I come across a lot of words on a daily basis. I get a lot of postal mail, mostly from organizations and groups, but occasionally a card or note from a family member or a friend. I get a lot of e-mails, from friends, Dukes contacts, businesses and political organizations. I also have print and digital subscriptions to the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Tribune as ways of supporting local independent journalism. That’s a lot of written words that come into my space within any week, and I am glad of it.
Of course, I do not get to look at all of those words immediately. Some of these are important, of course, and I have to attend to them right away. But a lot of my e-mails I either delete or I bookmark them and put into various folders and resolve to look at them another day. (Sometimes I actually do look at them, and I find out a lot of fascinating and moving things about world culture, art, cities, birding and more.) The magazines, though, I pile up on the wooden bookcase on the porch right next to the front door. I do that because I regularly grab one as I am heading out the door to take with me when I ride the bus or the train. I have magazines from 5 different museums, a couple of birding and nature magazines, several political and issues-oriented magazines, and a travel magazine about sustainable travel that I regularly read. While I don’t read every word in every issue of every magazine, it is important to me to look at them. For magazines have played and still play a huge role in my life.
Magazines have been a big part of American culture since the mid-to
late 1800’s. We sort of take them for granted-they have always been there
and they always seem to be around. They are in doctor’s offices,
pharmacies, and other offices as we wait for appointments. They are in
some commuter trains stations. Even in this digital age, there are
many magazines that are delivered directly to people via the Postal
Service. They have been an important part of American life, and they have had a
huge impact on our culture. They have played a big part, in ways both
good and not so good, in setting the guidelines and “rules” about what
it meant to be “American.”
Early American magazines were concerned with sharing and instilling certain values, many of which came from the Protestant beliefs of early Americans-faith, thrift, hard-work, etc. They had some literary offerings, but we more about what we might call, “self-improvement’ and, “moral uplift.”As the country underwent the Industrial Revolution, gained many more people, and became more middle class, however, magazines began to seek a wider audience. Many more Americans were educated enough to read. The cost of printing decreased. So the idea of a “mass market” magazine-one that could appeal to lots of readers of different ages and from different backgrounds- became a possibility. The Saturday Evening Post, first published in 1821, and Godey’s Lady’s Book, started in 1831, were two of the first successful mass market magazines. The Post had items that were newsworthy, advice, short stories by authors such as Poe and Hawthorne and several European authors, some poetry, illustrations, and humorous pieces. Godey’s Lady’s Book had much the same content, but it was designed to publish only American authors, and was directed at women. It included recipes, household hints, etiquette advice, and lavishly illustrated ‘fashion plates’ that depicted stylish clothes. It also, under the direction of Sara Josephina Hale, argued for women’s education, urged its readers to write legislators in support of causes such as making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and supported women working. In fact, Godey itself employed over 100 women. Due to Ms. Hale’s leadership Godey’s was the most popular magazine in the country for a good part of the 19th century.
From that point on magazines became a major part of US culture. Americans wanted magazines for just about everything. Specialty magazines grew in number and in popularity. There were mystery magazines, women's magazines, literary magazines, and magazines about hobbies and activities, such as hunting and astronomy. General picture magazines, such as Life and Look, took off and by the post WWII era were in the homes of most US families, spreading info across the country and helping solidify some ideas about what it meant to be American. My family was no different from many families at that time. We subscribed to Life and Look as well as National Geographic and Reader’s Digest. I remember Reader’s Digest for the shortened or excerpted sections of the works of authors I had only heard about, and for their vocabulary quizzes, which helped encourage my love of words. National Geographic fueled my sense of wonder and travel; the phrase “bucket list” hadn’t been invented yet, but there were things I saw in that mag that I knew I wanted to do some day, and some of them I have done. We also read Jet and Ebony, magazines about Black life and Black news and Black accomplishments. This was great because it helped broaden, and in some cases, challenge or correct some of the cultural ideas that were being pushed in the major magazines. Through all of this, I was becoming a well rounded thinker.
So magazines, then and now, have played a big part in my growth as both a thinker and a person. They have exposed me to new ideas, given me some new ways to look at things, and helped form and solidify some of my values and ways of being in the world. Yes, they can be convenient things to help me meet boredom and situations when I have to wait. But they have also been and are ways for me to grow and develop. I am glad for those subscriptions; for over 65 years, they have been a major player in my life.