Sunday, July 26, 2009

Merry and Wise: An exceedingly rare humor periodical

Before I launch into my latest blog, I'd like to mention that D'Anne Burley, daughter of Dan Burley, a highly gifted, and historically important African American magazine editor and musician who was a subject of a previous post, informs me that her father's grave at Burr Oak Cemetary in Chicago may have been desecrated along with many others, as has come to light in the recent scandal. D'Anne would like to hear from others concerned over this outrageous event. She can be reached thorough her website at

The 18th century humor periodical Merry and Wise is a great example that underscores my comments in an earlier post about the rarity of 18th century humor periodicals. As I stated, many of even the most important magazines of this genre and era lack sufficient documentation and complete runs are not known. Only occasional random issues appear on the market and even the finest collections only have a few representative issues, despite original circulations of tens of thousands.

In the case of Merry and Wise, this is carried to the extreme. About 15 years ago I was fortunate to come across and purchase 14 issues at the Allentown paper show form a well known Virginia dealer. I have never seen or heard of another issue existing anywhere (and believe you me I've searched long and hard).

The editor and artist was Frank Bellew, whose distinctive triangular logo is well known to comic historians. Bellew was in a class with the likes of Thomas Nast and is credited, among other important contributions, with the first image of Uncle Sam, that appeared in The Lantern

(another rare humor magazine!) in 1853. James Mongomery Flagg's image that we all identify with did not appear until 1916 (yes, on another magazine, Leslie's), and was adopted for the famous poster "I Want You". Here's another image of Uncle from my collection that you probably haven't seen.

The fact that Bellew himself founded and edited this magazine is heretofore unappreciated.

My issues begin with Volume 1 Number 1 dated March 2, 1867. It became monthly as of July 1867 (a reliable sign of imminent demise of a magazine) and the last issue I own is v.1 no. 2 of the monthly series, August 1867.

As you can see from the images below, this was a high quality satirical periodical and story paper and the illustration is first rate.

The first image, obviously referring to "Seward's Folly" (Alaska) in 1867, reminds me greatly of the paintings of Eastman Johnson, whose influence on subsequent illustrators (in particular Norman Rockwell, whom I 've studied extensively) should be recognized. It should be pointed out that many of the greatest American "artists" of the 19th century, had successful careers as magazine illustrators, Frederick Remington and Winslow Homer to mention a few. In the twentieth century, as art became more diverse and sophisticated, illustration branched off into a separate discipline. Rockwell, one of the cornerstones of the golden age of American illustration, largely fostered by magazines, always considered himself an illustrator, inspired chiefly by the work of Howard Pyle. The influence of others, like Johnson, though, is quite clear.
case in point:

How much are these magazines worth? It's hard to put a value on something there's only one of. I'd estimate that these issues are worth several hundred dollars each at the least, and random issues of the rare eighteenth century humor magazines routinely sell for hundreds each as well.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Galaxy of Comicalities

One gem of American humor in my collection is a volume composed of the complete file of Galaxy of Comicalities, published weekly in Philadelphia in 1833-84. The editor is not identified (nor is he/she in Sloane) but the contents reveal the spectrum of American humor in its day, including what appears to be the first introduction of magazine readers to America's most important homespun hero, Davy Crockett, first in a December 1833 review of his book about him and then with a few additional anecdotes and this original illustration.

Even more importantly, this rare, well produced and written magazine appears to be the earliest example of an American comic periodical utilizing regular illustration, being profusely adorned with over 200 woodcuts. Before this, the American Comic Almanac, published in 1831, was the first of that genre. Being an annual, it is not strictly a magazine.

The origins of American humor has been an interest for quite some time and my dear friend Joe Rainone shares this interest and has acquired the world's most extensive private holding of this material, including a huge assemblage of Davy Crockett Almanacs, the first of which, 1835, was published prior to his death at the Alamo (Crockett's not Rainone's, the latter being alive and well living in New York). Hopefully I will be able to show you some of the important original material and information he has uncovered.

Another original and wholly unrecorded magazine from his period, perhaps unique to my collection, is Mirror of Mirth, published in Bel-Air, Maryland for twenty five issues between January 30th and August 14th 1834. The only illustration is the masthead.

More to follow. It's a beautiful July day and I'm headed down to the "Jersey Shaw" for the day after a little morning tennis with my S.O.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Washington Irving

My chief critic, editor and "significant other"(and the one responsible for getting me to write and maintain this journal), Katherine, pointed out quite meritoriously that my last post left her somewhat in the lurch as to the identity and importance of Washington Irving. My thirty year love affair with American magazines and popular culture sometimes causes me to falsely assume that my audience is as familiar with some of the personages whom I take for granted.

Washington Irving was of monumental importance in the development of truly American literature and was really America's most successful humorist prior to Samuel Clemens. He was also a man of many other literary talents and he crossed paths with and influenced virtually every other important literary personality of the first half of the nineteenth century.

This reminds me quite a bit of Sara Josepha Hale, a magazine editor of many other talents, though Ms. Hale is considerably less well remembered today. (See blog entry)

Ironically, Irving was criticized during his time for selling out to the British but his indelible mark on American popular culture cannot be minimized. The cream rises to the top and, while the reputation of some early American superstars such as Longfellow are fading, the mark of Irving continues to shine, vis a vis, Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the term "Gotham" as applied to New York City and "Knickerbocker" as applied to a New Yorker.

Frank Luther Mott lists "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" as a magazine, since it was issued periodically, though it is really more of a book in parts than a true magazine. Nonetheless, it appears on Irving's magazine curriculum vitae, with Analectic, Salmagundi and his later conributions to Knickerbocker Magazine (for one issue, Knickerbacker Magazine).

A few additional Irving-related items from my collection:

The Star Spangled Banner and the first issue of Knickerbocker.

As you can read on the long Wikipedia entry, that is only a portion of Irving's legacy. One correction on the wikipedia: Irving was the first magazine editor to print Defense of Fort McHenry. Oversight addressed. The next installment of American humor periodicals to follow shortly. More about Irving


Sunday, July 12, 2009

19th Century American Humor Magazines

As virtually all of American popular culture, the origins and development of truly American humor and cartooning is chronicled in its magazines.
These magazines are particularly desirable and collectible, fueled mostly by present-day comic book purveyors, who have, for the last few years, been looking backward beyond the 20th century for the origins of comic illustration. It appears that the comic book market is somewhat played out and prices peaked a few years ago. 19th century comic magazines are much rarer. Many of even the major publications do not have complete runs in existance.

By far, the greatest repository of magazines prior to 1876 is the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The greatest individual collection is held by Richard West of Periodyssey. Even these two collections only hold a small fraction of the comic universe.

David Sloane's book on American Humor Periodicals, published by Greenwood Press, is by far the best and most comprehensive reference. It is out of print and very hard to find. Copies are available on the web for about $200 and well worth it.

I guess the best way to tackle this subject is chronologically, so I'll use items from my collection to provide a long series of posts to tell the story.

Perhaps the first, and clearly the most famous of truly American humorists was Washington Irving, and his earliest and best effort was the highly important and valuable Salmagundi published for a year or so in 1807-1808. Complete runs in original wrappers sell for many thousands of dollars.
Success breeds imitation and there were many imitators to follow, none of which acheived anywhere near the lasting impact of Salmagundi.
Plenty more to follow. Have a great Sunday.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Monsters: Polidori, Byron, Shelley and New Monthly Magazine April 1819

Great buys are still available on eBay if one is prepared with the proper knowledge. A few years ago, I learned that "The Vampyre", originally attributed to Byron and later, correctly to his doctor, John Polidori, first appeared in the April 1819 issue a British periodical known as New Monthly Magazine. The first one I found in a mixed bound volume that contained only the April issue. It actually wasn't on the heading but showed up in the text of a search "magazine 1819". There was no illustration or mention of the contents. Price: 8 dollars- shipping from England: 21 dollars. I usually limit my magazine collecting to American or americana but this was too good to pass up!

Within a few weeks it arrived and Bingo! The true first appearance of a rare classic- in its entirety. Since then I've managed to get two more for a relative pittance- but now the secret is out. Good luck!

The first British book edition (published shortly after the magazine) is legendarily rare since it was recalled due to the misattribution to Byron. Later contemporary issues sell on the web for about $2000. So how much is the magazine really worth? I traded one for $6000 worth of magazines to a very astute collector friend of mine.

By the way, this story is the product of the most productive horror story competition in history. On a rainy summer night in Switzerland in 1816, a small group of people were sitting around and decided that they would attempt to write a supernatural story, among them Byron, Polidori and Mary Shelley(then Godwin). Polidori's Vampyre was not the first vampire story, but it is considered the basis for many other offshoots including Bram Stoker's Dracula (never appearing in a contemporary magazine). The world has continued its fascination with the blood sucking night creatures to this day, viv a vis "True Blood" on HBO.

Of course, Ms Shelley came up with a pretty good character of her own that night- Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. see an excellent treatment at The first American edition did not appear until 1833 but it was extensively reviewed and excerpted in Portfolio in 1818.
The first American magazine printing of Vampyre was in 1819 in volume two of the very rare Robinson's Magazine, published in Baltimore (I own volume one but have never seen volume two).

For a great read on the subject, you can buy (or download to your Kindle) a great book by Tom and Dorothy Hoobler
Sadly, this story helped to precipitate a falling out between Byron and his doctor and the despondent Polidori committed suicide (ingesting a cyanide compound, prussic acid) in 1821 at the age of 25.

Polidori's letter claiming authorship in the May 1919 issue.

Friday, July 3, 2009

America the Beautiful, Patriotic Songs

I don't just collect magazines. As a lover of history and Americana, I've always kept an eye out for great paper items. When I had more money (and no ex-wives!) I put together a now long-gone collection of Presidential signed documents and still get goose bumps at autograph dealers booths at bookfairs.

Fortunately, I was able to hold onto a few great pieces, in particular patriotic songs. Musicians often reproduced a few bars of music for collectors and poets do the same for lyrics, known as faircopies. Here are a few of my favorites:

During the Civil War, perhaps the most beloved "flag" song (on both the Union and Confederate sides) was "Rally Round the Flag Boys" written in 1862 by George F. Root.

"America", or "My Country Tis of Thee", written by Samuel F. Smith was very popular and Smith wrote out hundreds of copies, some including all the stanzas, for collectors.

Katherine Lee Bates was inundated with requests for "America the Beautiful". Here's mine with the letter she sent to the collector who requested it. Not a bad piece of Americana!

Of course, how could one exclude John Philip Sousa

or Irving Berlin.

I've been looking for over thirty years for a George M. Cohan "Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" but I've never seen or heard of one for sale. Perhaps one will surface. More likely he never did one. Oh the collector's mentality!
OK. 2 posts done- off to the pool. Once again, have a great holiday.

United We Stand July 1942 Flag Covers

In July 1942, seven months into "the good war", as a sign of solidarity and patriotism the Magazine Publisher's Association decided that every magazine should have a cover depicting a flag. Over 500 magazines participated.
In 2002, to commemerate the sixtieth anniversary of the campaign, the Smithsonian presented an exhibition of over a hundred of them. The website shows nearly 500 images. An interesting story worth reading.

Here is how it was described in 2002
During July 1942, seven months after the United States entered World War II, magazines nationwide featured the American flag on their covers. Adopting the slogan United We Stand, some five hundred publications waved the stars and stripes to promote national unity, rally support for the war, and celebrate Independence Day.
For magazine publishers, displaying the flag was a way to prove their loyalty and value to the war effort. For the U.S. government, the campaign was an opportunity to sell bonds and boost morale. The magazines brought home a message of patriotism and ideals worth fighting for.
The National Museum of American History presents this exhibition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the United We Stand campaign. We hope you enjoy touring the virtual exhibit, and we also invite you to visit the Museum, where nearly one hundred original flag covers will be on view from March 22 to October 27, 2002.
Today, in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the flag and the slogan United We Stand have a renewed meaning for many Americans. As the home of the Star-Spangled Banner, the National Museum of American History is a place to explore the history of our national symbol and the ideals for which it stands.

The winner of the competition for the best of all was House and Garden
Here's two from my collection that aren't on the site.

These are fun to collect and display. The more obscure the title, the more valuable. Enjoy! Happy 4th of July.