Patterson is at her best in moments like these, using her deep research to help explain the nuances of a complicated and largely forgotten industry and historical period. She’s at her worst when she gets too deeply into her discoveries, too caught up in the individual artists. That sort of thing can be interesting if the writer is really good. But since Patterson’s writing tends to be a little turgid, her forays into personalities and feelings (“It is interesting to speculate about the degree of Osgood’s identification with the persecuted queen Anacaona”) just feel like superfluous digressions. The middle class also turns out to be a rather elusive subject. While these magazines certainly appear to be saccharine and middlebrow, it’s unclear that much of the middle class actually read them.
Patterson admits that “a subscription to the Union or Graham’s would have represented 1 percent of total wages for a year” for a working-class reader. In today’s terms, that’s like if a subscription to Newsweek went for $450. Not only would that render the magazine unaffordable for working class people, it would also be a rather hefty investment for a member of the middle class.
This might have been the problem that led to the demise of such magazines. In 1850 four New York brothers created Harper’s, one of the few magazines discussed in the book that still exists. By exploiting the concept of national advertising, more sophisticated illustration techniques, and more talented (and better paid) writers, the magazine appealed to the affluent and educated in a way that Sartain’s Union Magazine never did.
In their own pages, the editors of the Philadelphia illustrated magazines protested. The editor of Graham’s wrote in an 1851 piece that he thought Harper’s was a respectable “foreign magazine” because it published pieces by Europeans. His magazine, however, was all American. Duly noted, but Harper’s also had the power to pay contributors better and provide readers with more interesting illustrations. Harper’s was simply a better magazine.
The illustrations of the Philadelphia pictorial magazines still exist, gracing the public rooms of funeral parlors and constituting some of the low-end pieces assessed on the Antiques Roadshow, but it doesn’t appear that anyone misses the periodicals in which they appeared. This is the most important takeaway from Patterson’s book. There are many journalistic endeavors very important to their creators and contributors. But unless publications appeal to customers and actually make money, there’s not much reason for them to exist. Something else will come along that can take a lesson from past publications’ successes and failures—and create something for which the world will actually pay.
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