American Mass-Market Magazines

By Alan Nourie; Barbara Nourie | Go to book overview
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Nathan, 1914-1923; Morris Gilbert, 1923-1929; Margaret R. Sangster, 1929- 1930; Arthur Samuels, 1930.


165,000 ( 1905--peak circulation).

Frances Moore-Bond


In 1846 an enigmatic Englishman--James Smithson--left a bequest in his will that created, by an Act of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, a body dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," as specified by the donor. Joseph Henry, the first secretary, led the institution for over thirty years into its higher purposes of sponsoring research in the sciences, history, and the arts, publishing the results in a scholarly manner that would advance American scholarship.

In the 124th year of the institution a magazine was created, backed by a $50,000 grant, and named after its parent. The first issue came off the presses in April 1970, showing on its glossy cover the picture of two courting elephants. "It should be the task of our magazine," wrote then-secretary S. Dillon Ripley, "to add to the sum of public knowledge within the mandate of this Institution, for 'every portion throws light on all others' as Smithson asserted in the beginning." 1

Edward K. Thompson, formerly editor of Life,* was lured to this job of publishing a magazine that would cater to the tastes of thousands of national associates as diverse as the pieces stored in the museum, balancing popular themes with the scholarly flavor of institutional research, things in which, in Thompson's own words, "the Smithsonian is interested, might be interested or ought to be interested." 2

The magazine had a few problems in its infancy. Looking back over one decade, Edwards Park remembers the scarcity of office space and the poverty of the magazine's first quarters. He recollects the insanity of the first computer system that kept spewing hundreds of copies to the same address. "Anchorman John Chancellor," Park writes, "noted in an evening broadcast that his television studio had received a promotion letter from Smithsonian addressed to 'NBC News' and starting out 'Dear Mr. News . . .' We wrote him a note offering to send the same thing to Walter Cronkite, and Chancellor wrote back again saying it was OK, he took the magazine and loved it."3

And so did the majority of Smithsonian's first subscribers, the national associates, after perusing that first courting-elephants issue, which included articles by such authorities as microbiologist René Debos writing about the reconciliation of man and nature: "Life is an endless give-and-take with Earth and all her creatures . . . human beings are shaped, biologically and mentally, by the environment in which they develop." John W. Blassingame wrote on


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American Mass-Market Magazines
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