The Ways We Were

By Bromfield, Lynn Hayes | Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, March 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Ways We Were

Bromfield, Lynn Hayes, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management

Headlines. Budgets. ROI. In today's number-crunching, hassle-laden world of magazine publishing, it's worth taking a quick look back at the men and women who went before us. Risk-takers all, they were driven as much by instinct as by intellect, governed by creative stimulus more than by prospects of financial gain. They earned a permanent place in magazine history by taking chances and by constantly innovating. Their focus was on ideas, not quarterly figures, and these mini-profiles give us access to their inspiration. By following in their footsteps, we assure ourselves a place in magazine history, too.

Andrew Bradford and Benjamin Franklin The first magazine publishers

In 1740, Benjamin Franklin decided that the English colonies in America should have a magazine of their own and not rely solely on such British periodicals as Gentlemen's Magazine or the London Magazine for their leisure-time diversion. Encouraged that there were 13,000 people living in Philadelphia and more than 100,000 in Pennsylvania, Franklin made plans for his new publication, titled General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America.

Because he was already a publisher of books and newspapers, he realized he would need help with the project and made a preliminary agreement with John Webbe, who had been a contributor to Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.

However, shortly after the two men reached their agreement, Webbe laid out Franklin's plan for the magazine to another printer in Philadelphia, Andrew Bradford, and asked for a higher salary to launch a periodical with him.

From this turbulent rivalry the first two magazines published in America were produced, but not until February 1741. Bradford's American Magazine edged out Franklin's General Magazine by only three days, appearing on Febuary 13 and selling for eightpence sterling, or one shilling in Pennsylvania currency. Franklin set the price for his publication at sixpence sterling.

Neither venture was profitable. The American Magazine folded, with no explanation, after just three issues. And although the General Magazine outlasted Bradford's effort, it survived for only six issues.

Isaiah Thomas Set a feast for inquistive minds

Already editor and publisher of the Massachusetts Spy, one of the most incendiary of the colonies' patriot newspapers, Isaiah-Thomas introduced the Royal American Magazine in January 1774 at a time when there had been no magazines published at all in America for more than one and one half years. A master printer, he delivered an attractive magazine from his Lexington headquarters-40 illustrated pages covering a wide range of topics and designed to appeal to the general public, although it also continued Spy's mission of carrying patriot propaganda.

Immersed in the events leading out of the British closing Boston's port, Thomas suspended publication of the Royal American in June 1774 "for a few Months, until the Affairs of this Country are a little better settled." When publication resumed again in September, Thomas had handed over the editorial to fellow printer Joseph Greenleaf, who continued the publication until 1775.

In 1789, Thomas again ventured into magazine publishing with The Massachusetts Magazine, one of the most entertaining magazines of the eighteenth century, grandly promising "Poetry, Musick, Biography, History, Physick, Geography, Morality, Criticism, Philosophy, Mathematics, Agriculture, Chemistry, Novels, Tales, News, Marriage, Deaths, Meteorological Observations, Etc."

Perhaps the most important contribution of the Massachusetts Magazine was its wealth of original material-essay serials, poetry, music, even a full-length play. Literary scholars have pointed to the magazine's fiction as seminal work in the development of the American short story.

Thomas sold the magazine in 1793, and after going through a series of publishers the magazine eventually folded in December 1796. …

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