Newsstand: 1925: The Popular Magazine

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a virtual newsstand from the summer of 1925

 

Overview

           Popular Magazine, a periodical that is widely regarded as the first direct competition for Frank Munsey's Argosy, would go on to be one of the most well-regarded pulps of its time. Under the guidance of editor Charles Agnew MacLean, Popular Magazine would continuously defy critics of the pulp magazines with its well-written fiction by highly-regarded — and award-winning — authors.

 

History

 

             The Popular Magazine for Boys and Old Boys hit the stands on November 1, 1903.  The first issue consisted of ninety-six pages, including six works of short fiction and an editorial called ‘A Chat with Our Readers’.  Henry Harrison Lewis was both a writer and the editor.  One of his short stories, “The Right Tackle,” appeared in the first issue.  In addition to his editorial duties, he would go on to write fourteen more short stories for The Popular Magazine — which is the name the magazine assumed after the first issue — as well as for other publications. 

           The Popular Magazine is regarded as the first direct competition for Frank Munsey’s wildly popular Argosy, the first pulp magazine. Street & Smith publishing company started The Popular as a boys’ magazine that would “. . . be read by every boy in the United States and . . . welcomed by the fathers and mothers of the boys” with Henry Harrison Lewis, a well-regarded editor of juvenile publications, as editor. The Popular Magazine, as Lewis proclaimed, was “in the market for good stories, no matter where or by whom they are written” (Editor 11).  The magazine didn’t employ “hack writers” who produced works under various house names and pseudonyms.  By the third issue, the magazine had increased in size from 96 pages to 194, and it would go on to average between 194 and 224 pages per issue until 1927, when the issues were reduced to 144 pages through the end of its run. 

           Though the magazine continued to be successful, it became apparent that more ‘old boys’  than young boys were reading The Popular and, in February of 1904, Street & Smith changed it from a boys’ magazine to a periodical geared towards an adult audience. By the end of 1905, the magazine’s circulation numbers were well over 250,000.  It was around the same time that Charles Agnew MacLean would take over as editor of The Popular.  MacLean would turn out to be one of the best editors of his time and would remain as editor of The Popular until his death on June 17, 1928.  As Time Magazine would later write, “The history of Popular Magazine is the story of editor Charles Agnew MacLean's life” since twenty-four out of twenty-eight years of The Popular’s run was under his direct guidance. [1]

            Charles Agnew MacLean, affectionately known as ‘Mac’ by his employed writers, was born on September 2, 1880 in Bellmen, Ireland and immigrated with his family to the U.S. at the age of five.  He worked as a journalist in his early career before beginning a career as an editor.  His first two attempts were unsuccessful, however, as he was fired from both the New York Sun and the Times.  He was hired by Street & Smith in 1903 but did not take over the helm as editor until February of 1904.  Under him, “the magazine outgrew its juvenile status and became a magazine for adults” (Reynolds 140).  Along with being credited with being among the first to realize the “potential greatness of H.G. Wells”, Maclean is said to have discovered western pulp writer Zane Gray’s, who authored many books and short stories and novels including Riders of the Purple Sage, Jack London, H.C. Witwer, and Mary Roberts Rinehart among others. (141 Reynolds)

           It was MacLean’s acquisition of H. Rider Haggard’s serialized novel, Ayesha, the sequel to She and the second book of a four part series, that was the springboard of MacLean’s and The Popular Magazine’s success.  “If any story ‘made’ The Popular Magazine, it was “Ayesha” ” (Moskowitz 311).    Before the serialization of Ayesha from January to August of 1905, The Popular’s circulation was 70,000.  By the time the final installment appeared, circulation had risen to 250,000.  Well-known writer H.G. Wells also had his stories serialized in The Popular at this time.  The Crowning Victory, also known as Love and Mr. Lewisham, ran almost concurrently with Ayesha from February to July of 1905.  Though Haggard’s work would not appear in the pages of The Popular again, a second serial by Wells, Tono-Bungay, was published from September of 1908 to January of 1909.
           The Popular continued to grow in popularity.  MacLean would himself contribute six short stories to his magazine along with countless editorials titled A Chat With You, in which he spoke directly to his audience about writing, readership, authorship, good stories, and the magazine business.  According to MacLean, “A magazine, if it is worth anything, acquires a personality too . . . it is made up of the publisher’s personality, the editor’s personality, its readers’ personalities as well as that of the authors’.  The magazine has a spirit just as real as that of a human being.  It comes to have its own way of looking at things . . .” (143 Reynolds).  The spirit of The Popular was firmly entrenched in adventure fiction.  The vast majority of its content consisted of short stories, novellas, and serializations of adventure writing.  Though Ayesha was a fantastic story that sprang the magazine to its later success, The Popular would never become a genre publication.  It concerned itself with general fiction and gave its audience a wide array of tastes from war stories, detective works, and sports stories.  It focused on “good stories,” not great plot, not great characters; The Popular did not concern itself with being literary.  As MacLean would write in one of his may “chats”, “. . . for our part we choose the chronicles of these restless ones whose joy in in accomplishment.  Much of it is not literature.  Little of it is great literature.  It comes so straight and fresh from the loom of life that it may well be imperfect in spots and lacking in that finish which a more meticulous taste may provide.  But for all that . . . it is the primal stuff out of which all great art and all great literature is made” (Maclean 12).   Occasionally, the magazine would publish poetry.  Theodore Dreiser, author of  Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, contributed poetry to The Popular in 1905, as did Paul Laurence Dunbar, a well-known African American poet of this time. 

           It is sometimes hard to distinguish The Popular from the ‘slick’ magazines.  Though The Popular, at its core, was a fiction magazine for the masses, it teetered back and forth between being a grub street production and belonging to quality row.  MacLean himself would say that, more than anything, The Popular was in the business of a good story, and it didn’t concern itself with the modernist mantra that good literature must be difficult.  Its fiction was more about catering to the tastes of the audience, no matter how it changed, no matter in which improbable direction their tastes would take the fiction.  “If a subject seemed in the least liable to tickle the public chin, it promptly materialized in the pages of The Popular Magazine” (Sampson 152).  More than that, editors of “slick” magazines like The New York Post even used The Popular as a recruiting ground through which authors could write for the masses before moving on to more literary, “respectable” publications. [2] By October of 1909, the magazine hit full stride and was changed to a bi-monthly format (Sampson 181).

           From 1910 to 1922, Popular Magazine enjoyed enduring success.  Many of the best pulp writers contributed stories to its pages.  As much as critics would decry pulp magazines in general as being magazines that “. . . constitute[d] a menace to the pupil’s morals, his English and his mind” (NYT) [3]  from 1919 to 1922, three short stories from Popular won the prestigious O. Henry award.  Albert Payson Terhune, a prolific author and dog breeder, won two of them:  one for his story, “On Strike,” that appeared in the October 7, 1919 issue, and the other for “The Writer Upward,” which appeared in the May 20, 1922 issue.  O.F. Lewis would win the award in 1922 for his short story, “Old Peter Takes an Afternoon Off,” which appeared in the April 7, 1922 issue. [4]  The good fortunes of these writers did not help The Popular, however, and “The Popular declined in the 1920s, though just when the decline began is not clear, its circulation figures being hidden within those of the Street and Smith Combination . . . .” [5] According to the Advertisers Directory of 1922, The Popular’s circulation was around 300,000. This number is well below the circulation of one million boasted on the front cover of the magazine just a few years prior.  However, the magazine hit a peak in circulation from September 1927 to July of 1928, and during this time period The Popular was changed to a weekly magazine.  This would not last long, however, and in July of 1928 the magazine would revert to a monthly format. The Popular underwent several slight name changes during its lifetime and was intermittently titled The Popular, The Popular Magazine, and Popular Stories.  It was a monthly magazine from 1903 to December of 1909 when it was changed to a bi-monthly magazine and during its peak circulation, The Popular enjoyed success as a weekly magazine.  It had a price tag of 10 cents through 1906, 15 cents from 1906 to 1916.  The price would fluctuate from 20 cents to 25 cents between 1916 and September of 1927 when, as a weekly, the magazine was priced at 15 cents.    Once the magazine was changed back to monthly format in 1928, the price was increased to 20 cents where it would remain for the rest of its run. 

            Charles Agnew MacLean died on June 17, 1928.   The Popular, which had been on steady decline, would not last long after this final blow.  A duo, Richard F. Merrifield, author and son of writer Izola Forrester, and Phil Conroy, edited The Popular after MacLean’s death.  On August 31, 1931, Time Magazine remarked, “last week, having completed 28 years of usefulness, Popular Magazine appeared for the last time.”  After a successful run of 621 pulp issues, the final issue hit the stands in August of 1931, and The Popular Magazine was merged into Street & Smith’s Complete Stories in October of 1931.  Re-titled The Popular Complete Stories for the first seventeen issues after the merger, the title would be changed to Street & Smith’s Complete Stories in July of 1932, then Street & Smith’s Complete Magazine before reverting back to Complete Stories in February of 1936.  The final copy of Complete Stories appeared in October of 1937.

Contextualization by Victoria Bell

Notes

 

[1] Time Magazine August 31, 1931

[2] Blood N Thunder Magazine

[3] The New York Times November 26, 1936

[4] http://www.online-literature.com/o_henry/

[5] http://www.depauw.edu/library/archives/dpuinventories/Pulp.htm

 

Works Cited

 

Goulart, Ron. Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulp Magazines. New Rochelle, N.Y:

           Arlington House, 1972. Print.

 Hulse, Ed. "The Popular Magazine: Appreciating the 'Slickest' Pulp." Parts I and II. Blood 'N' Thunder.

           No. 24 (Summer 2009)/No. 25 (Winter 2010): pp. 76-100/pp. 78-99.

Charles Agnew Maclean: Editor of the Popular Magazine, 1904-1928. New York: Bartlett Orr Press,

           1928. Print.

Moskowitz, Sam. Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of "the Scientific Romance"

           in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Print.

Mullen, R. D. “From Standard Magazines to Pulps and Big Slicks: A Note on the History of US

           General and Fiction Magazines.”  Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1995),

           pp. 144-156

Reynolds, Quentin J. The Fiction Factory; Or, from Pulp Row to Quality Street: The Story of 100

           Years of Publishing at Street & Smith. New York: Random House, 1955. Print.

Schurman, Lydia C, and Deidre Johnson. Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism

           of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

‘The Press: Popular No More,’ Time Magazine, 18: 9 (31 August, 1931):

           http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,929780,00.html

Weber, Ronald. Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America's Golden Age of Print. Athens: Ohio

           University Press, 1997. Print.

 

 

            

 

          

 

 

 

 

 

click cover for magazine

August 20, 1925

Genre

Pulp, Fiction

Publisher:

Street & Smith Publishing Company

Place of Publication:

New York, NY

Years of Run:

1903-1931

Frequency of Publication:

 

Monthly from 1903 to 1905. Bi-monthly from 1905 to 1928.  Monthly from 1928 to its merger with Complete Stories in 1931.

Circulation in 1925:

300,000 in 1922