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North Hills Monthly

How did magazines first get started?

Aug 29, 2014 08:59PM ● By Charles Reichblum
The first general circulation magazine in history is thought to have been a monthly publication called The Gentleman’s Magazine, published in England beginning in 1731. Soon after that, magazines began appearing in America, and the first was one titled, appropriately, The American Magazine, which was published in Philadelphia. That city was at the time the home of Benjamin Franklin, who also got into the magazine business, starting with one he called The General Magazine.

The word “magazine,” by the way, comes from an Arabic word meaning “storehouse,” a good description for the storehouse of information, stories and pictures that magazines contain.

One of the most influential magazine publishers of all time was Sarah Hale, who published the first widely popular women’s magazine in the 1800s. Called The Ladies’ Magazine, Hale is credited with using it to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. Before Hale’s campaign in her magazine, Thanksgiving was only sporadically celebrated. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated every year, he gave credit for the idea to Hale.

Perhaps the most influential magazine publisher in the 20th century was Henry Luce, who started Time magazine in 1923, when he was just 25 years old. Luce and his fellow Yale classmate Britton Haddon got the money to start Time by going to the Yale Club in New York and soliciting investors. Haddon died soon after, but Luce went on to become a publishing giant in the years to come with such pioneering magazines as Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and others.

A classic magazine story involves a publication called The Literary Digest. It was a highly popular and respected magazine from the late 1800s until 1936, and had a circulation in the millions until it made a big mistake. The magazine had become famous for accurately predicting the winners of each presidential election, but its luck ran out in 1936. It predicted that Alf Landon would not only beat Franklin Roosevelt in the election that year, but would do so by an overwhelming margin. Boy, did they get that wrong. Landon carried only two states (Maine and Vermont) and Roosevelt swept to one of the biggest victories in history. The Literary Digest became a laughingstock and ceased publication soon after.

(Dr. Knowledge is heard on KDKA and the CBS radio network with his “Knowledge in a Nutshell” feature, and is author of the “Knowledge in a Nutshell” and “Dr. Knowledge Presents…” book series).