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).
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.