Title Reviewed:
A History of American Magazines

Author Reviewed:
Frank Luther Mott

Donald F. Carmony


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 53, Issue 3, pp 326-327

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A History of American Magazines. Volume IV, 1885–1905. By Frank Luther Mott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Pp. xvii, 858. Illustrations and index. $12.50.)

In his brief preface Professor Mott emphasizes that he has merely attempted to discuss "the more important periodicals in the various categories" for the two decades, 1885–1905. Early chapters offer an overall view of American magazines in this period, along with chapters on circulation and advertising, editors and contributors, monthlies, weeklies, quarterlies, as well as local and regional magazines.

There are more than a dozen chapters about magazines ranging from those related to the graphic arts, politics and economics, foreign affairs, education, religion and philosophy, to others concerning agriculture, science and medicine, sports and recreation, activities of women, thence to humor and hobbies. About four hundred well-packed pages complete this portion of the volume, a portion longer than numerous published books.

But Professor Mott is only half finished when these chapters are concluded. The remaining thirty-four—the "Supplement"—include separate sketches of an equal number of important magazines which flourished, 1885–1905. Then, for good measure, there is a sixty-eight page index and dozens of interesting pictures on unnumbered pages.

This comprehensive and invaluable history is written by one who can see and describe both the forest and the individual trees therein. Moreover, the general development of magazines is woven into basic movements and attitudes of American history. He portrays an understanding of the general impact of technology, urbanization, rural free delivery, lower postage rates, industrialization and mounting wealth, world trade and imperialism, expanding public education, the growth of advertising, the passing of "personal" journalism, the progress of the West and the South, the changing status of women, increased leisure, and other changes on magazines and American life generally.

Possibly magazines reached the peak of their influence during the twenty years, 1885–1905. The mobility of American life which came with the automobile had not yet arrived and competition with television, radio, and films was in the future. Moreover, though university extension and adult education "movements" had been born, their mushrooming, as well as that of the trade associations, was also principally in the future. Even the paperbacks, at least as they are now known, were no threat. The newspapers, especially the Sunday editions, were the principal rival of the magazines. In fact, the actual difference between some Sunday newspapers and some magazines was about equal to that almost imperceptible difference between contemporary versions of Cleveland Democracy and Harrison Republicanism!

Professor Mott writes with wit and humor. Whether the quotation from Herbert B. Adams terming infant university extension " `the Salvation Army of education' " (p. 263) represents perception, wit, or bias is one on which this reviewer prefers to plead the Fifth Amendment. There is a wholesome-ness about the manner in which Mott tells his story, acting like a good umpire who calls things as he sees them without waiting for the echo from the crowd. Incidentally, there may be much significance in the concluding part of the opening paragraph which states that "there was no time in those twenty years [1885–1905] when the cry of protest was not almost as loud as the shout of success."

In a work on such a grand scale there are sins of omission and commission, and a few other kinds as well. The use of numerous quotations without traceable citations is unfortunate and disturbing, but there is so much useful information in this huge volume that it would be distasteful to pull Old Betsy from the mantle and shoot at miscellaneous targets. Presumably budding journalists and young scholars can now win some of their spurs by proving Professor Mott to be fallible, but, if so, they are likely to be much indebted to him and to add a bit to his stature as a historian of American magazines.

Donald F. Carmony Indiana University

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.