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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005) 163-177

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Selling College Literacy:

The Mass-Market Magazine as Early 20th Century Literacy Sponsor

At the turn into the 20th century, mass-market magazines offered their readers powerful images of national preoccupations, among them the modern college system. In October, 1899, for example, the Saturday Evening Post featured on its "College Man's Number" cover an image of two male figures, one in academic garb holding books and another in a football uniform holding a football (see Figure 1). Emblematic of the modern "college man," together the two stand arm in arm, loyal and serious to the school and to each other. The image suggests, perhaps, that college is not only a scene of academic pursuit but also popular, boyish social pursuits such as football. No longer the provenance of mainly the wealthy seeking training in the sober pursuits of the ministry or law, as in the preceding century, college is re-defined here to include those engaged in the common life of the country. Although this cover, and others in the years after, played a large part in creating a powerful mythology about college, editorial material and advertisements inside the magazines confirmed and detailed that mythology for readers.

Representations of the modern college—in fiction, non-fiction, editorials, and advertisements—as a place and an experience receptive to middle class youth, in particular, contributed to a normalization of college as a literacy pathway for many who wished to advance economically and socially. If magazines of this time provided instruction in what Richard Ohmann has called the "springs and levers" of the new economy and society, then a part of that effort went into educating young people in the new processes and purposes that advanced literacy itself would take in training and employment.1 In this sense, the "selling" of the modern college and university system began not only in high school classrooms and other "official" venues that prepared students for advanced study, but also in popular venues, among them mass-circulation magazines. [End Page 163]

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Figure 1
Cover, "College Man's Number," Saturday Evening Post (October 28, 1899).

In this essay, I first discuss literacy developments brought about through the increased popularity and success of mass-circulation magazines in this period. Against this backdrop, I then turn to how these magazines, particularly the Saturday Evening Post, promoted colleges as modern institutions fit to train young people, especially young men, for success and advancement in society. In treating this material, I attempt to paint a fairly richly textured picture of literacy—including not only representations of reading and writing in editorial material and advertisements, but also first-hand participation in literacy experiences made possible by the magazines—in order to foreground the tacit partnership of colleges and magazines in promoting and developing an overall understanding of literacy for the modern economy and society. This included situating colleges as primary "literacy sponsors," in Deborah Brandt's term, for those past high school age and normalizing a college education as a natural next literacy step for those aspiring to employment in middle class business or professional positions.2 Literacy sponsors, in this view, offer training in a particular use or set of uses of reading and writing with advantages both to the buyer and seller. In the process, literacy itself takes on understandings that may come to be seen as natural or inevitable. Magazines, literacy sponsors themselves, also formed an informal alliance with the modern college system by favorably representing college literacy opportunities. [End Page 164]

By taking an approach that treats college education as a form of "literacy," I mean to place the reading and writing work of college in the context of a wider notion of literacy that takes into account informal experiences with printed text. Students, in this approach, are also studied as readers and writers with relevant literacy experience outside of school work. Following the work of such scholars...


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