History of Harpers Magazine from 1850 Including Award Winners and High Spots

Collecting Harpers Magazine for the Literature Inside

Originally I planned to cover both Harpers Magazine and the Atlantic on this page, but as I compiled my research I saw that there was just too much relevant information to fit into one tight comprehensive page. I originally envisioned the Harper’s/Atlantic page as an anchor to the literary section of the site, the two biggest and most popular mass market publications known for literary excellence leading into both their historical competitors, who have not had the fortune of their longevity, as well as a grouping of select literary and little magazines. To split them I’d have to choose one over the other and relegate the loser to this subdivision of smaller and/or less popular publications. I choose Harpers Magazine over the Atlantic both because it’s been around a little bit longer and because it originated with more of a national focus whereas the Atlantic was originally a New England centered periodical.

Harpers Magazine January 1931Harpers Magazine and similar publications present great opportunities for collectors to find some steals online. Unlike sister publication Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly can be had for bargain prices and still reveal treasures inside. Its weekly counterpart can become very expensive, especially during the Civil War years, due to the beautiful illustrations on its covers and within. Through the years and until more recent times, Harpers Magazine offered bland covers that changed very little except for the date and the list of contents. Many online sellers don’t even bother listing an issue’s contents…and that is the true gold where this type of magazine is concerned. From Melville’s “Moby Dick” through to Mark Twain, Jack London, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and John Cheever, there are literary giants dotting issues of Harper’s Monthly throughout its entire history. These stories are for the most part the first available printing and thus in several cases can be quite valuable.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine debuted with the June 1850 issue, which included two short stories by Charles Dickens. Harper & Brothers was already the top publishing house in New York and planned to use the new monthly magazine to keep the presses rolling during downtimes. The original plan was to promote the authors whose books they published by printing excerpts and new stories in the magazine. The monthly proved more popular than it’s publishers could have possibly imagined moving from a print run of 7,500 copies of the first issue to a circulation of over 50,000 within six months.

The Harpers Magazine website reprints “A Word at the Start” from Volume 1, Issue 1, an interesting essay that lays out the groundwork for the magazine. What lies ahead for the loyal reader is carefully spelled out and includes the quickest possible reprints of stories from Britain by authors such as Dickens, reviews, speeches and addresses, the latest scientific discoveries, with “Constant and special regard … to such articles as relate to the Economy of Social and Domestic Life, or tend to promote in any way the education, advancement, and well-being of those who are engaged in any department of productive activity.” In other words, Harpers Magazine will be the absolute best way to stay informed about the latest news and discoveries. All that and a promise of a fashion plate in every number!

The Harper brothers had tabbed Henry J. Raymond as first editor of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, but he would move on to found The New York Times within a couple of years and be replaced by Alfred H. Guernsey. Guernsey would stick around through the Civil War and until 1869. Main competitors during these early years were other monthlies such as Putnam’s, Peterson’s, the North American Review, and then later on in the century Century and Scribner’s. Quite obviously to us in retrospect Harpers Magazine would outlast them all.

Through these early years Harper’s Monthly featured legendary illustrators such as Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer, but it was the fiction that they published that was the top attraction. Besides Melville, contemporaries and successors that we also now find in the classics bin included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, and Thomas Hardy. Harper’s was also a showplace for the talents of Walt Whitman and other poets of the day. People loved their Harper’s, which is great for us as collectors as they rarely threw away their issues and often went above and beyond just saving them by actually having them bound. Professionally bound volumes are often available today in greater quantities than loose single issues. They are an affordable and convenient way to collect nineteenth century editions of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as they make it easier to complete collections of serialized material, but single issues with covers still firmly attached are the more desirable collectible in terms of value.

[phpbay]harpers monthly bound, 12, 280, “”, “”, “”, 25, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, “”, 2[/phpbay]

In regards to the precise name of the magazine, the “Antique Trader Vintage Magazines Price Guide” notes that Harper & Brothers began publishing it as Harper’s New Monthly Magazine before shortening this to Harper’s Monthly Magazine with the Christmas 1900 issue, and then finally chopping the title down to simply Harpers Magazine with the March 1913 issue (Russell 194).. I tend to refer to them all as Harper’s Monthly thus avoiding confusion with both Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar. Both the Bazaar and the Weekly were also published by Harper & Brothers and will be covered separately on this site. In brief, Harper’s Bazaar is a fashion magazine that debuted in 1867 and continues until today under the Hearst mantle, while Harper’s Weekly was an oversized news journal, loaded will illustrations, and ran from 1857 through 1912. As already mentioned, the Weekly is the most collectible of the trio, with Harper’s Monthly falling in between, and Harper’s Bazaar selling at mostly uniform prices to fashion collectors.

While competitors folded Harpers Magazine survived throughout the 1920’s and 30’s under the helm of editor Thomas Bucklin Wells, who would be responsible for the switch to the familiar orange cover of the period. His successor, Frederick Lewis Allen, would credit Harper’s survival during the period to their willingness to adapt to the reading public while other monthlies stayed in the past marketing mainly to the rich and intellectuals. After Allen, John Fischer would take over as editor from 1953-1967. The most notable change under Fischer was a sharp increase in nonfiction, which related directly to the desires of the readers along with a corresponding reduction in fiction to just one short story per issue. Harpers Magazine published several notable short stories throughout the twentieth century, but one can note them taking the focus off of fiction as easily as looking at the O. Henry Award Winners in the magazine’s history:

O. Henry Award (est. 1919) Winning Stories Published by Harpers Magazine

  • 1987: “The Children’s Wing” by Joyce Johnson (July 1986)
  • 1977: “Last Courtesies” by Ella Leffland (July 1976)
  • 1950: “The Blue-Winged Teal” by Wallace Stegner (April 1950)
  • 1947: “The White Circle” by John Bell Clayton (April 1947)
  • 1942: “The Wide Net” by Eudora Welty (May 1942)
  • 1939: “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner (June 1939)
  • 1938: “The Happiest Man on Earth” by Albert Maltz (June 1938)
  • 1935: “The White Horses of Vienna” by Kay Boyle (April 1935)
  • 1933: “Gal Young Un” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (June & July 1932)
  • 1930: “Dressing Up” by W.R. Burnett (November 1929)
  • 1927: “Child of God” by Roarke Bradford (April 1927)
  • 1926: “Bubbles” by Wilbur Daniel Steele (August 1926)
  • 1923: “Prelude” by Edgar Valentine Smith (May 1923)

That’s quite a gap after Wallace Stegner. By the way, I researched the dates of several of those O. Henry winning stories because while the information seems readily available online I did not see another site that included all of the correct issue dates of Harpers Magazine that the stories originated in. This would make for a nice little niche collection in it’s own right and would be very affordable with most of the funds directed towards the June 1939 issue with the Faulkner story.

Harpers Magazine faced its own mortality in 1980 when the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company, which owned it, announced that the magazine would cease publication with the August 1980 issue. This outraged the public and commentators alike and an effort was launched to save the publication that included several offers to buy from individuals, but it was finally purchased in July 1980 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Foundation for just $250,000.

Harpers Magazine had been yet another publication challenged in a way by television, but more directly by the rise of niche magazines, a movement which was the result of TV’s challenge to the newsstand. Tebbel and Zuckerman in “The Magazine in America: 1741-1990” quote editor Lewis H. Lapham:

“Twenty years ago an issue of Harper’s might have contained articles or essays on topics as miscellaneous as marine biology, toy railroads, failures of American foreign policy, ecology of Yellowstone National Park, and the unhappiness of women. Each of these topics now commands a magazine of its own and the inveterate reader of periodicals can make his own catalogue of interested (in effect becoming his own editor) by subscribing to…” (Tebbel 320).

Lapham proceeds to name the several magazines that could be found covering the wide range of topics that Harper’s used to cover so effectively. But Harpers Magazine continues on today, a periodical newsstand favorite of mine when I was commuting to Manhattan and breathing new life today through its website.

Collectibility is at its greatest in issues from the 1850 founding up through the 1940’s, with the key issues being those including key contributions by the key writers of the time. Once the fiction drops off in the 1950’s there are still issues of interest, but Harpers Magazine becomes more of a trove of research information when it does not contain a big story by a big author. As discussed, bound volumes are nice, but your best value comes in individual issues that have held together throughout the years. The “Antique Trader Vintage Magazines Price Guide” notes stories by Melville contained in Volume 3 bound (part of “The Whale” or as we know it better today “Moby Dick”), September 1854 and February 1866. Also of interest are the Mark Twain issues that they list from June 1895 and October 1895 (Russell 195). Still, there are many other issues of value besides the ones mentioned in that book or this article. It just takes a little work to mine them out, but the rewards are potentially great in terms of bargain or profit.


[phpbay]Harpers Monthly, 15, 280, “bound”[/phpbay]