Printers, Publishers and the Post
Two magazines were published in Philadelphia in 1741, marking the first time magazines were published in the colonies, one of them by future postmaster General Benjamin Franklin and ran for six whole issues before folding. Later publishers had better luck with many early periodicals numbering hundreds of readers whose subscriptions were the sole source of revenue for the publications. Many of these early publications relied on material copied from European magazines. Some included the serialized novel as a draw for subscribers, publishing novels from Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper over several issues.
From the earliest days of the Republic, magazine publishers have relied heavily – indeed, overwhelmingly – on the postal system as the most accessible, dependable, and affordable means of delivering their publications to their readers. Today, about 90 percent of magazines are printed, and about 90 percent are delivered through the postal system.
Magazines Find Their Footing
Many magazines continue to have long lives. More than 180 have been around for more than 50 years, sixty-seven for more than 100 years. Lady’s Magazine, which appeared in 1792, was one of the first to target specific groups. Women’s magazines continued to flourish – the most notable of which was Godey’s Lady’s Book, a monthly that reached a circulation of 150,000 copies in the 1850’s. Harper’s Weekly, started in 1857, was among the growing popular magazines that focused on political topics and public affairs. Another was The National Era, which serialized Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from 1851-1852. Magazines were where prominent poets, philosophers, and thought leaders gained attention.
Publishers took advantage of advancements in printing technology to help create better looking magazines that could be produced more quickly and subscribers took notice. In 1825 fewer than 100 magazines were published in the U.S. Only twenty-five years later that number had grown to 600.1 Not all magazines had staying power. Many disappeared only a few issues after they appeared.
Postal policy on magazines wavered through the early 19th century as postal officials grappled with the thorny question of whether magazine “periodicals” should be allowed to use the same preferred rates as newspaper “periodicals. A major step for magazines came in the Mail Classification Act of 1879, which articulated in federal law a public policy rationale for allowing qualified publications to be mailed at preferential rates of postage, and prescribed strict standards of qualifications for the privilege. Although there have been occasional adjustments over the years, the basic framework established by the 1879 Act remains in effect today. The reliable access to postal distribution at preferred rates combined with the growing nation and technological developments were significant factors in the growth of magazine publications through the 20th century.
Magazines Developed a Unique Advertising Model
The most important development in the history of magazines was the transfer of the bulk of the revenue stream from subscribers to advertisers. Manufacturers, retailers, and service providers in this increasingly competitive environment looked for ways to advertise their goods and services locally, regionally, and – importantly for magazines – nationally. A new type of publication emerged from this combination of factors – the mass-circulation of consumer interest magazines, rich in both editorial content and advertising content. (Illustrative examples were The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal.) Since many magazines had specialized readership, and formed a community of common interests, advertising could be more targeted to the interests of the subscriber base. As technology increased the flexibility and sophistication of printing, advertising was becoming an art form, with new kinds of paper and more freedom to lay out and design content. High-end magazines lavishly display glamorous models and gorgeous settings to catch reader attention and keep them engaged.
Magazines Popularized Photography
Magazine publishing flourished during the 20th century, while continuing to evolve and innovate. Early in the century, the newsweekly appeared on the scene, with publications such as Time (1923), Newsweek (1933), and U.S. News and World Report (1933) gaining immense popularity (and influence).
Great photographs became one of the characteristics of successful magazines. Photographs were originally used to illustrate a story, as a break from text. Some early publications used photographs as an album, with pictures supporting a specific theme. Magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and others continued to disseminate the works of the finest writers and photographers of the age. Mid-century saw the peak of popularity for mass circulation, general interest magazines such as Look and Life, whose photographers provided a window on the world for readers during the pre-television and early-television era.
As important in the new photojournalism style was the layout and writing. Captions helped tell the story along with the photos, guiding the reader through the illustrations. The written story was kept to a minimum, and the one, dominant, theme-setting photo would be published larger, while others would help reinforce this theme. Many magazines, such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian, continue to use variations of this model.
Not all magazines are targeted to consumers. There is also a vigorous market for business to business publications which focus on specific industry segments (trade press). While many of these magazines now have an online edition, they have found that most of their readers prefer print or a combination of print and digital options.
A final industry segment consists of technical, academic, and professional journals. These are very narrowly focused and often are exclude most advertising, depending upon subscriptions and donations for their revenue.
1) Tebbel, John. The American Magazine: A Compact History. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969, p. 48.