Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.
The Saturday Evening Post was famous for its colorful covers.
In his 1948 history of the Post, George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday Evening Post, John Tebbel wrote that the Post’s covers “were easily the Post’s most distinctive feature, its most popular single item and its greatest sales asset.” The Post’s editor-in-chief always chose the cover personally, applying very exacting standards. He would never trust such an important decision to a mere art director:
Lorimer picked the covers as a weekly routine, with the same unerring judgment he exercised on the editorial content. Fifteen or more cover candidates would be lined up on the floor, leaning against the wall, and the boss would walk past them like a general reviewing troops. As he made his rapid progress he would stab at them with a finger and keep up a running monologue: ‘Out, out, out, maybe this one, maybe, out, out, this one.’…. His genius for picking covers was affirmed time and time again by the evidences of their enormous popularity. In some Midwestern communities there were groups of readers who maintained betting pools on the topic of the next week’s cover.
So it’s hard to imagine that, for much of its history, the Post had no cover picture at all.
The magazine began as text densely packed into tight columns on both sides of the page. It was up to the reader to visualize whatever was going on in the articles they read. The Post’s creative “look” was limited to a few different styles of typography. In fact, the Post might never have had its famous cover pictures if three crucial developments hadn’t come together simultaneously at the end of the 19th century. If any one of those developments had not taken place, the magazine revolution might not have conquered the world. As it was, the Post combined those developments to become the leading circulation magazine in the country.
Development No. 1: A New Kind of Paper Was Invented
In the beginning, paper was expensive, so magazines couldn’t afford the luxury of large pages and the empty white space necessary for illustrations and modern design. Through most of the 19th century, magazines were printed on paper made of “rag” content. Rag paper became even more expensive after the Civil War when supply could not keep up with increasing demand. After much experimentation, the paper industry finally produced new kinds of paper from wood pulp, paper that was strong enough to be used in the new high-speed rotary presses and durable enough so that it didn’t fall apart after multiple readings. It was clean and white, making a good platform for reproducing images. And perhaps best of all, the new paper was only 1/20th the cost of rag paper, so it gave magazines creative freedom to design larger and longer magazines with all kinds of eye-catching and imaginative formats. The cheaper paper reduced the price of magazines, making them accessible to masses of readers who previously couldn’t afford to subscribe. The price of the Post dropped to five cents, where it remained for decades.
The new paper was a great boon for magazines, but it wasn’t sufficient by itself.
Development No. 2: Better Ways of Reproducing Pictures Were Invented
When the Post began, it was difficult to print even the most basic black and white images, and they rarely turned out well. Crude images such as silhouettes of heads, pointing hands or simple graphic symbols were occasionally inserted into the text to sustain the interest of readers and give their eyes a little rest from long, monotonous columns of words.
These images were printed using woodcuts or wood engravings, carved by hand into actual blocks of wood, then inked and pressed against paper. This meant the images couldn’t be too complicated. They couldn’t be in color. They couldn’t be used for high circulation magazines because the wooden blocks would wear out after a limited number of printings. (Of course, high circulation was not a big problem. In the early days the Post had only a few hundred subscribers.)
But by the end of the 19th century, innovations in printing technology enabled magazines to reproduce a wide variety of expressive, interesting illustrations. Photographic processes replaced the old-fashioned wood engravers. Quality artists were attracted to the field when they discovered their work could be reproduced accurately. Vivid color reproduction and halftone engraving served as a magnet for new readers. The first color cover of the Post appeared on September 30, 1899, at the beginning of a great surge in the Post’s circulation.
The new technique for printing pictures was a great boon for magazines, but even more changes were in store for the magazine business.
Development No. 3: A New Business Model Was Invented
Magazines were originally paid for solely by subscribers. As magazines learned to print more copies using new high-speed printers and deliver those copies to homes across a wider area using improved transportation, subscription lists grew. However, even with many new readers, magazines could never afford to hire the most talented artists in the land to paint large, full color oil paintings for illustrations. The crucial difference was a new business model: mass marketing.
For most of its history, the Post rarely included advertising. In 1898 the Post was purchased by Cyrus Curtis (the Publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal) for a thousand dollars. At that time it had a total circulation of 10,473, and its advertising revenues for the July 1898 issue were a pitiful $290. Curtis hired a new editor, a visionary named George Lorimer, who saw the potential in the new developments described above — the better paper and the new printing techniques — and began transforming the Post with images. The first genuine full page cover illustration, proudly displaying what readers would find within, appeared in black and white on September 2, 1899.
But for Lorimer, advertising revenues were the engine that would power the growth of the new Post. The first full page illustration in the Post was not the cover but an advertisement for Quaker oats. Lorimer believed he could attract more readers with pictures, and that more readers would attract not only more subscription fees but also more advertisers. Lorimer increased the size of the page, making it more hospitable for big pictures. He expanded the length of the magazine to 24 pages (and suggested that it would soon grow to 32). He gambled much of the future of the magazine on pictures.
While this new content increased the cost of producing the Post, it also attracted millions of subscribers and made the Post the ideal forum for America’s new manufacturing industry looking for ways to market everything from soap to cars. The Post rapidly outdistanced all of its competitors as a way to reach homes across the country. Advertising revenues subsidized the 5 cent cover price and enabled the Post to commission brilliant illustrations for each issue.
Lorimer was said to have accomplished for the American magazine what Henry Ford did for the automobile. The new business model was a great boon for magazines, but it wasn’t sufficient by itself. If not for the new potential created by the development of new paper and the development of new printing capability, the new business model would not have become so successful.
A Magazine Renaissance
At the end of the 19th century the combination of these three developments led to the Post’s renaissance. The transformation didn’t take place instantaneously. During the transition the magazine sometimes offered hybrid covers that were half illustration, half table of contents.
But popular opinion became clear and there was no turning back. The cover pictures on the Post became an institution. New topics for covers were proposed not only by Post cover artists but also by readers and by the editorial staff of the Post who would come back from their vacations or business travel with lists of sights they’d seen that might make a good cover. Hollywood studios would contact the Post to get the name of a fetching model who had appeared in a Post cover. Everyone wanted to participate in the process, and that helped create the momentum that would serve the Post cover well for the next several decades.
People talk about the special bond between mothers and sons, but some of these ‘40s and ‘50s moms don’t look so sure.
Any mother can relate to the problem of the growth spurt, as painted by Frances Tipton Hunter, who created 18 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Hunter was particularly interested in drawing children and animals. She also illustrated a series of paper dolls in the 1920s for the Ladies’ Home Journal, which proved to be extremely popular.
[From the editors of the April 17, 1948, issue of the Post] The old, old losing fight to keep a boy in clean clothes, when in five minutes he can get dirtier than a grease monkey, is noted here by an artist taking his first crack at a cover. He is George Hughes, one of the country’s best-known illustrators, whose work in that field is highly familiar to Post readers.
[From the editors of the June 5, 1948, issue of the Post] Stevan Dohanos’ two sons, Peter and Paul, were in an Eastern boys’ school and about this time last year, getting-out time, he took the family car up to help them move home. A passenger car, he learned, is no proper vehicle for such a job. It calls for a light truck or van. Brooding about this, and what it meant for the future, Dohanos mentioned his trip to a friend with a son or sons in college. They told him his real moving jobs are still ahead, when he tries to load the contents of one college room. The artist made his sketches on the Yale campus, but rearranged things to suit his purposes. The boy is George Ritter, of Westport, Connecticut, no Yale man. The artist didn’t use a Yale man, on the remarkable theory that none would like to cut class.
[From the editors of the October 16, 1948, issue of the Post] It’s that suspenseful occasion when a young man puts on his first tuxedo to go out to a formal party—or more commonly, first puts on his father’s tuxedo or one borrowed from an older brother. Looking around for models, it occurred to artist George Hughes that some of his neighbors would serve excellently. The boy getting ready to dazzle them at the dinner dance, if he doesn’t forget and wear moccasins, is Tommy Rockwell, son of artist Norman Rockwell. The woman essaying the puzzling job of tying somebody else’s tie is Tommy’s mother. That is Tommy’s room, in Arlington, Vermont, and Hughes was much impressed—he thought it remarkably tidy, as boys’ rooms go. Temporarily tidy, at least, and you can’t ask more than that.
[From the editors of the February 25, 1950, issue of the Post] “Outfitters to Young Gentlemen,” proclaims the suit box, in a blundering effort to make the victim of its contents feel as swell as he looks. The young character does not wish to look like a young gentleman. What, he wonders in horror, will the gang down the street think when he bursts upon their gaze and is recognized as the guy they had always thought of as a normal, gun-toting cowboy? Will they clasp their hands as mother is doing, only with a less complimentary ecstasy? One ray of hope plays on the dark scene. In the next few weeks other misguided mothers will get this same new-suit fever, and on Easter Sunday many young cowpokes, in similar outrageous disguises, will be comforted by their companionship in misery.
[From the editors of the September 8, 1951, issue of the Post] This mother’s face is charming upside-down, but if you will also stand on your head, you will find that she wears a choleric expression. She is mad at her son, which is unreasonable, for she herself has lost his shoe. He took it off last June, and is it not a woman’s duty to take care of her men’s clothing? We know where the shoe is: it is either in the Apache hide-out under the forsythia bush, in the cowpoke’s corral in the vacant lot down the street, or Fido is preserving it in his kennel as an objet d’art. Junior will go to school in sneakers, and nobody will care except his mother, who doesn’t go to school. Next week she very likely will think all this is funny, and what the moral of Jack Welch’s theme is, we don’t know.
[From the editors of the September 20, 1952, issue of the Post] Inventors are so smart at dreaming up new types of cloth, why doesn’t some bright fellow concoct a rubber-base fabric, so that the suit of an expanding boy can occasionally be put on a stretcher and thus increase in pace with its master? When this idea goes into production, we get a 10 per cent cut or somebody gets sued. Meanwhile, Dick Sargent’s distraught homemaker can take a few gussets in that stationary suit and hang it on Son #2, but then the boy will promptly outgrow it. Oh, for the deflated old days when it wasn’t necessary to stop eating for a while to finance a new suit or stop buying suits to eat. Well, better times ahead, mother! Soon the lads will be big enough to hand down their clothes to their father.
[From the editors of the November 8, 1952, issue of the Post] Little Johnny Tomorrow has just walked past young Mr. Today, making the latter look aged and out of date. It reminds us of a sad occasion when an airliner captain asked a little passenger if this was his first time up. “Fourteenth,” said the lad. ‘Can’t ever get up higher ‘n five, ten thousand feet in these old planes, though. How’s the United States ever going to build a space platform if you fellas can’t make altitude?” The captain, epitome of modernism, turned green and crept away to rev up his creaky old engines; and the boy should have been spanked for insolence, except that actually he had his feet on the ground. When artist Sewell’s youngster gets tired of wearing that helmet, the hostess could put it on somebody who is snoring.
[From the editors of the December 20, 1952, issue of the Post] What is lovelier than the glow of care-free joy in the faces of happy children? Will the lady on the cover have the time to defend her food and change those expressions to the pinched melancholy of starvation? She will if she can make it across the room in time. It will be fairly cruel if she imprisons the lads in the kitchen with nice, healthy, disillusioning peanut-butter sandwiches, but not as cruel as the time Dick Sargent set up that enchanting pastry in his dining room to paint. He has sons. The mouths of the sons began to water. They watered for a week. Two weeks. Three. Then the sons were released at the pastry. They ate it so fast they apparently did not notice it was petrified, claims the fiendish father.
[From the editors of the October 22, 1955, issue of the Post] Mother is making rapid progress at teaching the boys to maintain a tidy room; if George Hughes had painted this the day school opened, the detail would have given him a lame arm. Now, here is portrayed an intelligent female who in her delicate way molds the character of men; so, when her boys are seniors in college, they will be 27 per cent tidier than now. Then they will get married and never leave so much as a pipe cleaner lying about—for six weeks. After that they will revert to human beings, and what they don’t chuck around will be what they haven’t got. A woman’s picking-up-stuff is never done. Why doesn’t this mother shock the boys into tidy conduct by simply leaving their shambles untouched? Because they like it this way. She’d better go buy herself a new hat.
[From the editors of the May 11, 1957, issue of the Post] Johnny’s happy shout of “Mother, I’ve brought something for you!” is an understatement. Dick Sargent certainly can paint the most delicious-looking mud; did he use maple fudge for a model? Now then, when mother regards her ex-clean carpet and the adoration in the eyes of her seldom-so-soiled son, what type of emotion will possess her? Although a mother’s ups and downs often come simultaneously, and situations like this are all in the day’s work and love, the temperature of her reaction will depend partly on whether she’s a phlegmatic soul or pop-offy soul. Yet it’s a good bet that before she undertakes to make things come clean, she will administer to her son, fudge and all, a good, sound—kissing. Afterthought: if Fido decides to shake himself, all bets are off.
[From the editors of the February 15, 1958, issue of the Post] It’s typical of the male sex that Johnny is realizing how much his favorite lady means to him only when she is about to go away—and that’s enough psychology for this week. So John wants to cling to her, which will overlay a stunning new chocolate pattern on her dress, a chic addition to what seems to be a golden-fingerprint motif already put there by designer Amos Sewell. Without meaning to be unreasonable about this, is Miss Sitter going to come to the rescue or wait until the television program ends? Johnny’s situation is a bit pathetic as mamma delivers what football fans will recognize as a beautiful straight-arm; yet he does have loving parents, a swell home, luscious food, brisk entertainment and a pretty girl to dine with—what more can a young fellow ask?
[From the editors of the November 29, 1958, issue of the Post] It looks as if artist Amos Sewell’s cover urchin is entering a bathtub of his own free will, and is therefore outwitting himself. Johnny’s decision to try out his diving gear has made him forget to remember that using water for the purpose of getting clean is bitterly repugnant to him. Mother could remind him of this, but why burden his little mind with confusing thoughts? So down Johnny will dive into the mysterious depths, seeking treasure on the floor of the sea, and down there he may well find a bar of soap. Then if mother and son excitedly agree that Johnny has found a rare specimen of submarine life worth maybe a trillion dollars or more, they will be sharing just a little white lie from which, as mother makes with the soap, great good will come.
With the publication of the Best Short Stories of the Great American Fiction Contest 2016, featuring winner Celeste McMaster’s “Zelda, Burning”, the Post continues a century-long tradition of discovering new literary talent.
Ever since its earliest years, when it published works by Hawthorne, Irving, and Poe, the magazine was associated with great American fiction. But starting in 1899, it developed a reputation as the most prestigious magazine for writers to publish their stories in. Any struggling author whose story appeared in its pages, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, could feel that he or she had arrived.
The man who built this reputation for the Post was George Horace Lorimer, an editor with a strong sense of what American readers wanted. In the 1900s, he paid top dollar for stories by the best authors of his time: Stephen Crane, O. Henry, and Joseph Conrad. And he turned down work by famous writers that he felt didn’t come up to the Post standards. He rejected 12 stories by Rudyard Kipling (who was living in America while writing The Jungle Book) before finding one he liked.
But Lorimer’s genius extended beyond recognizing quality from the big names in fiction. He purposely sought stories from promising unknowns. He scoured newspapers, looking for their work. He advertised in the Post, assuring writers that “good short stories bring good prices. The Post will pay well for cleverly written, unpublished stories from 3,000 to 5,000 words.”
Lorimer also regularly dug into the pile of unsolicited stories sent to the Post. Each year, the magazine received more than 175,000 manuscripts from authors hoping to hit the big time. Among Lorimer’s discoveries was a then-unknown author named Sinclair Lewis. In 1915, his “Nature, Inc.” — a satire about a pseudo-religious health farm — landed in the Post’s slush pile. Lorimer found the manuscript, read it, and immediately wrote to Sinclair: “‘Nature, Inc.’ is an exceedingly entertaining short story, and we are very glad to have it for The Saturday Evening Post. Now that you have made a start with us, I hope that you will … become a household word.”
Over the next five years, Lewis published 28 stories and articles in the Post. His last piece in the magazine was published five years after Lewis became the first American author to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.
Another Lorimer discovery was F. Scott Fitzgerald whose short stories were selected for publication before his first book, This Side of Paradise, hit bookstores. Years later, Fitzgerald recalled his excitement when he got the news the Post had accepted his work: “I’d like to get a thrill like that again, but I suppose it’s only once in a lifetime.”
In the 1950s, the Post published several stories written by a young publicist at General Electric named Kurt Vonnegut. Of the 11 stories that appeared in the Post, most were written before Vonnegut developed his signature style. But if you read his seventh story, “Miss Temptation,” you’ll definitely recognize notes of his distinctive literary voice.
The Post also played a role in boosting the career of Ray Bradbury. When the Post published “The World the Children Made” in 1950, it was the first time Bradbury’s fantasy writing appeared in anything other than a pulp magazine. The Post published 16 of Bradbury’s stories over the next 62 years, the last appearing in 2012.
In the 1940s, a Jerome David Salinger submitted several stories to the Post. By the time his first story appeared in the magazine, Salinger had been drafted, sent overseas, and participated in the D-Day invasion. He was thrilled to hear that “The Varioni Brothers” would appear in the Post. “My God,” he wrote one of his old writing teachers, “the millions of people who’ll read them. Can you imagine?”
Shortly after his fifth story appeared in the Post — “The Last Day of the Last Furlough”— he was among the first American troops to enter liberated Paris. When he bumped into Ernest Hemingway, then serving as a war correspondent, Salinger hunted up a copy of the Post and took it to Hemingway, asking him for his opinion. After reading the story, Hemingway declared Salinger “a helluva talent.”
The name Ernest Hemingway reminds us that the Post didn’t publish every great American writer of the 20th century. We might have published Jack London, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Pearl Buck, James M. Cain, Shirley Jackson, Tom Wolfe, John Cheever, and John Updike — but we never published any Hemingway.
Though we can’t be certain that he ever submitted anything to the Post.
Don’t miss your chance to join this group of great American authors. Make sure the Post receives your entry to the Great American Fiction Contest before the July 1, 2016, deadline.
We begin a series of the Post’s reporting on the Gettysburg Campaign with the initial news of the invasion.
As was its style, the Post presented the news on Page 2 of the June 27, 1863, issue. Beneath a simple headline, “The War,” it calmly announced the opening of what would become a pivotal moment in United States history:
“Since our last issue, we have had a considerable amount of excitement in this city, owing to the reports of a rebel inroad into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Exaggerated as those reports so far have been, it is better to be prepared for the worst, than to run any risk in such a serious manner.”
The early reports were not encouraging, the article added. The federal government had believed the Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee, was camped near Chancellorsville, Virginia, directly across the Rappahannock River from the Union army. But starting in June, Lee had quietly begun withdrawing his 70,000-man army and marching them north, toward Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Ahead of him lay only small, scattered groups of Union forces. The first to encounter the advancing rebels were the 7,000 Yankees at Winchester, Virginia. They were quickly brushed aside and then, wrote the editors, Pennsylvania “lay open for the moment to any rebel body which had the temerity to enter.”
On June 19, the Confederates had crossed into Maryland. Two days later, they entered Pennsylvania. When they reached Chambersburg on June 28, they were still 160 miles from Philadelphia, and the Post’s offices. But those miles were nearly empty of any defending troops; the Union army had begun chasing after Lee’s army on June 11, but they were still south, unable to protect Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.
Yet the Post editors remained confident that the men of Pennsylvania could, and would, throw the invaders back across the Mason-Dixon Line. They assured their readers that a state militia could be quickly formed, and it would be far more effective than expected. “We hear, in these times, a great deal of underrating of the militia, as unreliable against veteran troops. Men are disposed to think it useless to trust our safety to such a force. But it seems to be forgotten that these militia are now upon the soil of their own states, fighting in defense of all that we hold dear.”
The Post explained that militia soldiers of the South had proven they could be highly effective in pushing back the Union armies that entered their states. (Though, when they had to fight beyond their state lines, their effectiveness disappeared. “They failed thus at Antietam, and South Mountain, and Perryville, and Mill Spring, and other places.”)
The North shouldn’t dismiss the fighting skills of raw recruits, the article maintained. They had heard witnesses from several battles say raw troops had performed just as well as veteran soldiers, sometimes even better. After all, it was a hastily formed militia that won the famous Revolutionary war battle of Bunker Hill, not to mention the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans.
Regardless of how well this green militia could fight, it was all the state had to defend itself until the Union’s Army of the Potomac could arrive. Pennsylvania’s governor called for 90,000 men to form a state militia, and hundreds of men traveled to Harrisburg to muster in. But when they arrived, many changed their minds upon learning the enlistment period of six months was longer than they thought necessary to meet the crisis.
Instead of criticizing their lack of spirit, the Post agreed with the volunteers’ decision not to enlist: “We do not censure in the least, those of our citizens who recently returned from Harrisburg, because their business engagements did not admit even a conditional pledge to serve for six months.” If the emergency were truly short-lived, they argued, there wouldn’t be any need for such a long enlistment.
Seeing the poor response, the governor reduced his request to 60,000 men and an enlistment of just three months.
While the debate about terms of service continued, the Confederates were helping themselves to the riches of Pennsylvania. Rebel troops who had long been living on short rations in a countryside ruined by war suddenly found themselves among the fat livestock and bulging granaries on Pennsylvania Dutch farms. Lee had ordered his men not to take from the local farmers, but to pay for what they requisitioned in (valueless) Confederate money. But many Confederates didn’t bother with such niceties as payment as they helped themselves to livestock, crops, furniture, clothing, and anything that could be loaded onto a wagon. Even worse, several hundred black Americans—some escaped slaves as well as fourth-generation free Pennsylvanians—were being seized and sent south to be sold as slaves.
No one in the North could be sure where Lee was headed, or what he had in mind. A report filed in the Post on June 28 indicated Harrisburg was the likely target. “The capital of the state is in danger. The enemy is within four miles of our works and advancing. The cannonading has been distinctly heard for three hours.”
Northerners knew that if Lee could take Harrisburg and its resources, he might easily turn southeast and seize Washington, D.C., just 120 miles away.
The Post’s editors never lost faith in Pennsylvania, or the Union. They believed Lee had made a bold move, but a hazardous one. “Properly improved on the part of the North and the Government, it may have the most favorable results. Let the friends of the Union seize now the propitious moment.”
What the Post didn’t know was that the Union army was closer than they, or Lee, expected.
Coming Next: Scrambling for Troops