The History of Magazines


Invention of Magazines

According to British philosopher Francis Bacon, the printing press was one of three inventions that “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Prior to the invention of the printing press, books had to be painstakingly copied by hand. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, he created a way for knowledge to be mass-produced for the first time in human history. Within a century of its advent, the printing press was being used to print pamphlets, almanacs and newsletters in addition to Bibles and religious materials.

In 1663, German theologian and poet Johann Rist created a periodical called Erbauliche Monaths-Unterredungen (“Edifying Monthly Discussions”). Widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of a modern magazine, the gazette lasted for five years and spanned a myriad of similar journals in England, France and Italy. Cultured young intellectuals readily devoured the periodicals, which summarized new books and welcomed scholarly articles.

In 1672, the first “periodical of amusement” was published. Le Mercure Galant (later called Mercure de France), was created by French writer and playwright Jean Donneau de Vizé. The publication contained news, songs, short verses and gossip. Despite being disparaged by other writers of the day for its amusing rather than intellectual content, the periodical became very popular in France.

The 1700s ushered in a time of increased literacy and intellectual prowess, especially among women. Society’s hunger for knowledge enabled magazines to become a popular cultural staple. English printers produced three essay periodicals that set the stage for modern magazines: Daniel Defoe’s The Review (published 1704-13); Sir Richard Steele’s The Tatler (published 1709-11); and Addison and Steele’s The Spectator (published 1711-12). Since the periodicals were published several times a week, they resembled our modern newspapers. However, their content was more similar to that of modern magazines. The Review published opinionated essays about national and international events. The Tatler and The Spectator sought to “enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality.” These two publications influenced the manners and thoughts of the day. These periodicals represented a middle ground between the in-depth research found in books and the quick recaps found in newspapers. They set the stage for our concept of the modern magazine.

In 1731, an Englishman named Edward Cave published a periodical called The Gentleman’s Magazine. He invented the word “magazine” from the Arabic word makhazin, which meant storehouse. Cave’s goal was to create a magazine that the general public would be interested in. His publication contained everything from essays and poems to stories and political musings. Cave achieved two noteworthy accomplishments: he coined the term “magazine,” and he was the first publisher to successfully fashion a wide-ranging publication.

In 1842, British newsagent Herbert Ingram created the first illustrated magazine. After realizing that colorful sketches and illustrations contributed to magazine sales, Ingram began publishing The Illustrated London News. The weekly news and arts periodical was filled with dozens of woodcut designs. The Illustrated London News also earned the distinction of being the first magazine to incorporate photos.


History of Magazines in America

The first American magazines were published in 1741. Philadelphia printers Andrew Bradford and Benjamin Franklin—who owned rivaling newspapers—both raced to publish the first American magazine. Bradford ultimately claimed the honor by publishing American Magazine first. Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine was published three days later. Neither magazine met with much success: Bradford’s publication folded after three months, and Franklin’s lasted only six months.

Despite these short-lived ventures, magazines became incredibly popular in America. By the end of the 18th century, there were more than 100 magazines in the United States. Some of the most influential early American magazines were the Pennsylvania Magazine, which was edited by Thomas Paine, and the Massachusetts Magazine.

Early periodicals were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. As a result, early publications were geared toward the most learned, cultured and sophisticated individuals of the day. By the 1830s, however, less expensive magazines aimed at the general public began to emerge. Rather than maintaining the intellectual air of their predecessors, these magazines focused on amusement and entertainment.


History of Special-Interest Magazines

America’s magazine market increased exponentially in the late 1800s, in large part due to compulsory education and increased literacy. As a result, magazines became more specialized. Periodicals were created specifically for lawyers, artists, musicians and other professionals.

Literary review magazines became popular during the 1800s. Early American literary publications included the Philadelphia Literary Magazine (1803-08) and the Monthly Anthology (1803-11). The magazines showcased essays and fiction pieces written by the best writers of the day. In 1857, The Atlantic was published in Boston. The periodical featured the work of some of America’s greatest writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1895, the American magazine The Bookman began listing popular books of the day. This idea ultimately launched the modern bestseller list.

One of the first specialized publications in America was the American Journal of Science (founded in 1818). The magazine, which still exists today, focused on geology and natural sciences. In 1845, inventor Rufus Porter created Scientific American to encourage fellow inventors. The publication explored new inventions, ideas and patents. In the 1900s, magazines began to focus on aspects such as traveling, parenting or sewing.


History of Men’s & Women’s Magazines

In 1693, London publisher John Dunton printed a weekly periodical called Ladies’ Mercury. The one-page publication sought to answer “all the most nice and curious questions concerning love, marriage, behaviour, dress and humour of the female sex.” The periodical was published for only four weeks.

In 1770, London bookseller John Coote teamed up with publisher John Wheble to create a longer-lasting women’s publication, The Lady’s Magazine. The monthly British fashion magazine was filled with embroidery patterns, sheet music, literary pieces and fashion notes.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia in 1830, was one of the first women’s magazines in America. Each issue contained poems, essays and artwork made by famous writers and artists of the day. In 1883, the world of women’s magazines was revolutionized when Cyrus Curtis created Ladies’ Home Journal. Edited by his wife Lousia Knapp Curtis, the magazine veered away from the sentimentality of earlier women’s magazines in favor of helpful, hands-on homemaking advice. Each issue contained recipes, cleaning tips and stories. By 1898, Ladies’ Home Journal became the first American magazine to reach 1 million subscribers.

In 1933, the first men’s magazine was published in America. Created to be “all things to all men,” Esquire covered fashion, music and culture. The magazine is still popular today.

History of Teen Magazines

In 1944, Seventeen magazine was founded. The publication was the first American magazine created specifically for adolescents. The magazine’s original mission was to encourage teenage girls to become well-rounded human beings. Initially, the magazine contained articles about work, service, citizenship, beauty and fashion. However, the magazine soon began to focus on beauty and fashion. Other magazines such Teen Vogue followed suit. These magazines helped solidify and shape the newly minted concept of a teenager.


History of Magazine Distribution

Early magazines were often bought at newsstands. Gradually, however, most companies began distributing their magazines by subscription. A subscription guaranteed that the subscriber would receive each new issue of the publication.

Today, people can buy magazines on a per-issue basis or by subscription. Some magazines are given away for free, such as in-flight airline magazines. Many modern magazines come with a digital component that qualifies them for additional online content.


History of Today’s Popular Magazines

In 1888, National Geographic Magazine was founded. The publication was filled with scientific content and colorful photos. Some of the magazine’s early revenue was used to fund scientific expeditions and endeavors. Today, the magazine is a highly respected publication that covers science, geology and world events.

In 1922, William Roy DeWitt Wallace founded Reader’s Digest. The magazine contained articles about American culture, humorous bits, cartoons and heartwarming stories. Reader’s Digest was the best-selling magazine in America for several years. Today, the beloved publication is filled with health tips, recipes, inspiring true stories and funny blurbs.

Better Homes and Gardens, now the fifth largest magazine in America, was founded in 1923. The magazine was filled with decorating tips, entertaining ideas and gardening suggestions. Today, Better Homes and Gardens is beloved for its recipes and design ideas.

America’s first weekly news magazine was founded in 1923. The publication covered the top national and international stories. Today, TIME magazine is a leading source for factual, in-depth news articles.

Sports Illustrated was first published in 1954. Initially, Sports Illustrated covered activities geared towards wealthy Americans, such as boating and playing polo. In the 1960s, journalist Andre Laguerre became the assistant managing editor of the fledging publication. Thanks to his leadership, the magazine began focusing on all major sports. Today, Sports Illustrated is famous for its sharp sports coverage.

Today, there are thousands of magazines worldwide. Magazines inspire, inform, educate and entertain audiences across the globe. Nearly 600 years after the advent of the printing press, magazines continue to change the nature of things throughout the world.



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