How did I make it this far without featuring LIFE? I don’t know, but to be honest it is a back-up choice. I was originally going to do an earlier issue of Cosmopolitan, had read through the issue and made some notes even, but decided that I hadn’t had enough experience with the title yet to do it overall justice. I wanted something safer, yet fun, and so this issue becomes the LIFE issue. I purposely chose an early issue because LIFE was a little bit different early on and so I figured an early issue now would provide a nice contrast to coverage of an issue from the 40’s or 50’s later on.
After going through our Random Issue a few times I decided that before I planted us back in 1937 it would be interesting to take advantage of our position in time to at least do a basic comparison with a later issue of LIFE. The January 11, 1937 issue is pretty thin on advertising, either because of the time of year (post-Christmas) or more likely lack of interest from advertisers — I say this is more likely because two of the most sought after pages, the inside-front cover and inside-back cover, carry in house ads for LIFE itself up front (LIFE comes out on Friday…) and for sister publication TIME in the rear (Spotlight on China!). The back cover does carry a bland advertisement from the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation, who were a common advertiser at the time. Still, I thought it would be wise to use a later issue from around the same time of the year and ended up settling on the January 28, 1952 issue from LIFE’s hey-day just over fifteen years later.
Not including the covers our 1937 issue contained 64 pages, 9 of which were advertising leaving 55 pages of editorial content. In the 1952 issue, which incidentally does have advertising on the inside covers, there are 96 pages not counting those covers, with 38-1/4 pages of advertising leaving 57-3/4 pages of editorial content — just a couple more than the 1937 issue.
The 1952 issue features several color advertisements while the 1937 issue has two. As to editorial content the 1952 issue has one page featuring a color photo from the Rose Bowl plus a 12-page color photo essay showing the Everglades by Alfred Eisenstaedt. The earlier issue contains just two pages with Winslow Homer paintings reproduced in color, plus four pages featuring color photographs from current stage hits. Most of the photographs credited in the 1952 issue are credited to freelance and staff photographers, while the large majority in the 1937 issue are credited to news services, as even with their famous five photographers on board LIFE still took most of its material from these outside services. The 1952 issue contained several large photos, often a full-page, sometimes even two (including in the color feature), while the 1937 issue has several smaller photos on most pages. These pages have a lot of white space and are very attractive layouts.
By 1952 the content of LIFE was much more serious than its earlier days. Not to say LIFE was no fun, that Everglades feature was exciting for example, but it was aimed at a more middle to upper-middle class audience, while back in 1937 LIFE was not afraid to cater to the lowest common denominator as it tried to find its exact niche. This was best summed up in “LIFE: The First Fifty Years 1936-1986” by a quote from Bernard DeVoto:
“LIFE, whose original formula called for equal parts of the decapitated Chinaman, the flogged Negro, the surgically explored peritoneum, and the rapidly slipping chemise, has decided to appeal to more normal and more intelligent minds. It now spends much more energy on the news and on a kind of visual journalistic investigation, which becomes increasingly interesting as it becomes more expert” (15).
Well, our issue definitely fits the mold of that earlier period. To show you what I mean I’m going to toss the 1952 issue aside as though it did not yet exist and peel back the cover on the January 11, 1937 issue of LIFE.
The issue opens with the “Speaking of Pictures” column, which takes a look at photography from a historical view by reproducing six photos from 1886 taken by Paul Nadar of Paris of centenarian chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul engaged in conversation with the photographers father, Fritz Nadar and others. A couple of the photos include a secretary in the background, who is taking notes on the conversation — the notes appear in the original French beneath each photo and are translated on a separate area of the page. The significance? LIFE claims that these 1886 photos are the first ever candids.
The lead story opening Volume 2, Number 2 of LIFE concerns the recent elections and more specifically the 48 governors representing each state. Over five pages LIFE shows every current governor within the U.S., mostly head shots with a few candids. Each photo has a short caption beneath it such as, “Georgia on Jan. 12: Democrat Eurith Dickinson Rivers, who waves a musket and a book of law, beat Talmadge in the primary.”
While a layout featuring the governors is more typical of what LIFE would come to be known for, turning the page leads us to a little of that early sensationalism. There’s a wedding photo of Edward T. Ford Jr. with his bride Charlotte Hall, and before I could focus on the other photos on the page I was somewhat shocked to finish reading the text next to this photo: “Their transport plane crashed. Both were killed.” Well, that’s depressing. LIFE includes photos of the rubble from the crash and even shows bodies both laid-out on the ground and being carted away, including that of Mrs. Ford. Time to turn the page.
Those two-pages covering the plane crash are part of “LIFE on the American Newsfront” which covers a few other topics on the next page, somehow managing to include another fresh but unrelated corpse in doing so, and then gets a little more light-hearted with a page of hockey brawls. Kind of violent stuff on the “American Newsfront” though.
Up next is a profile of famed birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. This is an interesting four pages, typical of LIFE, with a paragraph of text explaining to the reader exactly who Sanger is and what she is known for. The photos go back in time as far as possible to show Sanger at ages 13, 16, 17, etc., right up to how she looks in 1937. The text accompanying the photos both describe the photo and give more information on the subject where possible: “For starting in Brooklyn this first U.S. birth control clinic in 1916, Mrs. Sanger was arrested.” The second two pages of this article includes a little more text telling of the famous folks who stand behind Sanger and includes photos of some of them such as Havelock Ellis. Another photo shows Sanger with Gandhi, about whom the caption comments that she “failed to convert him.” Another picture is of Sanger with Mrs. Thomas N. Hepburn (Katharine’s mother) and friend H.G. Wells. Also shown are Sanger’s second husband, James Noah Henry Slee and a photo of their beautiful home on a small lake in Fishkill, NY.
LIFE uses color to reproduce three paintings by Winslow Homer over two pages. The Homer paintings are topical because they were part of an exhibition of over 150 of his works currently showing at the Whitney Museum.
And from the arts we return to the gutter, this time a little more literally, with a single page feature titled “Bum.” “Bum” is a series of seven photos showing a man passed out on a San Francisco sidewalk. LIFE claims that a hundred pedestrians passed by the man before one became curious enough to gather a crowd who eventually “aid” him by gathering the man to his feet. The final photo shows the man sitting on some steps and it captioned “The Bum Rests at Hotel Comfort”. LIFE seems to be calling out the pedestrians for not wanting to get involved, but still, I can’t imagine they have much sympathy for the man when they title these photos the way they did and speculate on whether he’s dead or drunk.
The next four pages are fun, but they’re science too, as LIFE takes a look at the dinosaur. The first two pages show photos of the area that is to become Dinosaur National Park in Utah, while the other two pages show several bones including one complete Brontosaurus skeleton.
Next up are two pages exclusively devoted to baths. More specifically new trends such as milk, foam, and wax baths, though LIFE does use the opportunity to include some female nudity in its mud bath photo. Marlene Dietrich is also pictured “in plain soap and water in the British film, ‘Knight Without Armor.'”
The 1936-37 season on Broadway is covered next and includes color photographs of the most popular plays of the time including two from Tobacco Road, which is on a three-year run, a large shot from Tovarich, another with film stars Margaret Sullavan and Phyllis Brooks in Stage Door, and finally a large shot from Dead End showing the death of Babyface Martin.
The cover story takes up the next seven pages, most of which LIFE spends making huge generalizations about the Japanese, mostly negative, some attempting to be positive. Comments include:
- No soldier in the world takes so readily to discipline as the Japanese. He can march 50 miles per day on a diet of fish and rice. He will commit suicide in action. He inherits from his father the blind obedience of a feudalism which Japan’s ruling class has painstakingly carried over to an industrial civilization.
- The Japanese are an artful race and the one phase of modern warfare that all its soldiers instinctively delight in is camouflage.
- The typical Japanese body is square, chunky and thick-legged, male and female.
- With his clothes off, a Japanese country gentleman is practically indistinguishable from a peasant’s son. Both are gluttons for exercise and clean-living.
“The Camera Overseas” continues on to England with a photo of the Queen Mother Mary; to Moscow with Paul Robeson who has announced that he wants to send his son to Soviet schools (“He found the most social equality in Austria until he went to Russia where a Negro is even more of a novelty than in central Europe”); Next to Italy, where Mussolini is shown overseeing production of the classic “Scipio Africanus” a typically nationalistic effort of the time which showed Rome conquering Carthage. LIFE points out “The tacit point of all current Italian movies is to tell Italians what a great race they are.” They also draw comparison of ancient Carthage to modern Ethiopia, which Mussolini has recently conquered.
The final main feature of the issue is an entertainment personality profile, in this case, skater-actress Sonja Henie, who is covered over four pages and shown in the film One in a Million on the opening page. Henie is shown exercising over the next couple of pages and with boyfriend Tyrone Power as well as her father, former bicycle racing champion, Wilhelm Henie, described by LIFE as being “old, fat, and obliging.”
The issue ends with “Pictures to the Editors” which includes a graphic six photo spread of a hernia operation being completed with “living thread” from the patient’s own thigh.
So we find this issue contained politics, science, art, film, stage, and biography, all of which can be found as key components of later issues, and as they say in one of my favorite films, Sullivan’s Travels, “but with a little sex” in this case our 2-pages of baths. Plus we had those photos of dead bodies, and an article none too friendly towards the Japanese. LIFE certainly could have veered off course in the future and concentrated on sex and corpses, but chose the high road instead leaving the sensationalism to lesser publications.
Surely much of the callousness with which LIFE treated subjects none so dear to its heart was a product of the times — I’m referring to their Japanese stereotypes and the exploitation of the homeless man as the main examples, while their willingness to show a little skin and as many dead bodies as possible would seem to be a part of their personal growing pains. While 1937 was certainly a less sensitive time, that had a lot to do with who was running and writing the publication as well as the ruling class in general. LIFE, like most of the rest of American culture, would become more sensitive as time went by. Still, whether or not some of it rubs you the wrong way or just out and out offends you, there’s no better way to get a peek into the period than to open up an old issue of LIFE and look at their pictures. Skip the captions if their writing style bothers you too much.