Saluting some grand ole, high flying mags

Hello. My name is Rex Hammock and I’m a magazine geek.

How do I know? On Thursday, when I found myself with 45 free minutes in Washington, DC, I passed up exhibits of works by Goya and Degas to spend time viewing an exhibit of magazine covers. I was early for a business meeting near the White House so we detoured to a new show in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, “July 1942: United We Stand.”

The exhibit is a three-room gallery of July, 1942 magazine covers, all featuring the American flag. During that month “some five hundred publications waved the stars and stripes to promote national unity, rally support for the war, and celebrate Independence Day,” according to the exhibition notes. Putting the flags on the cover was an idea of Paul MacNamara, a publicist for Hearst, and grew into a nationwide collaboration between the National Publishers Association (now the Magazine Publishers of America) and the U.S. Treasury Department (which still has its original 1789 name).

For an un-recovering magazine geek like myself, the exhibit is straight tequila.

While I’ve never been a flea-market collector of old magazines, the exhibit made me grateful some folks are. Viewing nearly 200 covers of a wide variety of time-frozen covers gives one a renewed appreciation of the role magazines play in recording and shaping our history and culture. (The full collection contains over 300 covers.)

The displayed magazine covers, of which around 65 are framed “originals” and around 100 more are digital scans, are hung by categories, helping the viewer understand the intentions of the cover designers, illustrators, photographers, editors and publishers.

If I had been “blogging” the exhibit, here are some of the thoughts I would have recorded:

  • For years, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that custom publishing is not something new…my usual example is John Deere’s hundred-year old dealer magazine, The Furrow. Now I have several new examples (DuPont, U.S. Steel, GM, New York Life Insurance, Merck, Harley-Davidson, Dutch Boy and others) of earlier-era corporate magazines featured in the exhibit. One such corporate magazine, the Merck Report, won the “Patriotic Service Award” for its cover.
  • The exhibit masterfully displays the way magazines touch every facet of our lives: work, play, free-time, really free time, and time of worship.
  • All magazine art directors should view a wall full of how their predecessors tackled one seemingly cliched theme hundreds of creative ways. Someone please, please start collecting all the magazine covers which appeared after September 11 for an exhibit 60 years from now.
  • Seeing Readers Digest, National Geographic, Harpers Magazine, and others break their cover treatment conventions to participate is surprising. It was Time Magazine’sfirst cover of an “inanimate thing” instead of a famous person.
  • There were some great designers in 1942 and some not so greatones. Like today, I guess.
  • The range of business-to-business titles was as broad then as it is today.
  • In 1942, I doubt editors and art directors were troubled by any conflicted thoughts regarding the propaganda implications or press freedom issues raised by the campaign. Rather, I think they appreciated the chance it allowed them to participate in the early days of the war effort.
  • Magazine brands are transient. Only a small fraction of these titles still exist. And fewer still (less than 10?) are published by companies with the same ownership, then as now. One of my magazine friends has a title in the exhibit that’s still in the family.
  • Personal favorites: Poultry Tribune, Harpers Bazaar, Glamour, and Captain Marvel.I recommend all magazine geeks visit the exhibit, or at least spend some time on the excellent website accompanying it.