Monday, January 21, 2008

The Origin of Life

The name Life, now most recognized as that of a highly important magazine of photojournalism started in 1936, was first used for an illustrated monthly humor periodical in 1883. From the 1880's into the first half of the 20th century, Life, along with its more politicallly charged rivals Puck, Judge and Harper's Weekly (begun in 1857), were the pre-eminent suppliers of satiric illustration to the sophisticated American public. The name itself was conceived and copyrighted by publisher J.A Mitchell for use in the premier issue of January 4, 1883. By pure serendipity, the unique original document filed by Mitchell at the Library of Congress was found on eBay and acquired for my collection for a remarkably small percentage of its historical value. Life is one of the most important and recognizable titles in the entire history of the american magazine. To be able to obtain the actual document which first introduced its name was among the greatest thrills I've had in over 30 years of intensive collecting.

The humor Life regularly employed the finest illustrators; Charles Dana Gibson, Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, John Held and Howard Chandler Christy to mention only a few of the best, and thrived through the years of the First World War and the roaring twenties. The depression of the 1930's took a toll on its subscribers and by 1936 it was ready to close its doors. The last issue was in November and the name was then sold to Henry Luce for use on the first issue of his magazine to be issued on November 23rd. Two unnamed dummy issues were circulated earlier in the year to firm up the format and attract advertisers. The cover of the first issue of the photo magazine Life featured Margaret Bourke-White's now classic photo to the Fort Peck Dam. Until 1972, Life was a major jewel in Luce's publishing empire and set the standard for news photojournalism. It was discontinued at the peak of its circulation primarily due to the expense of mailing it.

I have collected a wide variety of highlights, including the aforementioned copyright, the first and most important issues of both the photo and humor magazines, all the dummy issues, the original prospectus, and the original publisher's mock-up of the first issue.

From a collecting standpoint, the first issue of the 1936 version was extremely popular, widely circulated and considered a collector's item from the outset. Thus, it is common today and regularly obtainable for less than fifty dollars. The rarest issues are the handful which were substituted shortly after issue when a more important breaking story could be urgently substituted. The rarest of all is the issue anticipated for November 29, 1963 with Roger Staubach on the cover, pulled off the presses due to the assassination of President Kennedy. It was never circulated and all but a few dozen were destroyed. These souvenir copies, retained by the publishing staff, now sell for around 1000 dollars on ebay. A few years ago, I was contacted by Staubach's agent, looking for a few copies for his children. Unfortunately I was unable to supply him with any.

A source of great confusion today are the "miniature" version of the 1883 issue and a smaller version of the first issue of the 1936 magazine, often described as a salesman's sample. In fact, both were given away as premiums by Time/Life in the 1950's and are of minimal value.

No comments: