Are magazines dead? Not at this exhibition
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 13, 2024

Are magazines dead? Not at this exhibition
The 1963 pilot issue of The Harlemite, a monthly chronicling the social and artist life of Harlem. “Magazines and the American Experience,” at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, explores the rich, colorful and sometimes deeply strange history of American periodicals. Via Grolier Club via The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The newsstands of New York may not be what they used to be. But on the ground-floor gallery of the Grolier Club, a book lover’s haven on East 60th Street in Manhattan, the print-besotted can console themselves with a Platonic vision of the Great American Newsstand as it never was, at least not all at the same time.

“Magazines and the American Experience,” a kaleidoscopic survey on view through April 24, covers almost 300 years of periodical history, from Ben Franklin’s General Magazine and Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine, two rivals from 1741 for the title of America’s first magazine, to a 2016 New Yorker cover by Christoph Niemann that used augmented reality technology.

There are plenty of valuable rarities. And then there are the just plain oddities, like The Hobo News, an irreverent weekly (produced by self-described hobos), which, in 1942, was trying to do its part for the war effort.

“For Victory, Let Us Buy Bonds to Buy Bombs to Bomb the Axis Bums,” a cover line on one issue urged. And during a recent tour, Steven Lomazow, a Grolier member whose collection the exhibition is drawn from, made sure to point it out.

“It just doesn’t get better than that!” he said. “Their satire was just amazing.”

The exhibition features a core sample of his vast collection, which includes some 83,000 magazines representing some 7,000 titles on just about every subject (beekeeping, baseball, boxing, you name it), including at least a few dozen believed to survive only in his collection. (For those who can’t make it to the exhibition, which requires advance reservations, a digital version can be browsed online.)

Lomazow, a neurologist, began amassing his hoard almost by accident, in 1972, when he was a medical student in Chicago. At the time, he was interested in medical atlases. One day, at a rare bookseller, he noticed a copy of the first issue of Look, from 1937. Oddly, he noticed, it was labeled “Vol. 1., No. 2.”

“I asked the bookseller, ‘Why not Vol. 1, No. 1?,’” he recalled. “He said, ‘Nobody knows.’ I was hooked! That became my holy grail.”

Lomazow, who often signs his missives “Periodically yours,” said it took him 10 years to find the answer: No. 1 was a dummy issue that was never distributed. (Yes, he owns one.)

“My idea was to try to find the first issue of every magazine you’d see on the newsstand,” he said. “And I’m still trying to do that.”

Julie Carlsen, a librarian and cataloger who curated the exhibition with Lomazow, called his collection “endlessly fascinating,” if a bit daunting to sort through in search of a clear narrative line.

“It’s encyclopedic, as is Stephen’s memory of it,” she said. “He has highbrow material, but also oddball one-off material. It’s wonderful to page through.”

One theme running through the exhibition is “firsts” of various kinds. The opening cases, dedicated to the 18th century, display the first engraving of the Boston Massacre, the first (and only) magazine printing of the Declaration of Independence, the first American magazine to refer to women in its title (Gentleman and Ladies Town and Country Magazine, from 1789), and so on.

Elsewhere, we get the first publication of an Ernest Hemingway story (in his 1916 high school literary magazine), “perhaps the first-ever” detailed description of the rules of baseball (in an 1855 gentleman’s sporting magazine), the first cover appearance by Marilyn Monroe (on a 1946 aviation manufacturing magazine).

In 1953, Monroe also appeared, without her permission, on the cover of the first issue of Playboy. Lomazow’s copy is displayed next to the second issue of One, said to be the first gay magazine in the United States, which began publishing that same year. (Within a few months, the FBI had identified the board of editors, who wrote under pen names, and sent letters to their employers calling them “deviants” and “security risks.”)

Cumulatively, the titles on display give a window into broad themes of American history, including the emergence of political parties (which, back in the early 19th century, had their own magazines), the coming of the Civil War, the evolution of the Black freedom movement and the rise of new technologies like television and computers.

And then there’s the history of magazines themselves. To spin around the room is to watch an unfolding explosion of color and exquisite craftsmanship, and the evolving business models that supported it all.

Into the 19th century, magazines were funded by subscribers, who paid when their issues were delivered — hopefully. “A lot of magazines folded,” Lomazow said. “They just couldn’t pay the bills.”

Then, in the late 1800s, came the rise of an advertising-based model, with issues sold basically at cost, which helped magazines turn into a mass medium, with circulation sometimes reaching well into the millions. What was advertised in The Hobo News (peak circulation: 50,000)? “Mostly cigarettes,” Lomazow said.

For all the history, it’s the eye candy, and the sheer surprises, that pull visitors along. Near staples like Godey’s Lady’s Book (the largest circulation magazine of the pre-Civil War period), there’s an 1845 issue of the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine written and edited by “factory girls” from the Massachusetts textile mills.

A case dedicated to Black magazines includes first issues of literary titles like the seminal Harlem Renaissance review Fire!! along with commercial offerings like Jet (displayed alongside similarly pocket-size publications like Brown and Hue). And there are ultrarare one-offs, like the 1963 pilot issue of a proposed monthly called The Harlemite, with Miles Davis on the cover. According to a publisher's statement, 5,000 copies were printed. Lomazow’s, signed by singer Abbey Lincoln, may be the only copy to survive anywhere.

The final case includes dazzlers from Lomazow’s large subcollection of pulp magazines, like a 1923 issue of Science and Invention, dedicated to “Scientific Fiction,” showing a proto-cosmonaut serenely doing air flips among planets. There’s more earthbound weirdness in a section on early radio and television magazines, like the first issue of All About Television, from 1927, which shows a family watching a football game on an oval screen set in an ornate, quasi-Victorian frame.

There’s an element of foreboding in such images, given the way 21st-century technology has gutted the magazine business. “The show is something of an epitaph,” Lomazow said. “The golden age is over.”

Not that he’s depressed about it, given all the amazing things yet to be discovered. Just two days earlier, he said excitedly, he had been offered a very interesting issue of the obscure late 19th-century anarcho-feminist publication Liberty (not to be confused with the massively popular 20th-century general interest magazine Liberty).

“Every day, something of great wonderment comes to light,” Lomazow said. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t find something that makes me say ‘Wow!’”

Magazines and the American Experience

Through April 24 at the Grolier Club, 47 E. 60th St, Manhattan. (212) 838-6690;

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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