1950s Men’s Magazine Project

Introduction*

Text Box: In the July 1957 issue of The Nation, Milton Moskowitz offered an overview of a new trend in magazine publishing, a “Newsstand Strip-Tease” that was “burying newsstands under a sea of pictures and literature whose common denominator is sex.” Moskowitz’s tone is one of unwilling respect for the phenomenon, stating that “in the publishing industry, these magazines are being watched (even as they are scorned).” His respect stems from the magazines’ proliferation, their success, their sheer magnitude of production:

Here are some of the magazines which have been introduced in this country recently: Revealed, Duke, Night World, High, Ho, After Hours, 21, Fling, Monsieur, Hollywood Confidential, TV Scandals, Behind the Scenes, Suppressed, Personal Psychology, Mr., Celebrities, Answer, Plowboy, Trump, Scamp, Rave, Sensational Exposes, Duel, Impact, Challenge for Men, True Men’s Stories, Uncensored Confessions, Hunting Adventures, Casanova, Inside, Frauds, Inside Story, Cabaret, The Lowdown, Escapade, Exposed, Gay Blade, Good Humor, On the QT, Bachelor, Expose Detective, Adam, Rogue, Nugget, Tip-Off, Caper, Dude, Gent, Jem, Uncensored, Top Secret, Rage, Man’s Illustrated, Men’s Digest, Satan, Tiger, Relax, Ogle, Sh-H-H-H, Pleasure, Rugged, Hush-Hush, Battle Attack, Real Action, She, Hue, Bare, Pose, Pin-Up, Spick, Swagger, Span, Male Point, Tomcat, Dazzle, TNT, Humbug.

And this imposing list is by no means all-inclusive. Has there ever been another three-year period in which seventy-five consumer magazines were born?

If anything, Moskowitz is underestimating the number of such publications. Between about 1952 and 1961, hundreds of new men’s magazines were published. Some titles only lasted a few issues; others lasted for decades and had circulations in the millions. Moskowitz breaks them into three broad categories: the “Playkids,” off-shoots of Playboy, what I call the “bachelor” magazines; the “Peeping Toms,” or the celebrity gossip tabloids; and the “He-Man Adventures,” offshoots of the old pulps, “25-cent packages of blood-and-thunder.” He even starts to conjecture about the reasons behind this explosion of new titles but stops short, writing, “Magazines, they say, mirror the times. If so, what portion of our times is illuminated or reflected by the Playkids, Peeping-Toms and He-Man Adventures? They will, no doubt, provide future historians with interesting food for thought.”

This idea of the newsstand striptease captures the visuality of these magazines— sensational, extreme, kitschy. It would be impossible not to notice them, for these covers and illustrations and ads were initially designed to stand out, to sell a magazine surrounded by dozens of similar magazines on a newsstand. They were designed to create desire: not only desire to buy the issue but to own the object depicted on the cover, whether the semi-nude pinup on the bachelor magazine, the physically perfect body of the triumphant male on the men’s adventure magazine, or the glamorous lifestyle of the celebrity on the tabloid. They are paintings and photos in vibrant colors of explicit sexuality or extreme action. These magazines were intended to be visual lollipops, candy for men’s eyes.

But counter to what Moskowitz foresaw, it is not the historians who have latched onto these magazines in recent years but collectors of pulp or fans of “low-brow” illustration. There has been a surge of interest in the cover art of pinup and men’s adventure magazines, and numerous coffee table books, new lines of pulps-cover greeting and postcards, and the brisk trade of magazines on eBay attest to this. 

On the one hand, our fascination with these illustrations—the pleasure we get from their campy sensation—is different from their appeal to that audience of men in the 1950s. It is obvious that for modern collectors, these magazines are kitschy, fun, pleasurable. It appeals to our senses of nostalgia and sophistication; they seem to tell us that we have come a long way. But there is an innate danger in this attitude. For, on the other hand, we really cannot separate ourselves and the appeal that these images have for us from the initial construction of masculine desire or violent sexism that these publications relied on. So, have we really come that far?

This idea of the construction of desire is similar to how a medium such as advertising creates desire in the consumer (telling us, “You need this product. You are not complete without this product”), but this is often gendered, playing off the unrealistic ideals that we are socialized to aim for, the unrealistic Barbie doll body of fashion models or the stoic toughness of the action hero. The fantasies of gender at work in these magazines and the construction of desire in the mass media are just as strong now as they were in the 1950s, the decade when modern advertising really came into its own. Today’s mediated fantasies presented to us on television, online, and in print are just more sophisticated in their portrayal as compared to the sensational extremities of the men’s magazines.

As Moskowitz points out, magazines do indeed mirror their times. More than mere popular reading material, periodicals such as those listed above capture in amber the tensions, concerns, traumas, and fashions of a historic moment. Moskowitz’s article, itself published in The Nation magazine, has written into it concerns of the time; he calls the “off-beat” irreverent tone of the bachelor magazines “a quality not easy to come by in the age of the packaged soul.” These magazines therefore offered some kind of antidote to the mass-marketed conformity of life and culture as portrayed in popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, that Rockwellian slice of pure Americana.

Alternately, the extreme portrait of post-WWII America that the men’s magazines paint is of a threatening and feminized world, where men had to learn to dominate and take back their own. If we were to judge the 1950s simply by the covers of these magazines, then men were attacked by wild animals (everything from piranhas and monkeys to spiders and Nazi-trained baboons), imprisoned by amazons and sadistic female SS guards, and spent all their leisure time either on safaris and deep-sea fishing or seducing semi-nude coeds. These magazines were fantasies of masculinity, tall sexist tales to bolster men’s adequacy in the quickly shifting time after the war and before the cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

With the publication of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, scholars began examining the role that popular women’s magazines had in proscribing gender roles in the middle decades of the twentieth century, especially those of housewife and homemaker. Studies deemed the 1950s an age of conformity and as a time that enforced women’s domestic roles as a way to, among other things, pressure women out of the WWII workforce. An image of the 1950s as a homogenized culture of suburbanization—the “do nothing” generation or, alternately, the “golden age”—has been handed down through mass-culture nostalgia and is evident in reductive, very white, middle-class representations such as The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best. But lately this portrait has been questioned, for it is far from the way the decade really was. In reality, the postwar years were full of upheaval and social disparity, prejudice and race riots, Cold War containment and black listing, juvenile rebellion and crime. Recent studies, such as Nancy Walker’s Shaping Our Mother’s World, have shown how women’s magazines reflected the contrasts and complexity of 1950s culture and gender, how there were more women in the workplace in the fifties than at the height of the Second World War, and how issues of race and class were navigated in magazines such as Ebony and Ladies Home Journal. So our nostalgic vision of the 1950s is under revision, complication, and expansion, and we’re beginning to see exactly how dysfunctional the Reeds and Cleavers really were.

Men’s periodicals, though, have been largely overlooked, despite the hundreds of titles produced between 1953 and 1961 and the millions of readers. Only recently have feminist and gender studies paved the way for the examination of the socialization (proscribing, shaping, or pressuring) of masculine gender roles in mass culture (media, entertainment, goods) produced for and consumed by the general population. Before the advent of cultural studies, these magazines were considered too low or trashy to be studied. Only Playboy has been regularly examined, having become accepted, even canonized, as compared with many of the magazines considered in these pages. And these magazines’ extreme misogyny points to the “crisis of masculinity” that scholars have identified at work in the post-WWII years—a series of crises, actually, that included postwar trauma, the rise of suburbanization and consumer-based conformity, the move from a Depression-era working-class ethos to white-collar corporate economy, and Cold War paranoia. These magazines both embodied these fears for their popular male audience and attempted to navigate them, making them complicit in the sense of trauma and therefore creating a market for themselves.

The aim of this web page is twofold: first, to illustrate the need for preserving and archiving such overlooked cultural texts, not only due to their ephemeral nature, but also because of their use as pedagogical doorways into a historical moment. The accompanying student essays,  from a class on mid-century masculinity, illustrate how such popular magazines can be used to teach and explore the dynamics of gender, race, and class. Secondly, this webpage will hopefully provide the rationale and impetus for a digital database of such magazines which, for the most part, do not exist in the academic archive. 

—David M. Earle

*This intro has been bowdlerized from the Introduction to my book, All Man!: Hemingway, 1950s Men’s Magazines, and the Masculine Persona ( Kent, Ohio: Kent State U. P.,  2009). Copyright protected by author and 
publisher

University of West  Florida

Department of English and

Foreign Languages.

 

Dr  David M. Earle