The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine
The end of the 19th Century saw a dramatic change in how people obtained information. “The mass-circulation metropolitan newspaper, the best-seller, the mass-market magazine, national advertising campaigns, radio, and the movies" emerged. "American culture also made a critical shift to commercialized forms of entertainment,” according to the website Digital History.
Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, and E.W. Scripp's St. Louis Post-Dispatch were new voices in the world of newspapers—lively headlines, punchy writing, and human interest features, and lots of cartoons and photos. The focus was on local news, crime, scandal, society news, and sports.
Hearst was a maestro when it came to highlighting features that interested broad audiences. He is credited with launching comic strips, advice columns, and women and fashion pages.
“Also during the 1890s the world of magazine publishing was revolutionized by the rise of the country's first mass circulation national magazines. After the Civil War, the magazine field was dominated by a small number of sedate magazines-like The Atlantic, Harper's, and Scribner's--written for "gentle" reader of highly intellectual tastes,” according to Digital History.
However, other publishers saw an opportunity to challenge the leaders in the field. “Their magazines featured practical advice, popularized science, gossip, human interest stories, celebrity profiles, interviews, "muckraking" investigations, pictures, articles on timely topics--and ads. Instead of cultivating a select audience, the new magazines had a very different set of priorities. By running popular articles, editors sought to maximize circulation, which, in turn, attracted advertising that kept the magazine's price low. By 1900, the nation's largest magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal reached 850,000 subscribers--more than eight times the readership of Scribner's or Harper's.”
Cosmopolitan, first published in 1886 as a family magazine, was later transformed into a literary magazine and eventually became a woman's magazine in the late 1960s. Also known as ‘Cosmo,’ its content includes articles on relationships and how to have proper sex, health, careers, self-improvement, celebrities, as well as fashion and beauty. Published by Hearst Magazines, Cosmopolitan has 63 international editions, is printed in 32 languages and is distributed in more than 100 countries.
Cosmopolitan began as a family magazine, launched in 1886 by Schlicht & Field as The Cosmopolitan.
Paul Schlicht told his first-issue readers that his publication was a "first-class family magazine", adding, "There will be a department devoted exclusively to the interests of women, with articles on fashions, on household decoration, on cooking, and the care and management of children, etc. There was also a department for the younger members of the family."
The magazine’s circulation reached 25,000 that year, but by March 1888, Schlicht & Field were no longer in business. John Brisben Walker acquired the magazine in 1889. That same year, he dispatched Elizabeth Bisland on a race around the world against Nellie Bly to try to draw some attention.
Under John Brisben Walker's ownership, E. D. Walker, formerly with Harper's Monthly, took over as the editor, introducing color illustrations, serials and book reviews. It became a leading market for fiction, featuring such authors as Annie Besant, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Dreiser, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton. The magazine's circulation climbed to 75,000 by 1892.
In 1897, Cosmopolitan announced plans for a free correspondence school: "No charge of any kind will be made to the student. All expenses for the present will be borne by The Cosmopolitan. No conditions, except a pledge of a given number of hours of study." When 20,000 immediately signed up, Walker could not fund the school and students were then asked to contribute 20 dollars a year. Also in 1897, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was serialized, as was his The First Men in the Moon (1900). Olive Schreiner contributed a lengthy article about the Boer War.
In 1905, William Randolph Hearst purchased the magazine for $400,000 (approximately $11,000,000 in current prices) and brought in journalist Charles Edward Russell, who contributed a series of investigative articles, including "The Growth of Caste in America" (March 1907), "At the Throat of the Republic" (December 1907 - March 1908) and "What Are You Going to Do About It?" (July 1910 - January 1911) and "Colorado - New Tricks in an Old Game" (December 1910).
Other contributors during this period included Alfred Henry Lewis, Sinclair Lewis, A. J. Cronin, David Graham Phillips, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell. A constant presence from 1910-18 was Arthur B. Reeve, with 82 stories featuring Craig Kennedy, the "scientific detective." Magazine illustrators included Francis Attwood, Dean Cornwell, James Montgomery Flagg, and Harrison Fisher.
With a circulation of 1,700,000 in the 1930s, Cosmopolitan had an advertising income of $5,000,000. Emphasizing fiction in the 1940s, it was subtitled The Four-Book Magazine since the first section had one novelette, six or eight short stories, two serials, six to eight articles and eight or nine special features, while the other three sections featured two novels and a digest of current non-fiction books. During World War II, sales peaked at 2,000,000.
The magazine began to run less fiction during the 1950s. Circulation dropped to slightly over a million by 1955, a time when magazines were overshadowed during the rise of paperbacks and television. The Golden Age of magazines came to an end as mass market, general interest publications gave way to special interest magazines targeting specialized audiences.
James Landers has written The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine. The following material is from the University of Missouri Press blog.
After a career as a newspaper reporter, Landers became a journalism historian upon receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in December 2000.
Magazine history became his specialty – researching and writing about articles and commentary published in popular, respected national periodicals during momentous eras of the nation’s past. Magazines reached a national readership eager for information concerning important events and issues, and the way that magazines reported and presented information was in itself interesting and significant.
His work has appeared in American Journalism: Journal of Media History and Journalism History. He contributed a chapter to Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Modern America: From the Indian Wars to the Vietnam War (Greenwood Press, 2007). His previous book was The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam (University of Missouri Press, 2004).
What made you decide to write a history of Cosmopolitan?
It has had a fascinating life. Cosmopolitan is so completely, unbelievably different from how it began, and the fact that the magazine changed its identity completely several times over the years made me wonder who was responsible for the decisions and why those transformations happened.
How do you write a 100-year history of a magazine?
You look at as many issues of the magazine as you can find. I read more than a thousand issues of Cosmopolitan published from March 1886 to March 1986. I would have read more, but dozens of copies were vandalized or otherwise destroyed, especially those from the 1960s and 1970s. I relied on college and university libraries around the country to loan me volumes of Cosmopolitan, and sometimes I had to request the same volume from two or three different libraries just to obtain a complete six-month set to read. It was sad to see that covers and pages were ripped out, something I rarely saw prior to the 1960s.
Reading all those issues let me see patterns – the types of articles that ran during a certain period, the types of fiction stories, what illustrations and photographs were like, what the advertisements were like, what products were advertised. It gave me a sense of shifts in the magazine’s editorial format at specific times.
Once you’ve read the magazines, then what?
Then I needed to learn who changed the magazine’s formats and why. A historian hopes to find letters, memos, and other written material from key people. Their thoughts, their rationale for switching format, and other factors often are mentioned in such correspondence.
Usually the changes were a matter of money for Cosmopolitan. The magazine went through cyclical periods of losing readers and advertisers, then recovered, then slid again. Editors and publishers had to find a way to survive.
In this case, material from William Randolph Hearst’s archives at the University of California–Berkeley was quite interesting and helpful. Historians have ignored the magazines he owned because his newspapers were so outrageous and presumably important early in the twentieth century up until the 1920s. It turns out Hearst was proud of Cosmopolitan from the time he bought it in 1905 until he died in 1951. Plenty of telegrams, memos, letters, and business documents pertained to Cosmopolitan.
Also, material from Helen Gurley Brown was stored at Smith College in Massachusetts —memos, circulation reports, letters to advertisers and writers.
Of course, my interview with Mrs. Brown was invaluable. She remembered details about several important incidents, and she explained her goals and methods for transforming Cosmopolitan after being hired as editor in 1965.
Many. My first surprise was that Cosmopolitan was such a respected and popular magazine during the 1890s. I learned this after I had changed careers and was a middle-age graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. I was taking a history seminar on war policy and researching what magazines had written about imperialism after the Spanish-American War. A fierce debate raged whether the United States should keep Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico—all of which we took from Spain—and what should be done with Hawaii, which had been “annexed” during the war. I was amazed at the range of articles in Cosmopolitan—science, politics, international events—and was impressed by the caliber of contributors—diplomats, professors, well-known intellectuals, and public officials, including Theodore Roosevelt. Also impressive was the list of fiction authors: Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Jack London, Tolstoy, Willa Cather, William Dean Howells.
Another surprise was what Hearst did with Cosmopolitan early in the 1900s. It was an exposé magazine with the “Treason of the Senate” series on corruption, also a very graphic series on the hazardous conditions where children worked in factories, and with numerous articles on corruption in cities and states across the nation.
Then a big surprise was the complete switch from serious exposé articles to fluffy fiction and romance and adventure stories by the 1920s. It was a smart decision, because Cosmopolitan was more popular and profitable than ever.
The final surprise was the way Helen Gurley Brown took over a mediocre, dull magazine without any specific identity and created a controversial, popular magazine with an incredibly loyal readership. My conversation with her persuaded me that she was not at all surprised by the success of Cosmopolitan. She knew what young women of that era wanted.
What lessons can be learned from the survival of Cosmopolitan?
Leadership makes a difference. An individual makes a difference. Be bold, be daring.
Visit your local library for more information on this topic.
Cosmopolitan and many other magazines are available at your local library.
Also of interest:
The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine
James Landers, (2011).
The Weekly War : Newsmagazines and Vietnam
James Landers, 2004.
Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America
Kenneth M. Price, Susan Belasco Smith, (1995).