Art for the Middle Classes: America’s Illustrated Magazines of the 1840s by Cynthia Lee Patterson | University Press of Mississippi | 210 pages, $50

Ah, modern journalism. Contributors struggle to find jobs and receive timely payments; publishers wonder where they’ll find advertisements; media companies search for other profit lines; everyone clings vainly to a sandbar that will soon be erased by the rising tide.

In Art for the Middle Classes: America’s Illustrated Magazines of the 1840s, Cynthia Lee Patterson makes it clear journalism has already seriously struggled before. Patterson, an assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida Polytechnic, shows that editorial and financial instability was normal journalistic practice in the 1840s, too. While marred by clunky academic prose and an ill-focused narrative structure, Patterson’s book still provides a revealing look at the early history of American journalism—and its finances.

With a title like Art for the Middle Classes, one might think the book is about magazines of the 1840s and their relationship to either art or the middle class. Not really. There isn’t much here about the middle class at all. Most of the book concerns the difficult careers of early Victorian artists. Yet there is still plenty here for people interested in the news business. Patterson looks critically at the economics of artistic and journalist production at several Philadelphia-based magazines, now largely forgotten national circulation periodicals like Godey’s, Graham’s, Peterson’s, Miss Leslie’s, and Sartain’s Union Magazine. These were essentially the country’s first national magazines. They were based in Philadelphia because it was then one of America’s most sophisticated and developed cities.

During the 1840s publishers and editors (then essentially the same thing) attempted to build publications for a national audience. The rise of large—for the time—corporations and improved technologies for reproducing text and illustrations allowed publishers to cheaply meet the rising demand for culture in small towns and outposts across the country. As part of this process, these magazines publicized original American works and reproductions of major paintings at a time when most Americans, unless they were privileged enough to live in major cities, had very little interaction with visual art.

These magazine illustrations, often reproductions and embellishments of major works of art, were produced by Pennsylvania artists to accompany poems, stories, or articles. Magazines often produced large, fold-out colored illustrations, which subscribers could remove and use to decorate their houses or offices. The illustrations were often only tangentially related to the text. Miss Leslie’s might run a sentimental poem about motherhood written by a struggling writer. The editor would then hire another aspiring creative-type (often a friend or relative of the writer) to create a picture with an inspiring picture of a woman with a child. Publishers, then as now, were trying to save money. Despite being the best things around, these magazines were done on the cheap.

Shop assistants and housewives in places like Rutland, Vermont or Klamath Falls, Oregon might eagerly buy the periodicals containing such illustrations, called “fancy pictures,” apparently unaware that, due to the limited skills of the artists the magazines hired, the illustration was copied from a painting of, say, an English duchess and her heir. Magazine illustrators liberally embellished and subtracted from the original works to make the pieces more sentimental and universal.

Writers and illustrators weren’t particularly well compensated for such work. The book is full of requests for more, and timelier, payments, which read rather unsettlingly like e-mail exchanges between freelancers and the business managers at today’s magazines. The illustrators were at the mercy of the editors and writers of the actual stories. If the story didn’t run, the drawings didn’t run, either—and the illustrators went unpaid.

Patterson writes about one artist arranging for a contract with Edward Carey, publisher of The Gift:

[Illustrator John Chapman] spell[s] out in advance his fees for designs Carey is interested in: “the prices of the sketches, thirty dollars for the ‘boy’ and $45 for the Shipwreck.” Chapman explains that he has sent both along for Carey’s inspection because he is uncertain which Carey would prefer—and, undoubtedly, he hopes that Carey will take both rather than pay to send one or the other back to him. Naming his fee in advance, he perhaps hoped to collect as soon as Carey had accepted one or both of the design. He may have feared having to wait until Carey released the volume to be paid for his work; other Carey contributors seemed to have been inconvenienced by this practice.

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.

Click here for a complete Page Views archive.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.