The Magazine Century: American Magazines Since 1900. Sumner, David E. (2010). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing. pp. 242.
David E. Sumner, a journalism professor at Ball State University, tells us that the magazine industry is weathering the storm that newspapers seem to be facing in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He concludes that the magazine readers’ relationship with the publications of their choice is “a unique tactile, visual and sensory experience” (p. 209).
And we know why. Sumner offers an explanation for the evolution and success of magazines in the twentieth century. He shows us how magazine owners and editors adjusted their products as America changed. Their magazines also changed to meet the growing interests of audiences, as well as the threats from all kinds of new media throughout the past 100 years.
But Sumner has a challenge: how to tell the story of a century’s worth of magazines, more than 20,000 he estimates. He does it initially by laying out a thesis about magazines and then supporting it in subsequent chapters. He tells us that Americans’ interests expanded and that magazines were created to feed those interests.
The stories of the men and women behind America’s magazines—and why they succeeded or failed—support his notion of an industry that responds to socio-economic change. Sumner prefaces each chapter with a brief look at these dynamics in each decade, and examines the popular magazines of that ten-year period. He carries out that premise by offering discussions of parts of the industry that tie back to those observations. In his chapter on the 1940s, for example, Sumner talks about niche magazines devoted to the military and to the passions of men such as John Johnson, J.I. Rodale, and Pete Peterson, who wrote about African-Americans, organic living, and the automobile, respectively. One interesting chapter in this respect is on the 1950s, in which Sumner contends that the media image of the wholesome American is different from one suggested by the magazine industry sales during that period. The magazine choices of the American public (National Enquirer, Mad magazine, and Playboy, all introduced and popular during this period) suggest an interest in sleaze, parody, and sex—far different from the wholesome American for which the 1950s is nostalgically remembered. Sumner shows us how: “… magazine publishers and editors sensed the changing nature of American interests and rose to create vehicles that filled the information needs of those interests” (p. 13). Other timeframes focus on lifestyle changes and to reaction to the Great Depression, Women’s Movement, Me Generation, and Tabloid Decade. Within each chapter, the magazine industry is condensed to highlight what Sumner sees as vital trends or aspects.
Much of the book provides readers with brief biographies of some of the great men and women of the industry. We learn about personalities as varied as Bernarr Macfadden and Condé Nast in the earlier part of the century and Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, and Martha Stewart in the 1980s and 1990s. We meet magazine giants such as William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, although no reference is more than a page or two and all are taken from biographies and autobiographies of these men. Sumner provides references to leading biographies of most of the men and women he mentions within the text, as well as an extensive book bibliography arranged by media company and magazine at the end of the book. Sumner also gives pieces of his 1990s interviews with New Journalism writer Gay Talese and Clay Felker of New York magazine, as well as a 2005 interview with Richard Stolley of People.
Because of the chronological structure of the book, it is sometimes a challenge to find information. As magazine powerhouses like Time, Inc., started in one era but evolved through others, the reader has to do some investigative work to gather the information necessary to complete the story. It would have been nice, for instance, to have a chapter on the evolution of the women’s magazine, or the health magazine. The information is there—the reader just has to chapter surf to get the comprehensive story. For example, Helen Gurley Brown, who rose to power as editor in the 1960s and 1970s, is discussed in the 1900-1920 chapter that chronicles William Randolph Hearst and Cosmopolitan, but not with the chapter on the social change of the 1960s. Such is the same for specialized magazines in health and fitness, stemming from Macfadden’s publications all the way through the century, concluding with what Sumner terms “narrow recreational and leisure interests,” (p. 198) such as leisure sports, crafts, and hobbies.
The same holds true for the legal issues magazines have faced over the years. Sumner explains that for several reasons magazines have not often been in trouble legally, and in chapter 9 he reviews five important cases that affected magazine content. However, other legal cases on issues such as copyright and discrimination can be found in other chapters. Technology is in there, too. From almost the beginning of the book, we learn about the technological advances of the press, paper, and photography. But Sumner also pops in discussions later of other production and technological advances over the decades, such as supply shortages during World War II and design software advancements in the 1980s.
Another arching topic: the business side of magazines. Sumner explains start-up costs, advertising revenue, cover price costs, subscriptions, the cost to produce copy (or not in the case of magazines that rely on content from readers), etc. The charts throughout the book are helpful; they reflect main points introduced in the chapters. Most consistently, in all but the chapter on the 1960s (although that chapter has a lengthy discussion on New Journalism and its stars) Sumner provides a list of some magazines that were launched in that decade. He also gives readers lists of magazines published by leading companies and when they were acquired. In addition, he supplies lists of other fun facts, including the number of times certain athletes have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated or a list of people who most often appeared on the cover of People.
Despite the challenges of tackling such a big, complex topic, Sumner provides a nice overview of magazines in the twentieth century, and a reference for a beginning student. Students certainly will enjoy the backgrounds of some of the leading publishers and editors of the times, as they were characters. And while the book may appear a bit daunting in its entirety, it might be a good complement to a course in American journalism history.
Eastern Illinois University