More than 6 billion periodicals (newspapers, magazines, printed material) annually were delivered through the mail. 5 billion were sent to households.
From Newspapers to Magazines
Newspapers and magazines bring us information and entertainment. We read and re-read some of these publications, holding onto issues for years after they were published (just ask anyone who has tried to clear out a partner’s National Geographic collection). Magazines, and to a lesser extent, newspapers, connect people across the nation, and the world by topic. While magazines are a product of the 19th century, they hit their stride in the 20th century with the addition of countless magazines based on a specific interest. Interested in the Civil War? Cats or Dogs? Knitting or Skiing? There is a magazine for that and hundreds more. Long before the appearance of the Internet, magazines served as the forum for like-minded people to share and celebrate their particular enthusiasms.
Magazine publishers continue to pioneer ways to catch and keep readers’ interest with new designs, high quality multicolor photographs, and dynamic and mesmerizing text. Many have experimented with expanding the reading experience beyond the physical page by embedding reader-activated digital applications for additional features or information through mobile devices. Publishers link print magazines to their online versions. Magazines continue to entice and enthrall in the digital age. In 2014, hundreds of new print magazines were launched – many more than ended.
The Founding Fathers recognized the importance the postal system would play in the success of the government they worked so hard to establish. A representative government could not exist without the informed participation of the populace and the Post Office was critical to transporting information in the form of newspapers across the nation. Thomas Jefferson famously noted that “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." Without a successful postal system, the populations of whole towns and territories would be without “those papers.” While James Madison disagreed with Jefferson on the implementation of other aspects of the Post Office, he agreed that it was critical to the nation’s success. Moving newspapers cheaply and easily through the mail he believed would provide citizens “with the means to monitor its elected representatives,” thus checking any potential abuse of power.
Filling the Mailbag
Well into the early 19th century the mail sacks and pouches moving from town to town were mostly carrying newspapers. Letter rates were still far too expensive for most people to pay, while newspapers were being carried for only a few cents at most, and sometimes for free! In their zeal to ensure that every American was kept up to date with the latest news, Congress kept newspaper rates exceptionally low. When the Post Office Act was passed in 1792, newspapers were 95% of the weight of mail moved by the Post Office, but accounted for less than 15% of the department’s revenue. Encouraged by the government’s support of the industry, newspaper publishers grew. Prior to 1792 there was less than one newspaper for every five Americans. Forty years later there were almost three papers printed and transported per each American.
Entertainment in the Mail
While newspapers continued to ensure that Americans were the most informed citizens in the world, magazines were also spreading in popularity, bringing entertainment with them. In 1850 there were 600 different magazine titles in the United States, up from fewer than 100 titles only 25 years before. The second half of the 19th century that saw an explosion in magazines, with 5,000 different titles available in the U.S. by 1900. Few of these magazines lasted more than few years, let alone decades. But those that did became integral parts of our daily lives. A magazine that many associate with the early 20th century, the Saturday Evening Post, began in 1821. The entertainment value of magazines broadened in the mid-19th century with titles such as Godey’s Lady’s Book (which could provide information on the latest European fashions to pioneer women on the frontier), and The Christian Ladies Magazine.
But magazines continued to have a serious side as well. Political commentaries could be found in numerous magazines, including the abolitionist magazines of America’s antebellum period. In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) took their campaign to a new level with what could be called the first use of a direct mail campaign. The Society mailed a number of anti-slavery newspapers, magazines and other printed materials to religious and civic leaders in the south whose names had been selected from newspapers, city directories, and other published lists. The reception for these unordered and mostly unwelcomed publications was swift, widespread, and hostile. Another notable piece of abolitionist magazine history was The National Era, which became known internationally for its serialization of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s tale of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1851-1852). By the end of the tale the magazine’s subscriber list had grown from 15,000 to 19,000.
During the second half of the 19th century magazines brought entertainment into the homes of Americans across the country. By then compulsory education and the creation of second-class mail rates helped create millions of more readers while technological advances in printing technology turned out more magazines even faster. Among the biggest changes were the additions of advertisements for products (as opposed to classified-type advertisements) in more magazines. The “halftone” photographic process made magazine photography more affordable (and thus more popular) by allowing images to be printed at the same time as the type. And it wasn’t only the magazines that flew through the mail. Americans mailed letters to the magazines, turning the “Letters to the editor” column into a “must have” feature.
These trends continued into the early 20th century as publishers continued to produce magazines for both wide range and narrow-focused audiences. As publishers looked to cut costs while expanding their reach, advertising became more important. Ads allowed publishers to sell magazines at lower rates, thus making them more appealing to more people. And as circulation rates increased, more advertisers sought space in those magazines. Regardless of type, magazines continued to grow in popularity especially as technological advances brought exciting new changes such as color photography. A leader in exploiting the connection between photography and the public was Henry Luce, whose Life magazine launched in 1936 with large sized images from around the world and helped popularize the idea of photojournalism.
Connecting Special Worlds
Something we take for granted from the Internet – the ability to connect with people of shared interests – was already a part of everyday life in the world of magazines. Decade after decade magazines have continued to find new areas of specialty for focus. From knitting or stringing beads to snowboarding or flying kites, people have been able to find a magazine that embraces their interest. There are not just magazines for dog lovers and cat lovers, but magazines for dozens of types of dogs and cats. If your interest is cooking, you can choose from dozens of different styles. Historian, scientist, poet or race car enthusiast, there are magazines upon magazines for that. If you are interested in something there is no excuse for not subscribing to a magazine that celebrates it.