On the lower level of Marywood University’s Learning Resource Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania, lives an illustrious trove of eclectic dimension. Stacks and stacks of centuries-old magazines, carefully sorted by month and year, wait to be divulged and devoured. The publications span a wide variety of content, everything from anthropology to zoological studies. Marywood houses some of the earliest issues of the most notable and highly circulated magazines of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Ladies’ Home Journal, Reader’s Digest, LIFE, TIME, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine. As works of art and literature, these (barely) hidden gems not only exhibit intricate typographical elements, esteemed illustrations, and intriguing narratives, they are also physical representations of early American life.
Persuaded by the triumphs and laurels of Benjamin Franklin and his many prospering trades, specifically his livelihood as a Colonial-era printer, James Harper and brother John attained apprenticeships to pursue the Black Arts as a means to a fruitful life. What the Harper Brothers did not realize was the scopic publishing empire brewing before them. By 1850, HarperCollins, as they would later be known, began producing its first successful run of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The content reflected interests of the time including picturesque tales by Charles Dickens, John Milton, and the Brontë sisters, poetry by Romanticist William Wordsworth and Fireside poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and commentary on society, business matters, history, art, literature, and other generalities. Physical copies of Harper’s dating back to their first press run in the mid-19th century are found within Marywood University’s collection.
Additionally, through access on the library’s online journal database, subsequent materials can be researched. One can zoom in on illustrations and text from Harper’s to examine finer details as well as locate related publications. However, to handle the tactile quality of the preserved pages, for many people, is a superlative experience. It also brings into question the conflict of browsing versus searching. While searching on an online database indicates that the user can specifically pinpoint their resource or interests, browsing through stacks demonstrates an entirely different actuality: one where the user simply stumbles upon useful information through curiosity and chance.
Harper’s Magazine was followed by a ravenously political publication, Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. This magazine was the most widely read publication of the American Civil War, filled with commentary on war strategy, foreign policy, and slavery. It was also the mainstay of political cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose popularization of the Republican Party elephant, the Democratic Party donkey, Uncle Sam, and modern representation of Santa Claus, made him one of the most influential artists of the Golden Age of Illustration. For that reason alone, Harper’s Weekly’s satirical depictions of race relations, industrial and agricultural livelihood, presidential elections, the economy, and other cultural controversies make it a robust example of early American life. Though it is not specifically stated why, Nast made his last contribution to Harper’s Weekly in their Christmas edition of 1886. Shortly after, he fell into financial destitute, and died from contracting yellow fever after a stint in Ecuador as Theodore Roosevelt’s personally appointed counsel general.
Seemingly headed for a completely new direction, Harper’s Weekly was then followed by Harper’s Bazar: A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction. This introduced the United States to the first fashion magazine. Its ornate title with flourishing illustrative elements and hand-lettered typography radiate a Victorian femininity that no doubt appealed to late 19th century women. First produced in 1867, Harper’s Bazar was the go-to resource for current clothing trends, hairstyles (as pictured to the left), and other fashion forward issues. Harper’s was ahead of their time, gaining the attention of a widely untapped market. Since many women stayed at home engaged in domestic responsibilities, fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazar opened up recreational time, retained their interest in modern style, and gave women a little something to gossip about. Although the layout, newsprint, and color has changed drastically over the years, the message is still relatively the same.
Much like women’s magazines, children’s magazines became a growing interest in the world of art and literature. To appeal to a juvenile crowd, Harper’s Young People included illustrated stories, plays, poems, songs, activities, and an opinion column. Midway, the magazine changed its name to Harper’s Round Table, which seemed to be suited more for a young adult crowd. Its loquacious stories, dramatic plays, tips for stamp and coin collectors, as well as a photography club and updates on sports news made for an appealing publication for youths to enjoy. As a whole, the content was indicative of what youths did for fun back in the 19th century, whether it was forming clubs, collecting objects, or general schoolyard roughhousing. Again, similar to the content in Harper’s Bazar, not much as changed. The publication only ran from 1879 to 1899, but like its related reads, its artwork and typography make it a great example of early magazine production.
If you have some time on your hands, or if you need to do any scholarly work, I encourage you to take part in exploring this often overlooked part of the library. From a design perspective, to examine how layout, type, color, and overall branding transformed from decade to decade makes for some spellbinding comparative research. Marywood University’s collection is not only vast, its publications are tangible artifacts that transcend time and are worthy of a second (or first) look.