The Magazine Century: American Magazines since 1900

By Renaud, Sally | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Magazine Century: American Magazines since 1900


Renaud, Sally, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Sumner, David E. (2010). The Magazine Century: American Magazines Since 1900. 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, Siunner 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 Siunner 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 Eirranged by media company and magazine at the end of the book. …

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