In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early 20th-Century Popular American Magazines

  • Introduction
  • General Histories
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Approaches
  • Production and Distribution
  • Magazines and Audience
  • Popular Magazines and Modernism

American Literature Early 20th-Century Popular American Magazines
David Earle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0220


The American popular magazine came into being in the 1890s due to advances in marketing, printing, and distribution. These were general interest magazines but they soon splintered into specialty magazine genres, geared at specific audiences or specific interests. In general, magazines are an ecology within the even larger ecologies of print and literary culture. By their very nature they are multivocal and fragmented, singular objects with kaleidoscopic contents. The study of magazines reflects their subject, drawing from many fields and relying upon many critical approaches for a multitude of possible applications. With huge circulations and nationwide distribution, American popular magazines were arguably the first iteration of mass culture. Yet there is a large disjunction between the importance and prevalence of popular magazines of the first half of the 20th century and the amount of critical work devoted to them. One of the central reasons for this disjunction has been the preponderance of scholarly attention paid to literary modernism, which is seen as oppositional to the popular and commercial (an idea that has been more recently revised). Consequentially, studies of small circulation, coterie little magazines vastly outnumber those dedicated to popular periodicals. The study of popular magazines enjoyed an upswing with second-wave feminism. Sociological and literary studies followed which traced the construction of women as passive consumers (of goods, of identity) back to The Ladies Home Journal and forward into contemporary women’s homemaker magazines. The next few decades saw an expansion and complication in the studies of the relationship between audience and magazines, especially as the field of cultural studies gained momentum. Feminist work on imagined reader communities saw popular magazines as potentially empowering and the study of African American Popular Magazines flourished as did the study of how magazines constructed masculinity. In the last twenty years or so, the popular magazines of the first half of the 20th century have frequently become the subject for critical literary scrutiny. This shifting of focus is due in part to the rise of new modernist studies, which has decentralized modernism and largely dispelled the idea that modernism wasn’t available to the masses, along with the rise of modern periodical studies, which has expanded attention beyond little magazines. As a result of these critical practices, middlebrow, genre, and working-class magazines—such as Smart Magazines, Pulp Magazines, and Hollywood Fan Magazines—are emerging as objects of study, spurred by growing digital archives of magazines that were rarely collected in libraries.

General Histories

The bibliographic study of the popular magazine in America arguably enjoyed its first fertile moment in the 1950s and 1960s, before the rise of modern criticism and while classic bibliography was still a viable avenue for scholars and graduate students alike. Many of these earlier works, like Peterson 1964, are still the foundational studies for the history and production of magazines. Whereas Mott’s five-volume A History of American Magazines remains the cornerstone work of scholarship in general, its attention to the 20th century is predominantly occasional in Mott 1957 and in the twenty-one general sketches of individual magazines in Mott 1968. Whereas Mott’s general history, outside of the individual sketches, ends in 1905, Peterson 1964 covers the rest of the period through the mid-century. Together, Mott and Peterson offer the most comprehensive history and overview of early-20th-century magazines, followed by Wood 1970, Tebbel and Zuckerman 1991, and Reed 1997.

  • Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vol. 4, 1885–1905. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

    Details the rise of the popular ten-cent magazines in the last decades of the 19th century. It offers a detailed overview of not only the types of magazines but also the historic trends that contributed to their popularity. Along with a general history, spotlights thirty-seven important magazines with extended profiles. Exhaustively researched, the most comprehensive contextual overview of the advent of the popular magazine.

  • Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vol. 5, Sketches of 21 Magazines, 1905–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

    Left unfinished at the time of his death, Mott’s final volume is useful specifically for the twenty-one additional histories of individual magazines such as Time, Smart Set, Better Homes and Gardens, American Mercury, Good Housekeeping, and Poetry. Without the accompanying history included in the other volumes, the choice of magazines seems more personal to Mott rather than representational, hence this volume is most useful for research into specific titles.

  • Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1964.

    After Mott 1968, the most comprehensive historical overview of the American magazine post-1905. Especially useful in its attention to magazine production and circulation data. Uses the histories of key magazines to tell the rise, fall, and innovation of different magazine genres. A foundational resource. The expanded 2nd edition is listed here, it being the most common, though it is worth noting that only the 1st (1956) includes Peterson’s bibliography.

  • Reed, David. The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States 1880–1960. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

    Noteworthy due to its comparative approach to the popular magazines of both the United States and Britain, as well as its methodology driven by content rather than context. Quantitatively breaks down the contents of popular magazines, measuring inches of column space dedicated to specific categories of the most popular magazines of each decade. Useful for transatlantic studies. Limited by methodology based upon a small sampling of magazines.

  • Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    Much indebted to Peterson 1964; endeavors to do for the 20th century what Mott did for the 18th and 19th. Its attempt to cover 250 years of history does limit the quality of information on the 20th century.

  • Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. 3d ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1970.

    Strong general history of the American magazine. Whereas its history of the early American magazine is roughly chronological, its study of the 20th century magazine (the bulk of the book) is categorical with chapters on subjects such as news, farm, humor, and supermarket magazines. Expanded third edition is also especially useful for its glimpse into the post–WWII magazine industry.

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