Introducing an Index of American Magazines: 1741:1826
The indespensible first source for the study of American magazines
By Bruce McKinney
Most books are read from front to back but I challenge you to try to do this with any of the five volumes of Frank Luther Mott's A History of American Magazines. Every page has references to other pages, to footnotes and to indexes and it simply isn't possible to read any of the volumes as a book unless you simply decide to ignore all the bibliographical tendrils. Each one is a door into something curious and interesting. I couldn't ignore them and in time simply surrendered to the logic of the material and have read volume one [848 pages] as an extraordinary reference work rather than as a pure history. I'm not alone in finding this material interesting. Dr. Mott received a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for what was, to that point a three volume set. By the late 1950s the series reached five volumes and its full complement of 4,000 pages.
What Dr. Mott sets out to do is to chronicle the entire history of American magazines, those perishable intermediaries that live between newspapers and books and he succeeds in bringing to life a research and collecting category that is still today consistently ignored by mainstream dealers, auction houses and collectors. Dr. Mott reminds us that we ignore this material at our peril and he does it in the most convincing way - by integrating publications into periods, categories and types so that what by itself may be a single issue of a publication becomes a thread in a complex tapestry of developing perspective interpreted as local, regional and national history, across developing fields such as drama, religion and social change - always interpreted through the lens of personal perspective. If in books it can be difficult to uncover the human that writes the words, with magazines the human sentiment and perspective is much closer to the surface. If with books the author is almost always masked, with magazines the publishers and authors are usually visible and their opinions accessible. If your goal is to know the field you collect you ignore this category of material at your peril.
American magazines begin appropriately with the American Magazine, or Monthly View that was printed in Philadelphia and issued on February 13, 1741 by William Bradford, anticipating by three days Benjamin Franklin's General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America. Both were dated January, 1741. The American Magazine lasted for three months and the Franklin publication for six. In their zest to be first they were early, very early. In fact it would be fifty years before magazines began to become economically stable and seventy-five before new publications began to survive with regularity. In the first decades magazines had three problems: little original content, few subscribers and almost no income. What they had was publisher ambition and they had it in spades.
In time magazines found a strong niche promoting issues and perspectives. Trouble with the English over-seers in the 1750's was the fertile ground from which many publications sprouted and from the time of the French and Indian War on through the War of Independence magazines are a chimera that fades in and out with the will of the printers and the supply of paper to print on.
Partisan politics next began to oil the gears and ink the presses as across the fledgling United States the proverbial thousand flowers bloom in the creation of local magazines that capture young America's fascination with poetry and rhyme.
Introducing an Index of American Magazines: 1741:1826
The Columbian Phenix: Mott 80
Click Submit above to take a look at what Mott describes as the first American magazines. We include the first 254 of them beginning with the American Magazine in 1741 and continuing through 1826.
By January 1800 Frank Luther Mott in his "A History of American Magazines" counts seventy-nine publications as having been born and by the close of 1810 adds another sixty-eight while also admitting he ignored some. With increasing numbers came specialization and in the first twenty-five years of the 19th century a panoply of fields were surveyed: European and American literature, women, history, weekly, local, religion, theater and drama, children's, political, poetry, missionary, medical, literary, and philosophy. Within a few years education, math, sciences, the law, pharmacy, mineralogy and humor have also found their publishers if not their audiences. The urge to publish was strong even if the reading public was small.
Complicating the publications' situation were severe delivery problems. The road system was poor, in many areas non-existent, and the cost of delivery high. Perspective in printed media tended to be narrow because news was not easily collected or dispersed. Circulations were small as the initial publishing model did not comfortably include advertising. People didn't have disposable income and frequently the income they did have was in barter-able material, not cash. Franklin could accept eggs in trade but he could not be paid in eggs entirely. The reliable currency we take for granted today was something still in the future as in the early part of the 19th century there wasn't even agreement about the appropriateness of a central bank. So magazines, like all the trades that would later flourish in an environment of universal currency and growing consumerism were, at the outset, primarily dependent on the highly enthusiastic for support, as small a market then as they generally are today.
The dawn of the magazine age was approaching although full bloom would not occur until the end of the nineteenth century. By then, in a single year more magazines would be launched than in the first 60 years of American magazine publishing.
Looking back what comes into view are a limited number of small circulation periodicals that acted as intermediary between the immediacy of the newspaper and the perspective of the book. And they look to be a very interesting and currently under-appreciated way to augment collections and aid the researcher and their institutions in building a clearer record of emerging American culture and incremental historical events. Toward that end this month we are adding a bibliographical source in the AED: North American Magazines that will aid the interested in finding information about them.
Try some keywords that reflect your interests. Here are some examples of matches: Ohio 4, Boston 50, New York 61 and Philadelphia 73.
In the year ahead we will build resources to support dealers, librarians and collectors who appreciate the importance of this material.