The Early History of Magazines

The first magazines appeared in seventeenth-century France in the form of bookseller catalogues and notices that book publishers inserted in newspapers. In fact, the word magazine derives from the French term magasin, meaning “storehouse.” The earliest magazines were “storehouses” of writing and reports taken mostly from newspapers. Today, the word magazine broadly refers to collections of articles, stories, and advertisements appearing in nondaily (such as weekly or monthly) periodicals that are published in the smaller tabloid style rather than the larger broadsheet newspaper style.

The First Magazines

COLONIAL MAGAZINES The first issue of Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine and Historical Chronicle appeared in January 1741. Although it lasted only six months, Franklin found success in other publications, like his annual Poor Richard’s Almanac, which started in 1732 and lasted twenty-five years.
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The first political magazine, called the Review, appeared in London in 1704. Edited by political activist and novelist Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), the Review was printed sporadically until 1713. Like the Nation, the National Review, and the Progressive in the United States today, early European magazines were channels for political commentary and argument. These periodicals looked like newspapers of the time, but they appeared less frequently and were oriented toward broad domestic and political commentary rather than recent news.


Regularly published magazines or pamphlets, such as the Tatler and the Spectator, also appeared in England around this time. They offered poetry, politics, and philosophy for London’s elite, and they served readerships of a few thousand. The first publication to use the term magazine was Gentleman’s Magazine, which appeared in London in 1731 and consisted of reprinted articles from newspapers, books, and political pamphlets. Later, the magazine began publishing original work by such writers as Defoe, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Pope.

Magazines in Colonial America

Without a substantial middle class, widespread literacy, or advanced printing technology, magazines developed slowly in colonial America. Like the partisan newspapers of the time, these magazines served politicians, the educated, and the merchant classes. Paid circulations were low—between one hundred and fifteen hundred copies. However, early magazines did serve the more widespread purpose of documenting a new nation coming to terms with issues of taxation, state versus federal power, Indian treaties, public education, and the end of colonialism. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Hancock all wrote for early magazines, and Paul Revere worked as a magazine illustrator for a time.

The first colonial magazines appeared in Philadelphia in 1741, about fifty years after the first newspapers. Andrew Bradford started it all with American Magazine, or A Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies. Three days later, Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine and Historical Chronicle appeared. Bradford’s magazine lasted only three monthly issues, due to circulation and postal obstacles that Franklin, who had replaced Bradford as Philadelphia’s postmaster, put in its way. For instance, Franklin mailed his magazine without paying the high postal rates that he subsequently charged others. Franklin’s magazine primarily duplicated what was already available in local papers. After six months it, too, stopped publication.


Magazines in the Age of Specialization
The Advertising Archives (top); Margaret Bourke-White/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images (bottom); The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images (top); The Advertising Archives (bottom)

Nonetheless, following the Philadelphia experiments, magazines began to emerge in the other colonies, beginning in Boston in the 1740s. The most successful magazines simply reprinted articles from leading London periodicals, keeping readers abreast of European events. These magazines included New York’s Independent Reflector and the Pennsylvania Magazine, edited by activist Thomas Paine, which helped rally the colonies against British rule. By 1776, about a hundred colonial magazines had appeared and disappeared. Although historians consider them dull and uninspired for the most part, these magazines helped launch a new medium that caught on after the American Revolution.

U.S. Magazines in the Nineteenth Century

After the revolution, the growth of the magazine industry in the newly independent United States remained slow. Delivery costs remained high, and some postal carriers refused to carry magazines because of their weight. Only twelve magazines operated in 1800. By 1825, about a hundred magazines existed, although about another five hundred had failed between 1800 and 1825. Nevertheless, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, most communities had their own weekly magazines. These magazines featured essays on local issues, government activities, and political intrigue, as well as material reprinted from other sources. They sold some advertising but were usually in precarious financial straits because of their small circulations.

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS first became popular in the fashion sections of women’s magazines in the mid-nineteenth century. The color for this fashion image from Godey’s Lady’s Book was added to the illustration by hand.
Northwind Picture Archives

As the nineteenth century progressed, the idea of specialized magazines devoted to certain categories of readers developed. Many early magazines were overtly religious and boasted the largest readerships of the day. The Methodist Christian Journal and Advocate, for example, claimed twenty-five thousand subscribers by 1826. Literary magazines also emerged at this time. The North American Review, for instance, established the work of important writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. In addition to religious and literary magazines, specialty magazines that addressed various professions, lifestyles, and topics also appeared, including the American Farmer, the American Journal of Education, the American Law Journal, Medical Repository, and the American Journal of Science. Such specialization spawned the modern trend of reaching readers who share a profession, a set of beliefs, cultural tastes, or a social identity.


The nineteenth century also saw the birth of the first general-interest magazine aimed at a national audience. In 1821, two young Philadelphia printers, Charles Alexander and Samuel Coate Atkinson, launched the Saturday Evening Post, which became the longest-running magazine in U.S. history. Like most magazines of the day, the early Post included a few original essays but “borrowed” many pieces from other sources. Eventually, however, the Post grew to incorporate news, poetry, essays, play reviews, and more. The Post published the writings of such prominent popular authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Although the Post was a general-interest magazine, it also was the first major magazine to appeal directly to women, via its “Lady’s Friend” column, which addressed women’s issues.

National, Women’s, and Illustrated Magazines

With increases in literacy and public education, the development of faster printing technologies, and improvements in mail delivery (due to rail transportation), a market was created for more national magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. Whereas in 1825 one hundred magazines struggled for survival, by 1850 nearly six hundred magazines were being published regularly. (Thousands of others lasted less than a year.) Significant national magazines of the era included Graham’s Magazine (1840–1858), one of the most influential and entertaining magazines in the country; Knickerbocker (1833–1864), which published essays and literary works by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (preceding such national cultural magazines as the New Yorker and Harper’s); the Nation (1865–present), which pioneered the national political magazine format; and Youth’s Companion (1826–1929), one of the first successful national magazines for younger readers.

Besides the move to national circulation, other important developments in the magazine industry were under way. In 1828, Sarah Josepha Hale started the first magazine directed exclusively to a female audience: the Ladies’ Magazine. In addition to carrying general-interest articles, the magazine advocated for women’s education, work, and property rights. After nine years and marginal success, Hale merged her magazine with its main rival, Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830–1898), which she edited for the next forty years. By 1850, Godey’s, known for its colorful fashion illustrations in addition to its advocacy, achieved a circulation of 40,000 copies—at the time, the biggest distribution ever for a U.S. magazine. By 1860, circulation swelled to 150,000. Hale’s magazine played a central role in educating working- and middle-class women, who were denied access to higher education throughout the nineteenth century.

The other major development in magazine publishing during the mid-nineteenth century was the arrival of illustration. Like the first newspapers, early magazines were totally dependent on the printed word. By the mid-1850s, drawings, engravings, woodcuts, and other forms of illustration had become a major feature of magazines. During this time, Godey’s Lady’s Book employed up to 150 women to color-tint its magazine illustrations and stencil drawings by hand. Meanwhile, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, founded in 1850, offered extensive woodcut illustrations with each issue. During the Civil War, many readers relied on Harper’s for its elaborate battlefield sketches. Publications like Harper’s married visual language to the printed word, helping transform magazines into a mass medium. Bringing photographs into magazines took a bit longer. Mathew Brady and his colleagues, whose thirty-five hundred photos documented the Civil War, helped popularize photography by the 1860s. But it was not until the 1890s that magazines and newspapers possessed the technology to reproduce photos in print media.


CIVIL WAR PHOTOGRAPHY Famed portrait photographer Mathew Brady commissioned many photographers to help him document the Civil War. (Although all the resulting photos were credited “Photograph by Brady,” he did not take them all.) This effort allowed people at home to see and understand the true carnage of the war. Photo critics now acknowledge that some of Brady’s photos were posed or reenactments.
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