The Art of Life Magazine: a History, Pt. 1 (1883-1913)

Charles Dana Gibson Golden Age of Illustration illustrators James Montgomery Flagg LeRoy Robert Ripley Life Magazine R M Crosby

In 1883, Harvard graduates John Ames Mitchell, Andrew Miller, and Edward S. Martin, set out to create their answer to the already-established Puck, Judge, and Punch magazines. Life was its name, and its premise was a simple one: “We shall endeavor to be neither too sweet to live," ran the mission statement on its first issue, "nor too good to be true.” It was “fun” for “an unfriendly world”. Its masthead (pictured below), which remained a part of the magazine for decades, drives that point home further by declaring "While there is Life, there's Hope."

While they were still students, Mitchell, Miller, and Martin were contributors to Harvard's undergraduate humor publication, the Harvard Lampoon. Mitchell was an illustrator and his original vision was a humor magazine that would be read in respectable homes. It was Mitchell who designed the original masthead depicting a knight in armor lunging towards a demon, as well as the many Cherubs that adorned the magazine's branding over the years, (such as those seen on the cover of the very first issue, pictured below).

The humor in Life magazine was often lighthearted, innocent, and fun, which complimented its self-proclaimed mission to inspire hope in uncertain, and even hostile, times. As such, it contained a profusion of cartoons that lightly poked fun at everyday people and situations. Below are a few examples:

New Years', (circa. 1913). Here we see the traditional symbols of New Years', the old man (representing the old year) and the cherub (representing the new), but instead of fighting over whether the old year will remain, they accept their fates and enjoy a toast, fittingly on hourglasses in lieu of the more conventional champagne glasses. (I suppose this gives new meaning to the phrase "Peaceful transition of power.")

This cartoon, (also from 1913,) is a satire on the (then declining) penchant for beards. The caption, which reads "Whiskers: if you must wear them, wear useful ones," accompanies images of men using their large beards to accomplish a variety of practical tasks, including use as a file cabinet and a tea tray.

A cartoon by R. M. Crosby bearing the caption "While the Sun Shines." This is a play on the phrase "Make hay while the sun shines," and the implication is that the dashing young man at right must make his move now, while the object of his affections is momentarily relieved from the auspices of her dozing mother.

Although it was at first a fledgling magazine with limited resources, it wasn't long before Life reached a level of popularity on par with American periodicals Puck and Judge, and British periodical Punch. These were already established when Life came on the scene, which must have made the sudden competition all the more alarming to them. This was largely because of the visionary nature of the magazine, as well as its ability to scout for underrepresented but promising talent.

Many of the greatest American illustrators of the Golden Age got their start at Life, owing largely to the magazine's above mentioned tendency to favor emerging talent, often in lieu of more established household names. Charles Dana Gibson is perhaps the best known example of this. At just nineteen years old, he was attempting to sell his cartoons to any magazine that would accept them. All turned him down, so he went to Life as a last resort. If Life wouldn't buy his work, he would stop trying. The editors saw promise in his then underdeveloped talent that they decided to take a gamble on a sketch he drew of a dog barking at the moon bearing the caption “The Moon and I.” (A reference to Gilbert and Sullivan's successful 1885 opera, “The Mikado.”) (Pictured below) Gibson was so ecstatic over his sale that he immediately spent part of his $4 royalty on a 75 cent chicken pot pie.

Gibson would later go on to create the Gibson Girl, who was the ideal feminine icon to American audiences at the turn of the 20th century. Independent and self-assured, but modest and chaste, the Gibson Girl won the hearts of American readers largely through her presence in Life magazine, and in the process made Gibson a household name.

Life Magazine Cover by Charles Dana Gibson, "Her Day" (1903). Seventeen years after that triumphant first submission, Gibson's creations became indispensable assets to Life magazine.

Other artists that got their start at Life during this period were cartoonist LeRoy Robert Ripley, who would later become famous for Ripley's Believe it Or Not; and a young James Montgomery Flagg, who first started selling his art to national magazines at the age of 12.

Ripley's very first cartoon for Life Magazine, published in 1908. It is mainly a play on words, "bell" in this case being "belle" and "ringing" being "wringing".

According to the Filboid Studge blog, this may or may not be James Montgomery Flagg's first contribution to Life magazine, but he was fourteen years old when it was published, and he first started contributing to Life magazine as a fourteen year old.

Innocent and playful though it was, it had its less-than-innocent moments. Mitchell was often accused of anti-semitism, mainly for cartoons he had published in the magazine which depicted Jews with outlandishly large noses. On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theater in Chicago burned down, causing at least 602 deaths. Mitchell blamed the Klaw and Erlanger syndicate for the fire, and published a scathing anti-semitic cartoon to this effect, prompting the syndicate to file a libel suit against Life.

"Messrs. Klaw and Erlanger present 'Mr. Bluebeard,' late of the Iroquois Theatre." This cartoon prompted Klaw and Erlanger to file a libel suit against Life, which would be the very first lawsuit Life had ever been served, and unfortunately there would be many more to come.

In response to this lawsuit, James Stetson Metcalfe, Life's drama critic, wrote the following: "LIFE has been sued for libel by Messrs. Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger of the Theatrical Syndicate. They claim that LIFE has damaged them a hundred thousand dollars' worth. Whether LIFE has damaged, or could damage, these worthy gentlemen to that extent will in due time be determined by a jury of their superiors. Meanwhile, LIFE will continue to criticise their shows without prejudice." Metcalfe appears unapologetic, and it is perhaps this lack of remorse which would get him barred from nearly 50 Manhattan theaters controlled by the syndicate.

In 1913, thirty years after its launch, Life magazine's brand of fun and lighthearted humor was alive and well, but it also didn't lose its tendency towards sharp (and often unkind) jabs at social and political issues of the day. For instance, the Women's Suffrage movement was in full swing by 1913, and unfortunately most of the humor in Life magazine was either insensitive, belittling, or outright nasty to the cause.

In the July 3, 1913 issue of Life magazine, (its Independence Day number,) a slew of cartoons such as this one appeared. This is one of the more cruel anti-suffrage cartoons, implying that the only way one could enjoy "a safe and sane fourth" was for all the suffragettes to be thrown in jail.

Other sociopolitical issues were likewise the subject of editorial cartoons in Life magazine. This one, (circa. 1912-13,) deals with lobbying, (which was apparently just as much a problem then as it is now.) These cartoons also dealt with a variety of other issues, such as child labor reform and trust busting. This being the progressive era, such commentary was very much in demand.

The world would begin to change in unprecedented ways, and the effects on Life magazine were profound. In Part 2, I will discuss these changes and how they would lead to the magazine's 1936 acquisition and rebranding.

What did you think of this article? Is there anything you were surprised to learn about Life magazine? As always, please let me know in the comments, so we can have a conversation.

Till next time.

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