Men’s Magazines

Magazines for American men,  dealing  variously  with topics  as diverse  as politics, health and  fitness,  fashion and  other aspects of consumerism, sexual  health and performance, and  travel, can be traced  back to the 18th  century. Since  the 1980s and 1990s,  magazines directed at men  with a range  of interests and sexual identities have expanded dramatically.

The 18th Century

The  English Gentleman’s Magazine, a publication aimed  at an educated male  audience, was first published in London by Edward  Cave in 1731.  Functioning as a monthly digest  of political  affairs  (including colonial developments), a compendium of literary  and  artistic  production, and  a summary of sporting news, this  magazine was regularly  perused by men  on  both sides  of the  Atlantic. Colonial  subjects in  North America  also  had  recourse to  a broad  range  of other publications. The  18th  century (in both the  pre and post-revolutionary periods) witnessed the  publication of at least  100  magazines, most  of which  were rather short-lived. The  American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, a periodical focusing on  moral  essays, literary  extracts, poems, and  historical topics  was published in Boston in  1743–46. Beginning in  1732  (until  1757),  Benjamin Franklin began to publish his highly  popular Poor Richard’s Almanack and,  in 1741,  the  decidedly utilitarian General Magazine and Historical Chronicle for all the British Plantations in America. Mostly  masculine and  upper class  in  orientation, publications of this sort represent the first important stage in the development of the American men’s magazine.

The 19th Century

The  19th  century ushered in dramatic changes in both printing techniques and audiences. As literacy  rates  rose,  due  in part  to an increase in public  education, magazines directed at more  diverse  groups began  to appear  with  far greater  frequency. In the years following  the American Civil War, a shift in magazine content occurred. Whereas in the  18th  and  early 19th  centuries the  focus  was primarily on  the  dissemination of helpful information, enlightenment, and  education, in the years after 1860  magazine publishers turned more  toward entertainment and amusement. They  also, however, began  to tap into a more  segmented market that was slowly beginning to recognize the  connection between magazine consumption  and  personal identities. Class distinctions were highlighted, for some,  by the types of magazines one  purchased and  read. Scribner’s (f. 1887),  for example,  was directed at an  upper-class and  genteel  readership, while  McClure’s (f. 1893)  and Munsey’s Magazine (f. 1889), with 15and  10-cent cover prices,  respectively, were directed at a much broader reading public. These new and  much cheaper magazines,  which  kept  their  subscription costs  down  by selling  photoengraved illustrated  advertisements, purveyed images  of men  (in advertisements for sports and shaving  equipment, hair  tonics, and  exercise  regimens) that  offered  a new vision of an athletic and dynamic manhood and were embraced by an eager consuming public.

With  the  growing   popularity of  the  illustrated magazine, pioneered  in  the United Kingdom by Herbert Ingram in  his  Illustrated London News in  1842  and popularized in the  United States  by the  publishers of Leslie’s Weekly (f. 1852) and Harper’s Weekly (f. 1857),  came  a new  opportunity for those  interested in reaching  an  exclusively  male  readership. These mass-produced, widely  distributed, and  visually  stimulating publications fed  an  increasing appetite for  up-to-date information and weekly or monthly installments of easily digested entertainment. The  advent  of the  modern magazine market also  brought about a number  of highly  specialized magazines that  provided boys  and  men  with  an  opportunity to  embrace particular masculine identities. Boys were  treated to  a broad  range of publications that  were intended to cater  to their  particular interests. In 1865, for example,  The Little Corporal, a magazine with a military  theme and  concerned with fighting  evil and wrong  and emphasizing all that  was good, true,  and beautiful, began  a 10-year run  of entertaining boys with stories  of martial  heroism and purveying helpful advice. By the end  of the century, however, magazines directed at boys and  men  began  to focus  less on narratives of heroism and  the  self-made man  and more  on physical  appearance.

At the fore of this development were publications dealing  primarily  with bodily improvement and  the new physical  culture craze, a development founded in part to counteract both the  negative  consequences of urbanization and  the  perceived degeneration of American racial stock. Bernarr Adolphus Macfadden (1868–1955), considered by many  to  be  the  American father  of physical  culture, began  this particular form  of magazine publishing in England, where  he launched, in 1898, the magazine Physical Development. In 1899, he introduced what was to be become the most successful of the American magazines on the topic, Physical Culture. Containing articles  on  muscle development, diet,  exercise,  and  bodily  and  facial appearance more  generally,  Physical Culture served  as a prototype for a new form  of men’s  literature that  would  come  to play a major  role in 20th  century magazine markets. As a complicated cultural product (that was as much about visual stimulation  as it was about the  provision of written advice), this  magazine functioned not  only as a vehicle for the transmission of ideas about physical  culture but  also as a titillating and  homoerotically charged text for same-sex desiring men  in the early decades of the 20th  century.

The 20th Century

This emphasis on physical appearance was also seen in several other notable men’s publications in the  1920s  and  1930s.  MacFadden built  on the  success of Physical Culture by creating several pulp  magazines that  provided readers with opportunities to tell their  own  stories. Among  the  most  significant of these  were True Story (f. 1919) and  True Romances (f. 1923). By the 1930s,  the commercial viability of the men’s magazine became readily  apparent to entrepreneurs like Arnold Gingrich who founded, in 1933, Esquire, an oversized, glossy magazine for men that  focused on style and  heterosexual titillation in the form of scantily  clad female models. As the magazine matured, it became more literary in orientation, publishing the works of Ernest Hemingway, William  Faulkner, and John  Steinbeck. It also began,  in the 1940s  and  ’50s, to focus  on providing general  lifestyle information in the form  of fashion features; book,  film, and  music  reviews; and  satirical  humor, often  relating to politics  and  other contemporary events. While  the audience for Esquire was decidedly  upmarket, working-class men  were also catered to in a number of pulp (and later glossy) adventure magazines that  burst onto the scene  beginning in the 1930s.  Focusing in their  first incarnations on Wild West  stories, encounters with the indigenous peoples of African and Latin American lands,  and the conquest of nature, magazines like True (f. 1937)  were transformed in the  postwar period  into publications that  entertained readers with stories  of rapacious Nazis  and  dangerous Communists, often  depicted as direct  threats to American womanhood. African American men  (and to a certain extent  women) were provided with their  own lifestyle magazine with the founding, by John H. Johnson, of Ebony in 1945.

The  most  notable postwar development in  men’s  magazine production undoubtedly occurred in 1953, when Hugh Hefner first published his now infamous Playboy. Intended as both a celebration of female  beauty  and  a lifestyle guide  for urban men,  the magazine met with almost  immediate success. The  first issue featured Marilyn  Monroe as centerfold and  began  a tradition, quickly  followed  in subsequent issues,  of providing not  just  sexually  explicit,  but  still tasteful, images, but  also advice on interior design,  cocktails, dress,  and  physical  appearance. The  focus  was on  creating an image  of manhood and  a masculine lifestyle that appealed to the wealthy, heterosexual, and driven  urban sophisticate. In his opening editorial for the  first issue  of the  magazine, Hefner defined  the  playboy as an urban pleasure seeker,  not an outdoorsy adventurer: “WE like our  apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails, and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the  phonograph, and  inviting  in a female acquaintance for a quiet  discussion on Picasso,  Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Like Esquire, the emphasis on helping to develop the whole man  led Hefner and his staff to also place a high  premium on publishing literary items that might  appeal to educated readers by writers as diverse as Ian Fleming  and, more  recently, Margaret Atwood.

The  men’s  magazine was not  confined exclusively,  in the  postwar period, to men  who  identified with  Playboy’s heterosexual ethos. Borrowing from  the  work of physical  culturists like MacFadden, photographers catering to a queer market began  to  produce  physique magazines for  consumption by  same-sex desiring men.  Most  notable were perhaps the efforts of Bob Mizer, who began,  in 1945, to offer homoerotic photographs to customers through the  catalogue that  he produced for his Athletic  Model  Guild.  In 1951,  he began  publishing the  magazine Physique Pictorial, which  included images of well-developed and nearly naked physique  models, as well as erotic  drawings by artists  such  as Tom of Finland. To avoid  prosecution under the  1873  Comstock Act, which  policed  the  trafficking of obscene images, Physical Pictorial and other magazines like Vim (f. 1954) sought to  evade  detection by adhering, outwardly at  least,  to  the  traditionally sports oriented and hyper masculine tone  of other men’s  magazines.

The  1960s  and  1970s  witnessed the  growth of the  market for  men’s  magazines and the products that  companies like Gillette and Jockey advertised on their pages. A significant magazine from this period had begun life in the 1930s  as Apparel Arts. In 1957,  Apparel Arts, a glossy magazine that  contained images  of men’s fashion, as well as fabric samples for men’s clothes, was relaunched as Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ). Through the 1970s,  this  magazine focused principally on men’s style and clothing. With its sale to the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast in the 1980s, however, the magazine began  a shift that  focused more  on general  lifestyle and  cultural issues,  thus  putting it into  direct  competition with Esquire. This  decade of change also witnessed the rise of several other magazines directed exclusively at male  audiences, including Details (f. 2000)  and  the  enormously popular health and fitness–oriented magazine Men’s Health (f. 1987).

Recent Developments

The  modern proliferation of men’s  magazines really began  in the  1990s,  as publishers began to tap into potentially lucrative youthful male audiences who viewed concerns about their  physical  appearance and  grooming not  as markers of femininity but as a prerogative of a new type of masculinity. Most notable among these magazines have  been  the  so-called lad  magazines. Frequently British  in  origin, these  publications have often  picked  up  where  Playboy left off. Maxim (f. 1995), functions as an international magazine famous as much for its risqué  (but  nonnude)  pictorial spreads of female  actors, models, and  rock  stars  as for its lifestyle advice to its target  audience, 18–30-year-old men.  Frequently aggressive  in tone, magazines like Maxim, even as they focus on the attention to physical  appearance most  closely associated with the rise of the narcissistic and decidedly fashionable metrosexuals, have served  to reinforce heterosexual desire;  produce acquisitive consumer fantasies that  often  revolve around cars, tools,  and  other toys; and  frequently separate straight men  from gay men.

Consumer fantasies and  the attention to physical  appearance, combined with fairly superficial doses  of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and  transgender politics,  have also figured  prominently in the growth of magazines targeted explicitly at openly gay men.  Most  prominent among these  publications has been  the magazine Out (f. 1992),  a lifestyle magazine that  focuses  on travel, fashion, culture, and  physical fitness  and  appearance. It currently enjoys  the  largest  circulation of any gay publication and  reflects  the  diversity  inherent, in the  early 21st  century, in the genre  of the men’s  magazine.

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