The mailman brought the latest Saturday Evening Post the other day. With all the current turmoil of disease and politics, it felt good to see it.
It was one of the early things I read regularly as a little boy. And it couldn’t be more Philadelphian. Its publishers liked to trace it back to back to Benjamin Franklin, though the connection is nebulous.
It’s said that Franklin had the idea to found a magazine, The Pennsylvania Gazette, but his boss, Samuel Keimer the printer, stole the idea. But Keimer’s Gazette failed in a year, and Franklin and his buddy Hugh Meredith took over.
It became one of the most influential publications in the Colonies. Franklin withdrew in 1748, but the Gazette was printed in his shop until it discontinued in 1800.
Samuel Atkinson and Charles Alexander were running the print shop 20 years later, and decided to produce a publication to be distributed in the second postal delivery on Saturdays. (Yes, the mailman came twice a day in those days.)
The first issue of the Saturday Evening Post was produced on Aug. 4, 1821.
The early Post published such material as letters between former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson through the years, and later published contributions by such writers as Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Washington Irving and Mark Twain.
But it declined as the years went by, and began printing mostly trivial material. Its circulation dropped to a dismal 2,000 readers.
In 1899, the Post was taken over by Philadelphia publisher Cyrus Curtis, who had founded the highly successful Ladies Home Journal, the first American magazine to reach a million circulation.
Curtis also was the first publisher to realize that adverting provided an income that allowed for more and better reading content in a magazine.
He invested more than a million dollars in the Post and made vast improvements. Within a year the Post had 250,000 readers. By 1908, circulation was more than a million.
But the world changed, because of many more magazines, the coming of radio and television, and other distractions. Readership declined, and the Post closed in 1969. It was revived in 1971 as a quarterly, and is now based in Indianapolis, a city which coincidentally was founded in 1821 while the Post was starting in Philly.
Another magazine my family bought when I was beginning to read was the Reader’s Digest, which was founded about the same time as the Post, by DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila Bell.
For many years, Reader's Digest was the best-selling magazine in the United States; it was beaten in 2009 by Better Homes and Gardens..
Reader's Digest now claims to be read by 40 million people in more than 70 countries, in 21 languages. I’m one of them, in English.
When I pulled that Saturday Evening Post out of the mailbox, I was suddenly struck by realization of how much the world has changed. There’s radio, and television, and the computer, and cell phones, with information flowing at us from all directions.
It’s comforting, somehow, to think that, no matter how modernized they are, I still subscribe to magazines that started 200 years ago.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.
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