Class Distinction on Paper

June 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Lisa at Sociological Images has a wonderful post about “post-World-War-I men’s magazine covers.” She compares them to today’s men’s magazines and finds that both “emphasize control over oneself and the conquest of women.”

The goals are similar but the lad mags of today choose different means to move toward those goals. The old vintage mags get there via “tests of strength, cunning, and fighting ability.” The Maxims do it via consumption: “the right exercise, the right products (usually hygiene or tech-related), the right advice on picking up women and, well, the right women.”

Lisa’s comment is typically perceptive. But she skips over a class dimension, one that would have been clear to readers back then but which is now more attenuated, a distinction based on education, occupation, and the quality of the paper.

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

Neither Lisa nor her source specify the years for these covers, but my guess, based on the cover price (25-35¢), is that they are from the early fifties. That was also the time when a young Frank Zappa might have been furtively reading them and seeing teaser titles like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” (The yellow circle around the title is my own addition. Older Zappa fans might not otherwise notice it. If you missed the reference, click on the Zappa link.)

The large class distinction 55-60 years ago was still the classic split between blue collar and white collar, working class and middle class, pulps and slicks. Man’s Life and the other men’s magazines were all pulps. Their intended audience – the blue-collar, working class man – could choose from among several of these (see Lisa’s post for covers of Male, Real, Men’s Conquest, and the rest). Women too had a variety of pulps – magazines devoted to romance, “true stories” of celebrities, or confession.

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

But slick-paper magazines for women (the middle-class and the aspiring) also abounded. They covered topics like fashion, homemaking, and beauty. Several of them are still around today (Vogue, Woman’s Day, Glamour, etc.)

But for the educated, middle-class man – the guys on Mad Men circa 1960 – there were almost no magazines. Esquire, and that was about it. Other than that, they could read the news magazines like Time or general interest slicks (Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post).

Then came Playboy. It was Hefner’s genius (or luck) to create a magazine for this untapped market. The Playboy message back then was much the same as the one Lisa identifies in today’s lad mags – having the right products, ideas, and tastes. (Hefner and Bourdieu are singing the same song, just to a different chart. And it should be noted that Hef’s right-hand man was a sociologist, A.C. Spectorsky.)

Playboy hit the newsstands in 1953. The next year brought men that other staple of the slicks – Sports Illustrated. Sports magazines had been around, but they were all on pulp paper.  Sports Illustrated was to Sport what Playboy was to Man’s Life. And both slicks were incredibly successful.


maxliving said...

Anonymous said...

I found this post amusing and interesting.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the link, Max. And it's nice to know my guess about the year was relatively on target. But I still wonder how Zappa in 1970 came to have a copy of Man's Life 1956. Had he kept it from his youth? Had he found it in a vintage magazine store or yard sale?