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The Montréal Review, April 2011


If you ask a Spaniard, a German or a Russian, to name one or two popular magazines, published in neighbouring Italy or France, it is possible that he or she would find this question difficult to answer. But if you ask the same person to give you the names of at least two American magazines, you would find out that the person would be able to name almost immediately more than two publications based most likely in New York. 1 This simple research of public knowledge could be very indicative of the level of influence that the New York publishing industry has achieved during the last two centuries and could lead us to the logical question, "Why America? Why New York?"

Of course, the immediate answer is that the last century was the "American Century" as Henry Luce, one of the most prominent magazine editors in America, called it, 2 and it was natural the American biggest metropolis to lead the competition for the hearts and minds of world readers. But this answer is too simple. When I started to research the history of New York daily press and periodicals, I was surprised to discover that there was no a comprehensive analysis on the subject, at least an analysis that we can define as "satisfactory". So my decision to write this essay was provoked by the wish to offer a few bold hatches on the subject, but also quite insufficient for understanding the secrets of success of New York's press and periodicals.


In the 1820s, New York already had and was producing a number of memorable publications - the established in 1801 New York Post, which is still functioning as part of Rupert Murdoch's empire; the cultural weekly New York Mirror, founded by George Pope Morris and Samuel Woodworth in 1823; the Jacksonian New York Enquirer that started in 1826 and is still running as the National Enquirer; and one African-American publication - the Freedom's Journal.

A passing look at the history and content of these publications shows that they were reflections of the spirit of their time and place. The Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of America and first U.S. Secretary of Treasury. It was a broadsheet, a tribune for the Hamilton's Federalist Party, and was meant to mould the political views of Americans against the rising influence of Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison.

The weekly Mirror did not have political ambitions. It was a publication dedicated to the emerging in the city culture and arts. The first page of Mirror's first issue was proudly stating "The New-York Mirror and the Ladies Gazette; being a repository of miscellaneous literary productions in prose and verse." The newspaper, like most American periodicals from this century, had noble goals and ambitions - to develop and cultivate the taste of its readers. In the opening editorial on the front page of the first issue, Samuel Woodworth informed the readers, "As this publication is intended to combine instruction with amusement, its character will necessarily be miscellaneous, embracing a great variety of matters and subjects. A devotion, however, to the great interest of morality, is the governing principle which shall characterize it in every stage of its existence." 3 After these words, Woodworth listed the subjects that the Mirror would cover: "original, moral tales"; reviews; "original" essays on literature, morals, history, voyages and the fine arts; "female characters" - manners, beauty, dress; biographies; problems in arts and sciences; "dramas" or reviews of the New York's "stage"; "the toilet" - descriptions of the newest fashions, foreign or domestic. The weekly would also serve as a "forum" for major social debates and would offer poetry and amusement in the form of anecdotes.

The Mirror is a document of the time; its pages reflected the emerging culture of the city, it showed the typical for the epoch mixture of protestant spiritualism, moral proselytism, curiosity and worldly temptations. It had great ambitions and, in difference with the modern periodicals, did not target particular theme or audience. Its scope was all-embracing, looking to cover every topic of interest. The Mirror marked the beginning of a long tradition in the history of American periodical publishing, where the works of first class writers and thinkers (in Mirror's case, the most prominent contributor was Edgar Alan Po) would mingle with exotic cocktail receipts, everyday tips for housewives, and gossip. The Mirror ceased its existence twenty years later, in 1842 (it was revived again in 1844 under the name The Evening Mirror), but during the nineteen century its editorial template was successfully copied and polished by other publications, including the most notable, Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

Harper's Magazine started in June 1850. It is unlikely that the magazine's founders, four entrepreneurs raised in a farm in Brooklyn - the brothers James, John, Joseph and Fletcher Harper - knew that they were conceiving one of the best periodicals of all times, a magazine that will survive all competitors and will be found at the newsstands more than 160 years after the issuing of its first volume. Although its size, publishing frequency, and design were different, Harper's editorial policy was similar to the Mirror's one. Indeed, Mirror's model will radically change only in the 1920s with the creation of Time Magazine. The magazines change their content, frequency and design with the changes in the culture and tastes of the readers. They are the best indicators of the underlying social tendencies; great example for this was the creation and success of Hefner's Playboy Magazine that uncovered the emerging sexual revolution in American society, fifteen years before its actual happening. The Playboy also revealed the shift from an elitist, refined and traditional East Coast cultural establishment to the new centers of mass entertainment, located in the West Coast.

In 1850, the publishers of Harper's Magazine promised the same that Mirror's editors did twenty-five years earlier. Yet there was an important change in the attitude - their confidence. Harper brothers were much more boisterous and optimistic in their publishing ambitions than Woodworth and Morris were, and for good reason. New York was double in size, its streets loud and busy, its economy booming. The first issue of their magazine was sold the amazing 50 000 copies.

On the magazine's first page, in June 1850, the Harper & Brothers wrote that they would not spare "neither labour, nor expense in any department of the work... to give the Magazine a popular circulation, unequalled by that of any similar periodical ever published in the world." 4 This was an unusually ambitious goal. The fact that in 1850 New York publishers dared to dream for a periodical with the biggest circulation in the world shows that the 1850s were another turning point in the history of city's cultural influence and development. 5 Since then the New York position as a leader in publishing industry has been unchallenged as today's king of newspapers is not the "content", but Ochs-Schulzberger's New York Times.

The secret of Harper brothers' success was in their ambition to "seek, in every article, to combine entertainment with instruction, and to enforce, through channels which attract rather than repel attention and favour, the best and most important lessons of morality and of practical life." 6 In this short sentence, we see the genome of two hundred years magazine publishing in America. A genome that was not decoded and successfully copied by any other publishing industry in the world. Today, we may criticize American mass media and the American "export" of mass culture, but we should not forget that the power and the source of this culture was in the successful combination of democratism (as opposed to elitism), entertainment, pragmatism, and moral, presented best in the American free press. These features of American cultural identity were reflection of the ideals of American nation and of American publishers, especially those based in the cosmopolitan environment of New York City.

The New York newspaper industry was first in many things. The first African-American abolitionist newspaper was created in New York in 1820s. In 1827, the New Yorkers Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm published the first issue of the Freedom's Journal. In their opening editorial on March 16th, they declared, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly." 7 The editorial policy of this first Black abolitionist publication was to combine international, national and regional information with articles denouncing slavery, condemning lynching, social prejudices and racial injustices. It is not a co-incidence that the paper appeared in New York. The city's cosmopolitan character led naturally to formation of strong liberal and progressive societies. In the next decade, New York would acquire a pivotal role in abolition movement - the New York Anti-Slavery Society would be founded in 1833, and a year later, The American Anti-Slavery Society, another influential organization, would be created. 8 The Freedom's Journal ceased publishing in 1829, but its example was followed by other, even stronger, Afro-American voices: the Colored America (1836-1842), the New York Globe (created in 1880, renamed as The Freeman in 1884 and eventually published as the New York Age between 1887 and 1960) and The New York Amsterdam News (1909 - ).

Other communities were also active in publishing their own newspapers and periodicals. Perhaps the most prominent and influential immigrant publication was the Yiddish written Forward. The Forward was created as a daily newspaper in 1897 by a group of fifty Yiddish-speaking socialists, led by Abraham Cahan, a Lithuanian émigré and socialist who wanted through education to transform the American capitalist society. 9 The Forward was one of the first socialist dailies in the country (as the New Republic was the first socialist periodical, created, again, in New York in 1919.) The Forward supported the emerging trade unions and preached moderate democratic socialism, it became "the most important voice of the American Jewish immigrant" and in the early 1930s had a national daily circulation of 275 000 copies. The newspaper was home of a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals, writers and artists, including the Nobel Prize Laureates Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. 10 Before Forward being created, New York had another notable leftist Jewish publication, the Freie Arbeiter Stimme - a newspaper founded in 1890 by the anarchist and social activist Saul Yanovsky. "The anarchic Freie Arbeiter Stimme was one of the best of radical periodicals; its cultural standards were high", Jacob Marcus noted in his history of United States Jewry. 11

The New York publishers were not only representatives of the cultural avant-garde of America, progressive social activists and community leaders, for long time they were also the biggest entertainers in the country. The first New York periodical devoted entirely to entertainment was the New York Clipper. The weekly was created in 1853 by Frank Queen and Harrison Trent, and was intended as sports weekly, but soon it started to cover New York's dance and music scene, city's theatres and circuses. 12 Even in entertainment, the New York publishers and editors stayed socially engaged. Queen, for example, encouraged all sports and especially prizefighting and other working class games. 13 He was a "pure working class" man who succeeded to make the Clipper "the sporting oracle of the 1860s and 1870s". 14 "The Everest of sports reporting in the late nineteenth century developed in New York in "Big Three," all weeklies: the Spirit of the Times, the New York Clipper, and the National Police Gazette," 15 the historian Michael T. Isenberg wrote in John Sullivan and His America, a book about the legendary nineteenth century boxer.

The new Golden Age of New York newspaper and magazine industry began in the 1920s with the creation of two American icons: Time Magazine and The New Yorker. 16 Both magazines survived the Great Depression; both became cultural landmarks of New York and America. Time was the first news magazine, "an artefact of the Age of efficiency," as Jill Lepore called it in his critique "Untimely". 17 The magazine was founded in1923 by China born and Yale educated Henry Luce. Luce preserved the traditional goal of the nineteenth century publishers, promising that the magazine will "appeal to every man and woman in America," but revolutionized the magazine structure and content with the creation of now "traditional" categories such as "National Affairs", "Foreign Affairs", "The Arts", and "Sport". His editorial policy was the most innovative for the time, "We [Hadden 18 and Luce] asked ourselves, why with good newspapers and magazines, people are not so well informed? The idea, then, was to see if we could organize the news, compartmentalizing it with some sense of continuality," Luce said. "The one great thing was simplification. Simplification by organization... simplification by condensation... And simplification by not being ashamed to say, "Baby Ruth is a great ballplayer." 20 Luce and Hadden explained in the magazine's prospectus, "TIME is interested - not in how much it includes between its covers - but in how much it gets off its pages into the minds of its readers." 21

The beginnings of New York newspapers and magazines, their influence, character and relation with the American society and culture is an inexhaustible theme, it cannot be covered in a few pages. In this short essay, I touched only a few aspects of it, and left unmentioned great publications as the New York Times (founded in 1951 by the first managing editor of Harper's Magazine Henry J. Raymond), Wall Street Journal (1889), the Daily Graphic (1873-1889), and the New York Herald Tribune (1835-1966). But even this brief look at the history of New York publications can reveal the dynamic and the importance of these forums of public opinion, culture dissemination, and debate. I will finish with the obvious conclusion that even still untold the early history of New York press and periodicals will one day serve as one of the best measures, one of the most striking evidences for the greatness of New York city and its people.


1 Nearly everyone knows Time Magazine, New York Times, Newsweek, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Reader's Digest, outlets all based in New York. But few are acquaint of good publications such as German Stern Magazine and Focus, or the Italian Panorama, or the French Paris Match.

2 Henry R. Luce, The American Century (Life Magazine, Feb. 14, 1941), pp.61-65

3 The New York Mirror, (August 2, 1823), p.1

4 Miscellaneous Front Pages  [pp. i-viii] (Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 0001 Issue 1, June 1850)

5 In 1889, a thin book, published by S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, entitled "The Making of a Great Magazine ", offered a collection of opinions about the influence of Harper's Magazine . There we can find the public consciousness about how important this magazine was for the formation of the American culture and its standards. In the late 1880s, the N.Y. Journal of Commerce wrote, "Harper's Magazine ranks first in circulation. Its history is a large part of the literary history of the nineteenth century America." The Boston Beacon said: "Harper's has never been sensational, never dull, never a mere partisan, never one-sided, never stationary." The New Orleans Picayune : "Harper's Magazine is the representative of all that is best in American literature and culture." (" The Making of a Great Magazine ", S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889, p.65)

6 Miscellaneous Front Pages  [pp. i-viii] (Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 0001 Issue 1, June 1850). Lewis H. Lapham, the long-time editor of Harper's wrote in "Hazards of New Fortune. Harper's Magazine, then and now" (Harper's Magazine, June, 2000): " The curtain was going up on a brave new world, but where did one look first, and what was the perspective that offered the clearest view? Harper & Brothers answered the question with a "compendium" for those of their customers who didn't have time to read through "scores and hundreds of magazines and journals, intermingled with much that is of merely local and transient interest, and are thus hopelessly excluded from the knowledge and the reach of readers at large."

7 See Clarence Taylor "Civil Rights since 1787" (New York University Press, 2000) p. 41

8 Joanne Reitano, The Restless City: A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present (Routledge, 2010) pp. 45-49

9 "Cahan ran his empire with an iron hand which was not gloved in velvet," writes Jacob Rader Marcus in " United States Jewry, 1876-1985 " (Wayne State University, 1993, p.420) "He was a good hater not apt to forgive his enemies. Emotionally he was a force for good in the American Jewish immigrant community. Seling Perlman, the economist, called him the greatest mass educator in American Jewish history."

10 Sara E. Karesh and Mitchell M. Hurvitz, Encyclopaedia of Judaism (Infobase Publishing, 2006) p. 250. See also Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wanders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1930 (New York, Hill and Wang, 1994).

11 Jacob Rader Marcus, "United States Jewry, 1876-1985" (Wayne State University, 1993) p. 418

12 In 1924 the Clipper was absorbed by the Variety Magazine, another New York icon.

13 See Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.)

14 Michael T. Isenberg, John Sullivan and His America (University of Illinois Press, 1994) p. 92. The paper's popularity was symbolized by the erection of the notorious Clipper building in 1869.

15 Ibid.

16 In their first years both magazines shared one building, 25 W. 45 th Street in Manhattan.

17 Jill Lepore, Untimely. What was at stake in the spat between Henry Luce and Harold Ross (The New Yorker, April 19, 2010), p.111

18 Briton Hadden was the co-founder of Time Magazine, who died prematurely in 1928.

19 Life Magazine (March 10, 1967), p.38. This is issue of Life was devoted to Henry Luce, who died the same year.

20 See "A Letter From The Publisher" (Time Magazine, Jan.2, 1950)



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