100 years in the consumers' armchair

The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States 1880-1960
April 9, 1999

The popular magazine has for some time attracted the scholarly attentions of students of media, popular literature and the history of print culture. David Reed's handsome volume, which seeks to identify the most distinctive properties of the popular magazine as a cultural object, adds significantly to this interdisciplinary field.

A study that tries to give an account of such a prolific medium, in two countries over 80 years, runs a risk of overloading the reader and of losing control of the material. This book wisely charts only the main features and the most-used routes.

The questions Reed asks of his material and the methods he employs to answer them are the gridlines that enable him to map the underlying dynamics of growth and the large-scale patterns of production and consumption. He begins by applying a formula for analysing the content of diverse formats to the most popular journals, identified where possible by audited sales figures. Thus Reed can link long-term changes in content with advertising, pricing policies and ownership.

Fluctuations in the proportions of space devoted to fiction and public affairs between the 1890s and the 1950s are particularly striking and appear to indicate a shift in editorial calculations of demand and a reshaping, through consumption, of popular taste. Two other magazine characteristics are sensitively handled: their fragmentation into special-interest publications and the reassuring predictability of their seriality, both of which reveal the close association between the popular magazine and the logic of industrial capitalism. Whether magazines necessarily socialised their consumers into the logic of capitalist mass culture, however, remains a more doubtful proposition.

But Reed is surely right to emphasise the revolutionary effects of changes in print technology that began in the 1890s. He suggests that the transition from wood-block and half-tone to photography, offset lithography and the use of colour also signified a shift in social power towards readers, particularly women. The argument, regrettably, is not further elaborated.

The book has some memorable sketches of the main journalists. George Lorimer's retreat into the far right in the 1920s, as his Saturday Evening Post reinforced the "bigotry of small-town America", is well documented, as are Tom Hopkinson's battles with Edward Hulton in the late 1940s over Picture Post 's mission to inform. If Harper's Monthly once resembled "the grip of a comfortable armchair", the same cannot be said of this densely packed, richly illustrated, racy book, which guides the reader along an absorbing journey through 80 years of popular culture.

Aled Jones is head of the department of history and Welsh history, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States 1880-1960

Author - David Reed
ISBN - 0 7123 0417 7
Publisher - British Library
Price - £45.00
Pages - 287

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