January 1, 2021

A century ago, the world had just gone through the first World War; children around the world were starving; the 1918 influenza pandemic had hit; there was about to be a new president sworn in; and James Coyle, a Catholic priest in Birmingham, Alabama, was shot and killed by Klan member named E.R. Stephenson because the priest was presiding over the wedding of Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican man who was working for her father.

A pandemic, an election and social injustices that are appalling and unbelievable. The historical similarities between the world in 1921 and now are extraordinary.

One more thing hasn’t changed. Audiences still want much the same thing from their magazines, as you’ll see in this analysis.

Magazines with a heart

Love. Labor. Liberty. Three ideals that magazines of 1921 celebrated. Three ideals that the country needed at that time. Three ideals that still offer hope today, with love being the most significant.

From the leader in magazines at that time, The Saturday Evening Post, to probably what was the only African American magazine created at that time, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Crisis, to a hodgepodge of titles that kept the American family educated, entertained and informed, the magazines of 1921 were an important thread in the tapestry of life.

In the Jan. 1, 1921, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine’s focus on the American farmer was strong and the reporting honest and forthright. An article titled “Foodstuffs and Financial Thrills” discusses state aid for farmers and the spirit that “right” will prevail is woven throughout the article: “The saving grace is that all through the farm country has continued a firm belief in the ultimate righting of things … ”

If you look at the covers, at the images, the spirit of positivity is very apparent in almost all of the magazines. When you see a magazine like Judge telling you that love is what makes the world go ‘round and a magazine like The Literary Digest that in the January 1921 issue reported that they were able to raise more than $2 million in donations from their readers to help starving children across Europe (keep in mind $2 million in 1921 is almost equivalent to $30 million today), you realize how a call to action from a magazine really moved people.

From the cover of the Jan. 1, 1921, edition of The Literary Digest:

They are looking — to you. The lives of three-and-a-half millions of starving children are on your hands and on your souls. You alone, Americans, can save them from death. In God’s Name, do not let them die!

Forbes magazine was founded in 1917 by Bertie Charles (“B.C.”) Forbes, a business columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain. Forbes was the only major business magazine in the United States throughout the 1920s. In a later 1921 issue, the magazine’s cover implored people to “Do It Now!” encouraging readers to hasten the business and employment recovery after the war and the pandemic by purchasing things, investing in the country, and to adopt a more cheerful and courageous attitude. It was time for the country and its citizens to come out of the darkness, and the magazine was determined to help readers do that.

And there was a celebration of the labor in this country in magazines such as Scientific American, which was also published weekly, and The Farm Journal, which celebrated the backbone of this country, the farmer. The magazines of 1921 were magazines with a heart, they cared about the audience and the country.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which later became Leslie’s, often took a strongly patriotic stance, with its covers of soldiers and heroic battle stories. The Jan. 1, 1921, issue features a New Year’s business forecast that offered a multi-perspective outlook for the business world of 1921, with a plethora of notables each giving their predictions.

Another weekly of that time period was the Christian Herald, which combined humanitarian causes with Christianity. The magazine dealt with domestic inequality, Christian-Muslim encounters abroad, and Americans’ ambivalent attitudes about the suffering of distant others. The Jan. 8, 1921, issue featured hard workers from a carpenter shop in Palestine on its cover. One noticeable, slight incongruity is the full one-page ad that Paramount Pictures took in the issue, promoting and enlightening readers about its films of 1921. As a Christian weekly, to see Hollywood boldly advertised on its pages had to have been a major big deal in those days.

The American Legion Weekly was a weekly publication that began on July 4, 1919. In 1926, the magazine started as a monthly, published 12 times a year. Throughout the years the magazine has kept readers informed about national security and foreign relations, economic and legislative issues that impact veterans.

The January 7, 1921, issue the editorial begins with the Preamble to the Constitution of The American Legion: “For God and Country, we associate ourselves together for the following purposes: To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America; to maintain law and order; to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism; to preserve the memories and incidents of our association in the Great War; to inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation; to combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses; to make right the master of might; to promote peace and good will on earth; to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy; to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”

In 1921, many magazines celebrated patriotism and America, not just one associated with the military. After World War I, magazines were proud to see war end and to promote America’s freedoms and liberties.

Collier’s was a weekly and a pioneer of investigative journalism. From its important investigations to cartoons, illustrations and short-short story fiction, the magazine was a prominent force in the world of magazines until the late 1950s and deserves its spot in magazine history.

The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois’s African American magazine that was the official magazine of the NAACP, reported on civil rights, history, politics and culture and educated and challenged its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color. Du Bois wrote in the January 1921 issue: “It’s better to be Right than White.” These magazines were game-changers, statements of righteousness and justice that made a difference and still do.

Outers’ Recreation magazine was, according to its tagline, “the magazine that brings the Outdoors In.” Outers’ was rebranded many times, launched by a former newspaper editor from Milwaukee, Dan Starkey. From 1919 to 1924, the title was another iteration and became known for its beautiful covers. In 1927, the magazine finally merged with the established magazine Outdoor Life.

The cover of the January 1921 issue features a young Black boy holding what appears to be an opossum in his hands. The child is smiling and the possum has its mouth wide open — whether a result of being hunted and killed by the child or displayed as a pet, I do not know. But the significance of having a child of color on the cover in 1921 isn’t lost on the time period. The painter of that cover was a gentleman by the name of H.S. De Lay, who initially illustrated books and magazine covers, including “The Quest of the Silver Fleece” by W.E.B. Du Bois, which was the first novel to come from the world-famous sociologist and civil rights leader. Celebrating blackness was profound for the world of magazines in 1921 and, according to a granddaughter of De Lay’s, he wasn’t exactly known as a very liberal man. The mystery of this cover continues.

Magazines as reflectors

It has been said that magazines are reflectors of society. However, the main role of magazines has always been initiators, calling people, places and movements to action. Magazines are powerful tools that people have used for decades to motivate, rejuvenate and excavate ideas, thoughts and information to inform and enrich readers’ minds and lives. The audience was, is and always will be first on the list when it comes to why magazines exist.

Many magazines in those days tended to have a very affluent audience, so the idea that magazines were considered a luxury item is well-formed. It wasn’t long until the 1920s were known as the “Roaring ’20s,” people were flushed with money and the market was steadily going up. Magazine audiences were usually very upscale. And serving that audience, and the advertisers who chose their titles as an avenue to their own customers, was always of paramount importance.

The weekly magazines — and in those days there were many — always strove to impress, always moving ahead with financial forecasts, automotive forecasts, forecasts of all kinds, always working to explain the world to their audience. Almost without any exception, the magazines were also filled with fiction that provided a much-needed escape and service journalism that invited you to come with them and actually do something. Magazines of 1921 were the predecessors of our magazines today and deserving of this reminiscence.

As we step into the New Year of 2021 and look back on the year just past, we would all probably emphatically state that the last 12 months were far from what we expected. I would hazard to say, so would the people in the early 1900s. No one expected a pandemic in either time.

The injustices of hate were also brought to the forefront in both generations, the summer of 2020 and George Floyd’s murder, along with the many other horrific systemic racial travesties.

However, one thing that was there for both eras, sharing information and education and often entertainment to bring us a bit of joy during the traumatic upheaval of the times, were the magazines. Magazines that reminded us that we are in it together: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

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Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the School of Journalism and New Media at The…
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