Last week, a copy of The Saturday Evening Post arrived in our mailbox, unrequested and unexpected.
“Why this?” I wondered, curious. The last time I’d even seen a Post was decades back. But seeing it there in the mailbox triggered a buzz of delight, like crossing paths with an old friend. After all, I’d cut my reading teeth on three delightful magazines, of which the Post was one, together with Boy’s Life and The Reader’s Digest.
Later, at home, I plunked down with the magazine and learned all sorts of things about it, including the fact that it was celebrating a birthday. In 1821, 200 years ago this coming August, the Post was launched in the same Philadelphia print shop where Ben Franklin had once published his Pennsylvania Gazette.
The newcomer was called The Saturday Evening Post because it was printed each week in time to be delivered to Philadelphia addresses in the second mail on Saturdays. Back then, the U.S. mail was delivered twice a day, a practice that continued until 1950.
Like most newspapers of the day, the Post followed the broadsheet format, each page a large, unfolded piece of paper densely covered with several columns of type. But even at its beginning, much of the content had a magazine-like feel. Its tone was open-minded but skeptical, moral but with a sense of humor.
One of its first issues, dated Aug. 25, 1821, covered the breaking news of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. In that same month, one week earlier, the publication offered William Penn’s advice on choosing a wife: “Do thou be wise - prefer the person before money, virtue before beauty, the mind before the body - then thou hast a wife, a friend, a companion, a second self, one that bears an equal share with thee in all thy toils and troubles.”
Five years later, on March 28, 1826, almost a year to the day before he died, the Post ran a portrait of a painfully shy Ludwig van Beethoven, by then totally deaf. Ten years later, its readers learned the gruesome details of the carnage that occurred at the Battle of the Alamo, when the Mexican army, commanded by Gen. Santa Anna, wiped out the defenders of the garrison despite their pleas for mercy.
And in 1838, the Post covered the coronation of Britain’s Queen Victoria, ushering in what came to be called the Victorian Era, which extended through the 1800s until Victoria’s death in 1901.
But for Americans, the most important events of the 1800s occurred here at home, and the Post earned a national reputation for the high quality of its content. As it published reports of the California Gold Rush in 1849, the Mexican-American War in 1854, the Civil War starting in 1861, and the American Indian Wars of the 1880s, the Post’s circulation surged to some 90,000 readers and it came to be regarded as one of our nation’s most influential and popular publications.
Early contributors included Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Washington Irving and Mark Twain, who became literary legends in the process of covering events such as the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in 1862, Sherman’s march through Georgia two years later, and the end of the war a year after that, including Gen. Lee’s surrender and the assassination of President Lincoln.
As the 1800s came to an end, a new publisher, Cyrus Curtis, would take the helm of the Post and together with editor George Horace Lorimer would refashion the publication into a bound edition with an illustrated cover, essentially inventing the concept of the modern magazine and eventually giving rise to the enormously popular cover illustrations by artist Norman Rockwell.
But for that and other events that occurred in the 1900s and 2000s, readers will have to wait until subsequent editions of America’s oldest magazine.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.