The heyday of the Saturday Evening Post is now quite a few years behind us, but the magazine held such a large audience in America that most people are still familiar with it today. Let’s play a little word association: Saturday Evening Post — umm, Norman Rockwell! Yes, that’s right, but there’s so much more to the story of the Post than just Rockwell. There is Curtis and Lorimer and Leyendecker, three names that should at least reign equal with Rockwell’s. We’ll take a look at what each of these names meant to the Post on this page.
The history of the Saturday Evening Post is in itself a tidy history of the magazine in America.
The Saturday Evening Post began in 1821, but as if that didn’t date far enough back to impress you it is claimed that it started up in the same printer’s shop that Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette began in in 1728. Is that American enough for you? Anyway, as collectors we are not all that interested in these early days of the Saturday Evening Post other than as supplemental background information. Where our interest begins to pique is still pretty far back though, in 1897, when Cyrus H.K. Curtis purchased the Post for $1,000.
Where Curtis’ genius as publisher lay was in his hands-off attitude towards his magazines. He had already implemented this strategy in running his first magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal. Originally just a column called “Women and the Home” in his newspaper the Tribune and Farmer, the Ladies’ Home Journal became a separate supplement to the paper in December 1883. Curtis’ wife, Louisa Knapp, edited it until her resignation in 1889. That’s when Curtis gave it over to his first editorial all-star, Edward William Bok.
As for the Saturday Evening Post, Curtis was taking over a sinking ship. Ad revenue from the publication was just $7,000 in the year Curtis purchased it. Thirty years later, in 1927, ad revenue would top $50,000,000. Cy Curtis resurrected the Saturday Evening Post and made it both the most read and most beloved magazine in America during the 1920’s and 30’s. But before those successes he needed to find an editor.
George Horace Lorimer was brought in to run the Post while Curtis sailed to Europe in search of his new editor. When Lorimer sent Curtis an issue in order to keep his boss informed of how he was handling things, Curtis realized that he already had his man. George Horace Lorimer would be the editor of the Saturday Evening Post from 1899 through 1936. When he took over the circulation of the Post was just over 2,000 copies. Under Lorimer not only would it be the first magazine with a circulation surpassing 1,000,000 copies, it would push itself over the 3,000,000 mark by the end of his tenure.
What did Lorimer do to cause this amazing turn around? He implemented changes almost immediately. The September 30, 1899 issue would be expanded to 30 pages and for the first time have a separate cover. Previously the cover of the magazine was page 1. Lorimer produced a two-color red and black cover featuring a painting by George Gibbs. By adding a cover Lorimer was also creating three prominent empty pages: the inside of the front cover and both sides of the back cover. These pages were filled with advertising.
Inside the Saturday Evening Post
Advertising would fuel the success of the Saturday Evening Post. The bottom line for magazines in the past had been circulation–getting paid for selling copies. The Post under Curtis sold for just a nickel to boost circulation numbers and then made its real profits on the advertising. By the teens issues would fatten to over 200 pages and would contain up to 60% advertising. That’s how Curtis and Lorimer managed to hit that magic $50,000,000 ad revenue number by the late twenties.
Inside the covers of the Post was fiction targeted at the masses. The fiction of the Saturday Evening Post was not highbrow like The New Yorker or even literary like Harper’s and the Atlantic. It was popular, intended to strike a chord with the most possible people, not the most educated. The magazine would publish fiction by famous writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, and Sinclair Lewis, but the main offerings of the Post were popular pieces by writers who are lesser known today: Albert Payson Terhune, Octavus Roy Cohen, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Clarence Budington Kelland were all short story and serialized regulars in the Post.
Besides it’s fiction the Saturday Evening Post offered feature stories and humor. When founded in the 19th Century the Post proclaimed itself neutral in politics, under Lorimer it would take on the editor’s pro-business, Republican personality.
Probably the main competition of the Post would become Collier’s when it was under William Chenery. Collier’s had been founded in 1888 and survived until 1957. They were a heavily fiction based magazine though they also did some muckraking in their features.
Saturday Evening Post Covers
But where the Saturday Evening Post separated itself from Collier’s and other competitors was by cementing its own identity through those famed covers. At first a lot of the covers would contain an illustration which corresponded in some way to one of the stories or features inside. Lorimer would quickly abandon this strategy and instead select covers which evoked those same masses with whom he was trying to connect the contents to. He let the covers stand out as a representation of the magazine as a whole. Each issue of the Saturday Evening Post was intended from cover to cover and contents included to represent the same America that its readers were living in.
The cover artists are some of the most famous illustrators of the 20th Century. Besides Rockwell there was J.C. Leyendecker, Harrison Fisher, James Montgomery Flagg, Steven Dohanos, Mead Schaffer and many others over the years. This page is intended more as an overview of the Saturday Evening Post as a whole, but those artists will be detailed on another part of the site. Following is just a brief overview of their relationship to the Post.
Prior to Rockwell’s emergence, Leyendecker was the top cover artist at the Post. Leyendecker handled most of the holiday covers from the very beginning, his most famous being his New Year’s covers which began featuring his New Year’s Baby with the December 29, 1906 issue. Over time Leyendecker would be credited with over 300 of the Post’s covers.
Norman Rockwell’s first Post cover was the May 20, 1916 issue. He would be the top cover artist at the Saturday Evening Post for most of the rest of the magazines history, inking his last cover with the May 25, 1963 issue. Rockwell’s style was the narrative illustration, pictures which told a story. Probably his most famous cover was the May 29, 1943 issue featuring Rosie the Riveter. It was Rosie’s only appearance on a Post cover.
Leyendecker and Rockwell were definitely the main cover contributors during the magazines glory years. Between the two of them they were responsible for one-third of all covers during the 1920’s as well as the top two contributors in the 30’s. Rockwell had the credit on the Post’s first four-color cover, February 6, 1926. Leyendecker kept up his holiday covers until his last, January 2, 1943.
The Post in the 1930’s and 40’s
As for the men in charge, the Saturday Evening Post continued to be run by the Curtis Company, but Cyrus Curtis himself died in 1933. George Horace Lorimer stayed on as editor well into the 1930’s, but was severely disappointed both in general and with the Post’s readership by the re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Having run the Post for so many years as a pro-business Republican, Lorimer was disillusioned by the changing times and stepped down as editor at the end of 1936.
Wesley Stout took over with the first issue of 1937. Stout was in a tough position. As was only natural, he wanted to leave his own mark on the Post, but at the same time how could he alter Lorimer’s policies without upsetting the successful magazine? Stout stuck with Leyendecker and Rockwell as cover artists but tried out a host of new illustrators on the issues that weren’t handled by the top pair. Stout also brought the photographic cover back to the Post, using the work of Ivan Dmitri. Even Dmitri’s photographs would bring their own style to the Post, as they were usually close-ups, often snapped from strange angles. Leyendecker and Rockwell would outlast Stout’s tenure.
Issues of the Post had been shrinking since the Depression. Since the size of the magazine was predicated largely upon advertisements it’s quite clear that the shrinking size of the Post meant shrinking ad revenue for the Curtis Company. Stout was out, Ben Hibbs was in. Hibbs would preside over the Post from 1942 through 1961. He quickly changed the logo of the Post. After the War Hibbs selected covers that depicted the American post-war world; this meant lots of cars and views of the suburbs. Family continued to be the key element to which the Post would appeal.
Hibbs tried out new artists as well, but he quickly settled on a few and he stuck with them. During a four year period in the late 1940’s he would use only 16 different cover artists and only half of those would contribute on a regular basis. Besides Rockwell key cover artists under Hibbs were Mead Shaeffer, Steven Dohanos, and Constantin Alajalov. It was also during the 1950’s that Rockwell would begin doing some portrait covers.
The Demise of the Saturday Evening Post
Profits for the Saturday Evening Post fell throughout the 50’s. Hibbs would be replaced in 1961 by Robert Fuoss. He implemented a new logo, but both the logo and Fuoss’ time in charge would be short. During the 1960’s the Post forsook a key element of its personality as it shifted to photographic covers. It wasn’t this loss that killed the Post though, just like LIFE and LOOK a great deal of the credit to the demise of The Saturday Evening Post can be handed to television. The last issue was February 8, 1969.
The Post would return in the 1970’s as a nostalgia magazine. It even had the original logo and would sometimes reprint Rockwell and Leyendecker covers. But the Saturday Evening Post that we are going to concern ourselves with as collectors is that original Curtis Post, 1897-1969, a good long life.
- Cohn, Jan. Covers of the Saturday Evening Post. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
- Janello, Amy and Brennon Jones. The American Magazine. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.
- Tebbel, John and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741-1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
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