6/4/10 - life magazine

In today's excerpt - 1936, having founded Time magazine and become wealthy and famous in the process, Henry Luce founded a new magazine based primarily on displaying photographs which he called Life:

"Even before the first issue appeared, it was becoming clear that Life would be an enormous popular success—a result of effective advertising, extensive press coverage, the reputation of the company, and the popular hunger for pictures that Luce had cited as a reason to create Life. ...

"There were 235,000 subscribers by the time the first issue appeared—almost the entire guaranteed circulation before any newsstand sales, for which requests were also growing fast. Shortly before publication, the circulation manager announced that because of the frenzied, anticipatory interest 'every dealer is to receive the same number of copies of Life that he receives of Time.' 'One dealer in New York who sells two copies of Time a week placed an order for 250 copies of Life,' Pierre Prentice, the circulation manager, wrote.' All the dealers are ... mad that we were not able to supply them with more copies of Life.'

"Nothing, however, truly prepared Luce and his colleagues for the public response to Life when it finally went on sale. Some images collected by the editors at the time suggest the character of the magazine's first weeks: a used-book shop with a sign pasted in the window—'Life Wanted, Good Prices Paid'; a classified ad in the San Francisco Examiner in December 1936—'LIFE magazine, 1st edition; 2; $3.50 each (they retailed for $0.10 per copy). Phone VA1. 5927. Afternoons'; a drugstore in Detroit with a copy of Life in the window below a sign—'Sold Out But Read It Here'; heavily marked up distribution lists from newsstands in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Keyport, New Jersey, from dealers who were saving copies of Life for regular customers (the Keyport dealer rationed copies by selling the magazine to each customer only on alternating weeks); and a cartoon in an advertising magazine showing a group of businessmen around a table, one of them sputtering, 'W-w-what's that! You say you saw an unsold copy of this week's 'Life' at a newsstand on 42nd Street?' ...

"All two hundred thousand newsstand copies sold out the first day, some of them in the first hour. Dealers from around the country wired their distributors that they could sell five hundred more copies (Cincinnati), one thousand more (Lansing, Michigan), fifteen hundred more (Worcester, Massachusetts), five thousand more (Cleveland).'The demand for LIFE is completely without precedent in publishing history,' the overwhelmed Prentice wrote. 'If we could supply the copies, the dollar volume of our newsstand sales of LIFE this month [December 1936] would be greater than the dollar volume of sales of any other magazine in the world. There was no way we could anticipate a bigger newsstand business the first month than magazines like Collier's and Saturday Evening Post have built up in thirty years.' ...

"By the end of 1937, a year after Life's birth, circulation had reached 1.5 million—more than triple the first-year circulation of any magazine in American. ...

"Increasing supply to keep up with demand required an almost Herculean effort. The production of Life was constrained by a serious shortage of paper, an inadequate number of presses, and serious fire hazards in the gas-heated presses already in use, which were running dangerously almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."


Alan Brinkley


The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century


First Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc


Copyright 2010 by Alan Brinkley


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