Newsstand: 1925: Snappy Stories Magazine

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a virtual newsstand from the summer of 1925

Overview

           Snappy Stories magazine, “A Magazine of Entertaining Fiction” published by pulp giant William L. Clayton, ran from 1912 to sometime after 1933, constituting a total run of close to 320 issues. Snappy, the first of the “Spicy” pulp genre — immediately recognizable by its flirtatious covers, provocative literature, and racy illustrations — was hugely popular in the 1920s and early 1930s. This periodical paved the way for the “Girlie Mags” of the 1930s and beyond. Though it mostly promised, rather than delivered, licentiousness through its fiction and risqué pen and ink drawings, Snappy tested the boundaries of the censors that sought to eradicate salacious literature in the 1920s.

 

Snappy Stories

 

1912, though still wearing many of the vestiges of a Victorian legacy, was a time  of change. A loosening of the strict moral codes of the Victorian elite could be seen in many forms of human expression from progressively drastic changes in fashion and lifestyle, literature and the fine arts, music and theatre, to the new outlets of popular culture that began to spring to life due to advancements in technology, the rise of mechanical production, and increasing urbanization. A sharp rise in middle-class literacy, combined with the increasing availability of published text, lead to a society that was increasingly defined and constructed by middle-class tastes.

Snappy Magazine, subtitled “A Magazine of Entertaining Fiction,” — echoing Ainslee’s, “A Magazine of Clever Fiction” — met the presses in August of 1912 under the direction of publisher William L. Clayton, former publisher of Mencken and Nathan’s prestigious Smart Set (“A Magazine of Cleverness”). Snappy, the pioneer of the Spicy sub-genre of pulp fiction, was one of the first of the specialized pulps predating the detective genre. Spicy’s immediate popularity is evident in the soon-to-follow onslaught of copy-cat publications: Parisienne Monthly and Breezy Stories in 1915, Pep and Saucy Stories (a Mencken and Nathan venture) in 1916, to be eventually followed by the racier Gay Paree and Zing in 1920. Combined distribution  numbers for Snappy and Live Stories (Publishers Street & Smith) neared 140,000 in 1924, giving it a circulation of over 400,000.[1] As compared with Vanity Fair’s estimated circulation of 81,856 during the same period, it is clear that Snappy, while largely ignored by the academic community, had a large following in the American public. Given such a large audience, Snappy’s fictions can be presumed to be reflective of — perhaps even participatory in a degree of construction of — culture in the US in the 20s and 30s.

Over the course of its run, Snappy would see a country transformed by major revolutions in social and political life and enormous improvements in technology and global communication. Post-war disillusionment, as well as the more liberal European influence provided by a growing immigrant population and the return of soldiers from the Great War, would contribute to a backlash against American conservative values of sexual and moral purity, etiquette, and Patriotic idealism. The United States would see the first wave of the sexual revolution, as women gained the vote and began to mimic the less rigid sexual values of their European sisters. An increasingly politically active youth would begin to question the rigid moral standards of their forefathers and mothers.

Snappy was a true pulp consisting of 128 printed pages of ephemeral pulp-wood paper, much smaller in size than the “slicks” (10x7 inches, to be exact), distinguished by a lack of bulk advertising, soliciting consumers through flashy (and generally sexually provocative) cover art. Snappy hit the newsstands at .15 cents. The artistic ideal behind the cheaply-produced pulps was that it was the fiction that mattered; the packaging (besides the cover) need not impress, as the pulp reader sought to be entertained by affordable, quality fiction. The artistic/literary ideal of the pulp is, of course, somewhat challenged by the pulps’ tendency toward the salacious and the voyeuristic — particularly obvious in the cover art, which always featured a beautiful, youthful white woman, generally in some various stage of seduction or undress. Regardless, the fact remains that the lack of advertising within the pulps required that the pulps be truly packed with quality (or, at least, entertaining) fiction. The pure mass of fiction that ran from cover to cover of these publications ensured that the buyer was getting a good deal for their money.

The low cost, the ephemeral quality, the casual modern tone and often racy subject matter of the pulp fictions — often written on the fly by authors who were paid per word—contributed to a general sense of dread on the part of intellectuals and moral-conservatives regarding the maleficent nature of the pulps, which were believed to be supplying the unruly, recently literate lower classes with criminal longings. Fears of moral pollution generally increased hysteria regarding the “alien influence” of lower-class immigrants. The classical concept of what had been conceived to be “true” literature was undone in the pulps by pen-named authors who admitted to using rehashed plots and shallow character tropes to entertain an audience that was seen as a direct threat to the moral and religious purity of the nation.

When Clayton left Mencken and Nathan’s Smart Set, he put the notoriety he had gained from this venture to advantage by copying the unmistakable large S’s of Smart Set on the cover format of Snappy Stories. It is speculated that Clayton carried with him to Snappy a close following of Smart Set contributing authors, as well as previously rejected Smart Set manuscripts.[2] Although difficult to prove a direct connection between Smart Set and Snappy authors, due to the common use of pen-names, it is widely presumed, and certainly plausible, that there was some overlap. Such overlaps of course make problematic the boundaries between “high brow” and “low brow” periodical publications, as well as complicate the argument that the pulps were guilty of mass-producing smut for a barely literate class.

It is argued that the less-provocative pieces of gossip and letters included in the pages of Snappy were woven in between the more salacious pieces of fiction in an attempt to distract the censoring eyes of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and other such Watch and Ward Societies. Particularly in its earliest years of publication, Snappy ran quite mildly provocative pieces of fiction that offered a modest promise of something naughty. This “naughty something” was rarely to be fulfilled, except, of course, through the willing imagination of the reader. Throughout the course of its run, Snappy would become increasingly risqué, offering slightly more suggestive and illicit descriptions of the female body and attire, and favoring alluring tales of the raucous exploits of the daring Flapper and the loose Chorus Girl — common character tropes in which women are featured as both objects of desire and threats to the established order.

 The fiction within the pages of Snappy demonstrates an astute balance between the two divergent poles of gender. Sensitive to both male and female preferences in literature, the texts within Snappy Stories reel back and forth between gender-specific appeals. The vignettes in Snappy speak to the new breed of sexually liberated, middle-class youth of the 1920s. However, alongside the raucous celebration of human — and, specifically, feminine — sexuality, there exists in the pages of Snappy a sense of tension and anxiety; a sense of insecurity in the wake of turbulent changes in values regarding sexuality and human relationships.

Snappy Stories is generally presumed to have been marketed toward a primarily male readership, offering suggestive narratives of “loose” women and sexually provocative descriptions of women’s dress and manner. Such predominately male-directed themes were, however, woven in between pieces of modernized romance fiction; these romantic pieces are oftentimes difficult to distinguish from the romance-genre fiction which had risen to extreme popularity in the 20s, and which were typically associated with a female audience. The issue of establishing readership is further complicated by Snappy’s ever-present preoccupation with feminine fashion and with the intimate daily trials of the Modern Woman in the male sphere — it can be argued that the publication equally appealed to young women looking to model themselves after the fashion and lifestyle of the Modern Woman.

The many stories that forward the figure of the Modern Woman, (relatively) emancipated from the bondage of marriage and domestic routine, certainly would have appealed to young women looking to venture into the public realm. The second May 1925  issue, featured here, includes an article titled “Confessions of a Chorus Girl,” authored by “herself.” This piece — a “first-hand” account of attempted rape which is thwarted by the truly modern, well-seasoned Chorus Girl who learns a lesson in big-city life — not only predates the nation’s soon-to-arise fascination with the True Confession genre, it also clearly is written with the young female reader in mind.

Similar stories of brave heroines navigating their way through the perilous male spheres of the urban jungle, the office space, and the theatre are interwoven with tales of sexual intrigue, extramarital affairs, and exposes of the tawdry liaisons of the young and easy flapper-type. The classical model of romantic marriage is heavily satirized; marriage is depicted as stale, as a sham, as outdated —t ake for example, the story of “The Wall Street Widow,” captioned: “What do the gay little daytime widows left on Park Avenue with too much money and too much time and enough love, [sic] do while their husbands are stalking wealth? Are there other men lying in wait to show them—Life?” As demonstrated in this last title, these magazines are rife with satire of the wealthy elite. This, of course, furthers the indication that these magazines were targeted toward the young and toward the upwardly mobile middle and lower classes.

Another clear instance of fiction directed toward the female reader is found in the first May 1925  issue of Snappy: “Infatuation—A Two Part Story of Reckless Youth”, captioned, “When a debutante longs to be swept out of her slippers by Romance, dare she step outside the enchanted circle of her own set to find it?” This particular piece of fiction is clearly speaking to the young woman of the turn-of-the-century as she navigates her way through the tumultuous, oppositional realms of the Victorian and Modern worlds.

One will find such tales of romance woven with steep use of sexual innuendo; the alluring, visual descriptions offered within these pieces seem to appeal to the male reader. “Infatuation” keeps the boys’ eyes glued to the pages with lines such as, “Nell Gurney, out of the tub and half dressed, yawned shamelessly … and with [an] odd little caressing motion … rubbed the palm of her hands down her sleek side.” It appears that Snappy was quite astute about maintaining a balance between female- and male-directed themes in its fiction. The numerous line-drawings of bare-breasted and bed-bound young women sprinkled throughout the pages were also sure to attract a loyal male gathering. Such “illicit” representations of sexuality are, perhaps, what has caused most historians on the subject to presume that the majority of readers were composed of males.

However, further evidence of Snappy’s  combined male / female audience is found in the magazine’s advertisements, which range from beauty products (“You, Too, May Instantly Beautify Your Eyes With Maybeline” and “Mlle. Koppel’s Marvelous Bust Developer Growdina”), to nude girly shots (“Zee Beautiful Girl Pictures, 10 Wonderful Poses, $1.00) and books on male “muscular development” (“Women Admire Men For Their Strength”).[3] Such examples not only demonstrate Snappy’s attempt to appeal equally to both sexes, but are also clearly sexually charged. Sex sells, it would appear, to more than the male half of the population.

While the stories within Snappy — the titles in particular — were heavily steeped in innuendo, they are quite demure by today’s standards. The May of 1925 (I) issue boasts suggestive titles such as: “That Sort of Girl” (“There are those that say ‘yes,’ and those that say ‘no,’ and those that just say—‘oh, please…!’”), and “Flesh Tints.” The reader of these stories will soon find them to be rather disappointingly devoid of anything terribly risqué. Yet the possibility of a literary encounter of a sexual nature was apparently enough to keep readers coming back for more. The social statements that Snappy’s stories made were far more revolutionary than the innuendo itself — Snappy was involved, consciously or not, in elaborating upon and displaying the various changes that were occurring in a newly Modern society in which the as-yet un-demarcated roles of men and women were a source of anxiety and tension for the Modern subject.

 

—Contextualization by Georgia Clarkson Smith

Notes

 

[1] Earle, David. Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009, citing the Audit Bureau of Circulation, 1924..

[2] Mullen, R.D. “Standard Magazines to Pulps and Big Slicks: A Note on the History of US General and Fiction Magazines”. Appendix. Science Fiction Studies. 65.22 (1995). Depauw University. 10 Nov. 2009 < http://www.depauw.edu/SFs/backissues/65/mullen65.htm>.

[3] Although the several advertisement insert pages in Snappy may have been mass-produced for a large number of periodicals, the content and/or subject matter of these ads are starkly contrasted by advertisements in different sub-genres. Sweetheart Stories (May 26 Issue, 1926), a “clean” romance pulp of “Love, Adventure, Romance,” limited to a, presumably, female audience, contains advertising limited to a female readership. Several examples that are illustrative of the overall theme of the advertising in Sweetheart Stories include pamphlets on pregnancy and birth control, complexion creams, a tool for repairing pantyhose runs, “Love’s Desire” perfume, “BeautiBust” cream for breast enhancement; and so on. Ads that are marketed solely to men, as we see in Snappy, are almost non-existent in the woman’s romance periodical, Sweetheart Stories. This is indicates that, although advertisement inserts were repeated throughout various periodicals, advertisements were marketed toward particular sub-genre audiences.

click cover for magazine

May 1925

Genre:

Pulp, Fiction

Publisher:

1912-1928: New Fiction Publishing (William L. Clayton); 1930-? : Lowell Publications; 1933-? : B.T. Publishing

Place of Publication:

New York

Years of Run:

1912 — 1933

Frequency of Publication:

Monthly, August 1912- August 1915

Bi-monthly, September 1915- November 1926

Irregular, December 1926- May 1928 as Snappy Stories and Pictures

Circulation in 1925:

Distribution, 1924: 139,075, hence 417,225 Circulation (combined with Live Stories) [ABC]

1926: Distribution, 56,628, hence 170,000 Circulation [ABC]