The Art of Life Magazine: a History, Pt. 2 (1914-1936)

The year 1914 found the world in a very tenuous and tense situation. On June 28 of that year, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Herzegovina, leading to a chain of events that culminated in a declaration of war. On August 4, war was declared.

As all this was going on, Charles Dana Gibson and John Ames Mitchell observed in horror. Mitchell had studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, whereas Gibson, who by this time rose to fame since his humble beginning in 1886, had also been in Paris for a while, where he drew sketches of local activity for Richard Harding Davis's book, “About Paris”. For these reasons, both men had a sort of love affair with France, which at this time manifested itself as a pro-Ally, anti-German stance on the war. The United States would not be involved until April of 1917, but in the meantime, Life magazine was fiercely campaigning for such involvement. Many editorial cartoons published in the magazine depicted Kaiser Wilhelm II as a boorish, bloodthirsty tyrant who insulted America, murdered Red Cross nurses, and mocked wounded soldiers. Gibson's cartoons, especially, emphasized the Kaiser's negative depictions in a very dramatic, dark, and brutal way. Below are three examples of this:

"The Poisoned Well," from the July 19, 1917 issue

"Toward Morning," from the August 2, 1917 issue

"Thoughts on Glory," from the January 10, 1918 issue

The magazine itself was still a booming enterprise, and, despite this sharply political bent, it was still doing what it always did best. Bringing lighthearted and fun humor into every household and welcoming new talent that might not have made it without their endorsement. Norman Rockwell, for instance, had already been published in other magazines, most notably The Saturday Evening Post, where he had published his famous “Boy With a Baby Carriage” cover in 1916, but that doesn't make “'Tain't you,” his first cover for Life magazine, (published on May 10, 1917,) any less of an accomplishment.

"'Tain't You," Norman Rockwell's first cover for Life magazine (May 10, 1917)

"Full Equipment," from the January 10, 1918 issue.

On April 4, 1917, the United States Congress moved in favor of a declaration of war against Germany, effectively embroiling the country into the war as Gibson and Mitchell had hoped. Yet, despite this victory, the majority of the next day's issue, (and, as we will see, many other issues,) berated Woodrow Wilson for his erstwhile refusal to involve the United States in the war, and also made many unkind jabs at the prevailing sense of pacifism among some Americans. Below are a few examples of this:

A cartoon from the April 5, 1917 issue. In it, a bedridden Uncle Sam refuses to drink from a bowl marked "shame," which is being administered by Woodrow Wilson (depicted as a nurse). Uncle Sam says "Must I drink it all? I'm full now," to which Wilson replies with "Doctor will punish you if you don't." The "Doctor," in this case, is Kaiser Wilhelm.


"Belgium--The Future" (Cover for the April 5, 1917 issue). This heart-wrenching depiction of a war-torn Belgium was just one of many harshly critical cartoons and illustrations issued by the magazine during the First World War.

"Portrait of a World Power," drawn for the May 12, 1917 issue by Harry Grant Dart. For the majority of 1917, many cartoons and editorials criticized how Wilson's neutrality policy resulted in a general lack of preparedness.

"Peace, According to the Pacifist," drawn for the April 19, 1917 issue by Harry Grant Dart

However, not everything published about the United States was negative, and indeed much of it was celebratory in nature. Gibson's cartoons on the war effort, especially, were grandly patriotic. Here are a couple examples:

"For Humanity," from the May 12, 1917 issue

"His Mother: Here He Is, Sir," from the May 19, 1917 issue. A positive perspective on the draft, which was in full force during World War I, as well as in many other American wars. The draft was a polarizing issue, and, while nobody burned draft cards until World War II, there were still many Americans who strongly objected to the draft, as it involuntarily separated families and brought individuals into a political cause that they may or may not have agreed with.

Sadly, Mitchell, who died suddenly of a stoke on June 29, 1918, would not live to see his crusade result in victory for the Allies, as it wouldn't happen until November of that year. With this came another important transition for Life magazine. Gibson bought Life for a million dollars, effectively succeeding Mitchell as editor in chief. But this new managing editor had a crisis on his hands. The world had changed in so many ways, and the prevailing taste in magazines was veering away from the innocent, playful, clean humor that Life had espoused for so long. The people wanted content that was more risque and salacious, and as Life tried to maintain its former image, it found itself trailing behind other magazines who were going with the times. Just over three years after his purchase, an exasperated Gibson turned the magazine over to publisher Claire Maxwell and treasurer Henry Richter, retiring to Maine to pursue his newfound love of oil painting. After Gibson's abdication, the magazine hired Robert E. Sherwood, who had formerly worked for Vanity Fair, to take over the magazine. His vision was quite different from what the public wanted, but it acknowledged this change in attitude to a slight degree. While all but eschewing the risque, crass, cynical subject matter that magazine subscribers wanted, he opted for dry, sophisticated humor and the occasional burlesque number.


The September 10, 1925 Burlesque Number

October 1, 1925

December 17, 1925

Then came the Great Depression, which was obviously quite devastating to much of the United States economy, and, not surprisingly, magazine subscriptions were likewise hit hard. Life was no exception, and to make matters worse, any and all efforts by the staff, (among whom was yet another replacement as editor, George Eggleston,) such as making drastic changes to its subject matter as well as switching from a weekly publication to monthly, were no match for the new competitors who arrived on the scene: The New Yorker, (which not only imitated some of Life's most successful attributes, but also took some of their staff;) and Esquire. “Outhouse Gag” periodicals Ballyhoo and Hooey also played a part in running Life magazine into the ground.

March 28, 1930

July, 1936

September, 1936

October, 1936

In 1936, after over fifty years in circulation, Time Inc. owner Henry Luce bought Life magazine for just under a million dollars, with the vision of rebranding it as a photojournalism publication. He was evidently successful, as Life's stunning photography, which would cover many important events and movements in the decades to come, was not only highly well received, but, largely because of it, the magazine remains a sought after collector's item today. In the last issue of the former Life magazine, Edward Sandford Martin, the last surviving of the original 1883 staff of the magazine, wrote a bittersweet two page “farewell,” where he expressed hope and optimism as to its future.

November, 1936. This is the last issue of the former Life magazine before its rebranding.

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

Till next time.

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