazine still can lead the evening TV news with its reporting; I find that important and re-assuring.

Regarding magazines and history…

To Merriam-Webster for some definitions:

“important” = “indicative of significant worth or consequence.”

Book- and paper-sellers categorize magazines as…

“ephemera” = “something of no lasting significance … originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”

Which doesn’t make first-issues or magazines in general sound too impressive. But I believe that magazines (and first issues) don’t just reflect or interpret our history and culture, they illuminate, record and inform our present…and have done so for 265 years, as we’ve progressed.

Change is always with us…and there’s a market for that! Folks garden, but most don’t get their planting tips from the first issue of Farmer’s Almanac (1818), because there’s a newer and easier-to-get home and garden magazine at the grocery store. Or they pick up a current events magazine, just as they did in 1787—and while the Constitution might be mentioned, it, like the soil, has been amended.

2,500 subscribers at the turn to the 19th century was huge for any magazine; by the turn to the 20th century we had our first million-seller magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal. Our population had grown 1500 percent. Even the fiber of our magazines changed—they were printed on re-purposed rags until the late 1800s, then moved to tree-based paper, run on enormous printing presses.

America was becoming an urban nation and growing a true middle class of consumers for information and goods—and by extension, a national marketplace for sellers and buyers. Right about 1893, publishers really began to cultivate advertisers as a primary source of revenue. For the next 35 years, magazines were the only effective way to reach that national audience, and even with the advent and growth of radio and later TV, magazines remained the leading ad market for 75 years.

Mass circulation magazines began to crumble from the advance of television and its increasing share of ad dollars about 1970—not coincidentally about the time color TVs became widespread. Life, Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post died, even with multi-millions of circulation. Actually, they failed due to their size, because the cost of fulfilling the readers’ demand eviscerated the declining advertising profits.

Publishers spent a decade rejiggering, and they moved to an increasing focus on specific topics for magazines—they went “vertical” rather than “horizontal.” King-size magazines still thrived, surrounded by a variety of mostly single-issue titles. But new, editorially broad-based, national magazines had become a losing game by the end of the century. There were still monster hits—Martha Stewart Living, Weekly Standard, O (for Oprah), for example. But the last great attempt at a general title—Talk, which was edited by Tina Brown, the hottest talent in the biz, and funded with millions of dollars—was gone in two years.

So, even in a death-spiral, magazines inform and reflect our present…as I look ahead to…

CV: Are magazines losing their significance in our webified American society? If not, why not?

DL: Well, it’s clear that printed national magazines are losing market share and money. Print titles that feature art and photography as a serious part of their content may be around for decades—think home and garden, lifestyle, and visual arts magazines, among others—but to survive, they’ll rely increasingly on higher prices for subscriptions and at newsstands, if the latter survive. And, of course, these magazines will have a site for general and specific purposes.

Web-wise, I think digital and magazines are a great fit–conceptually. But there are two areas that concern me as I walk the Web and talk to friends in the industry: Will Web ad and/or circulation revenues ever equal those of print, and if they don’t, what does that portend for content? As Woody Guthrie sang, it won’t be so hot “if you ain’t got the do re mi.”

Funds are what enable publications to become and exist as professional endeavors. The first magazine I worked for in the early 1970s had 4-5 people working in the research/fact-checking department. Even now, I say, “Crikey, that’s a lot.” But the ad department was bringing in a lot of dough. More dough=more fact-checkers=better magazine=more readers=more advertisers=more dough=redux. Assuming, of course, everyone is well-trained and working at a very high level of efficiency and productivity…professional, in other words.

Our increasingly polarized society will ensure an epochal number of polemics; for many, as Paul Simon sang, “”a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Those folks will be taken care of, and as one inflammatory blog dies for lack of funds, five will take its place. But, while these traditionally have been included in the family of magazines, I tend to think of them more as broadsides…or perhaps “narrowsides”…and they’ll be with us in whatever media you’ve got till we revert to amoeba-like creatures.

What concerns me is the birth and survival of magazines that simultaneously can publish, if not hold, two or more viewpoints on significant subjects, contributed by well-informed writers, and edited by folks who work with language and style all day, every day. And, of course, researched by fact-checkers. Those are the periodicals that will need to transcend medium, for their sake and ours. I’m sure there will be many success stories—already, I point to Slate as a model—but it’ll be an interesting ride until we reach what Clay Shirky called the “new experiments that do work.”

CV: If you had to pick one, what was the most important magazine published in the USA during the 20th century?

DL: Easy-peasy. Life in 1936.

National magazines and the middle class grew enormously through the first three decades of the 20th century, and telephones and radio broadcasts were available to urbanites by 1935. So we could read about and hear each other, but we couldn’t see what we’d become. Sure, there were pictures of celebrities and news-item people from many fields in magazines, but they didn’t portray the faces, the dirty hands, the glorious architecture, the beauty of the land, and the heart, soul and hope of America. Until Life.

Like the old bromide: It’s good for what ails you, and gives you what you haven’t got. The photography and the photographers were award-winning and world-class, the copy was chiseled-lean and evocative prose from master word smiths and editors, the support from Henry Luce’s millions was boundless. The magazine was worthy of its title.

CV: Excluding magazines in which you had direct or indirect involvement (e.g., Rolling Stone, Macworld/MacWeek, Mother Jones, Guitar Player and others), what are your five favorite magazines from the period covered in your book?

DL:  Working chronologically, I’d start with Alfred Kreymborg. His Wikipedia entry isn’t bad, but I’d add that I think of him as sprinkled pixie-dust that moved us from the turgid prose and poetry of the late 19th century to modern speech. He was a conduit between Ezra Pound and the earliest Little Magazines of the teens—Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and his own. He also played a backstage relational role in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show). His Glebe is special, but Others (1915) and Broom (1921) remind me that my collection is a responsibility—rare but important pieces of America on my shelves. Broom remains the most beautiful magazine I own, and the paper quality is to die for—thick and warm and buttery,

The Murderer’s Row of Time (1923), American Mercury (1924), and New Yorker (1925) is hard to beat, but I’m going with…Popular Aviation, hurried to press to coincide with Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight, which it called “The Feat of the Ages.” Production was so rushed that the editors admitted they didn’t know if the cover picture was from Belgium or France. But it was Lindbergh! The biggest hero in America, perhaps in the world. Which had just changed, the editor noted: “The toy of yesterday becomes the necessity of today. The miracle of today is the commonplace of tomorrow….Flying craft will dot the air. The air is free—no rails—no streets.” Gotta love it.

Esquire, the 1933 first modern magazine for men. The greatest read in the country, mixed with cartoons better than New Yorker, and the ads were state of the art–as was the art. Engaging and fine. The little man logo didn’t show up till a short time later, but it started a modest stampede to logo-creatures when it did.

Ebony (1945) was the first nationally successful magazine for African-Americans. Like Popular Aviation, Ebony reveals my fondness for “topical” magazines, i.e., those emblematic of the events of their times. The decade following its launch witnessed the de facto full enfranchisement of blacks, first by Harry Truman in the military, secondly by the Supreme Court in Brown -v- Board of Education. I also have Concentration, an advertising study of 1950 black urban markets that documents the rising tide of the middle-class and affluence in their communities.

And finally, one of my most recent acquisitions, Computers and Automation (1953). It began life as Roster of Organizations in the Field of Automatic Computing, became Computing Machinery Field, and was finally re-named in Volume 2 #2. Whatever its name, it’s considered the first computer magazine, and its birth date is relatively close to mine—the only one of these titles created after I was. Which seems a good place to leave this missive.

CV: Thank you, David.

To contact David Leishman about first issues e-mail him at: dleishman@firstissues.com

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