Magazine Publishing History
A Brief History of Magazine Publishing
Articles had been published in periodical format in England since the turn of the eighteenth century. In 1731, Edward Cave published the first issue of The Gentleman's Magazine, the first periodical to feature a mix of informative and entertaining genres, and the first to call itself a "magazine."
Ten years later, the first magazines in the American colonies appeared, following the British formats, published by Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Bradford. Franklin came up with the idea first, but Bradford beat him to press by three days. Franklin's General Magazine lasted longer, primarily because he exploited his role as Postmaster General for the colonies.
England did not have a general post office until 1657. In 1691, Thomas Neale was granted unique authority to create a post office system in the American colonies. At the time, the colonies were physically isolated, with little trade or travel between colonies, so transporting letters and packages was difficult. Franklin's appointment as postmaster in Philadelphia and subsequently as Postmaster General for the colonies gave him a significant advantage over his rival: he was able to distribute his magazines with no postage charge, and even forbid post riders from carrying his rival's magazine.
Following the ratification of the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press, Congress fixed postal rates in 1792, which proved prohibitive for magazines. A revision two years later lowered rates on magazines, but production and distribution rates remained high and magazines were still a luxury for a privileged, literate elite. A circulation of 500 would have been high.
In the nineteenth century, increased literacy, a larger middle class, and westward expansion led to a greater demand for magazines that could transmit information to the frontier. In 1863, postage rates were streamlined into first-, second-, and third-class rates, and then in 1879, the three classes of mail were reorganized so that magazines now enjoyed the same low postage cost as newspapers. Improved techniques in paper manufacturing and printing machinery, including color printing beginning in the 1860s, lowered production costs. As a result, the number of magazines boomed, and the highest magazine circulations climbed from 40,000 before the Civil War to 100,000 by the end of the century.
This increased magazine circulation would eventually lead to unsustainable distribution costs for the Post Office, as the lower postage rates led to a postal deficit. In response, in 1905, the Postmaster General issued new rules restricting which publications counted as true magazines, including such familiar elements as a known office of publication, consecutive numbering, a date of issue, and an editorial focus such as literature, science, or a particular industry. They had to be constructed solely from printed sheets without heavy covers or bindings. These new restrictions were designed to correct abuses such as passing off one-time advertising circulars or books off as "magazines" at reduced rates.
Ads slowly began to be integrated into the same pages as articles in the 1890s. By the 1910s, stories and articles were interspersed with ads, now printed in four colors, and split across separate pages to create the look of the modern magazine form we're familiar with. For the first time, magazine distribution from coast to coast, with extensive rural delivery, and single-copy newsstand copies became mainstream. But the increased revenue came with a political cost; Congress finally found the courage to brave the onslaught of a hostile press, raising the cost of second-class postage in 1917 for the first time, buried in legislation for funding the Great War. Magazine postage was assigned a flat rate for editorial while ad rates varied by zone, continuing a trend of increasingly complex postal regulations.
In the twentieth century, magazines became increasingly sophisticated vehicles for selling ads. Such iconic titles as Time, Ladies' Home Journal and Reader's Digest produced slicker packages with tighter, shorter articles with lots of photos on glossy paper. Some magazines targeted specific demographics for their paid readership, such as white middle-class readers in affluent suburbs, to which their ads could be successfully marketed. Other magazines took advantage of postal legislation passed in 1934 and revised in 1958 that offered substantial postage discounts for titles that were primarily distributed for free, leading to the rise of controlled circulation.
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 established the United States Postal Service, whose regulations are primarily determined by the Postal Commission rather than Congress. Inflationary pressures and rising production costs led publishers to deliberately reduce their circulations, and to explore alternative methods of construction and distribution. In 1995, Scientific American produced the first magazine created entirely using the digital direct-to-plate method. Widespread use of the internet has led to online digital editions with highly niche readerships, and a revolution in electronic subscriptions and renewals.
Garvey, Ellen G. The Adman in the Parlor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Johnson, Sammye and Patricia Prijatel. The Magazine from Cover to Cover. Lincolnwood: NTC Publishing Group, 1998.
Martinez, Arthur O. History of Second-Class Requester Publications. Santa Ana: U.S. Postal Service, Santa Ana District, undated.
Mott, Frank L. A History of American Magazines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.
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