- How the Other Half Read: Advertising, Working-Class Readers, and Pulp Magazines
Into this underworld of literature most of us never dive unless, like Mr. Hoover’s Committee on Recent Social Trends, we are curious about the literary preferences of those who move their lips when they read.—Vanity Fair, June 1933 1
Pulpwood magazines offer two methods of escape from reality: one, by their fiction—that magic carpet that carries the reader off to parts unknown; the other, by their advertising of comparatively inexpensive means to keep the reader physically and mentally fit so that he can take the hero’s part in any romantic adventure he reads about, or dreams of having himself.—Harold Hersey, Pulpwood Editor (1937)
Advertising pages are as much a part of the magazine as those devoted to stories: parallel lines spoken by two sets of people with but a single thought.—Harold Hersey, Pulpwood Editor (1937) 2
Named for the untrimmed, rough wood-pulp paper on which they were printed, pulp magazines were unambiguously “trash”—cheaply produced escape literature designed to be thrown away once read. Hundreds of pulp titles crowded newsstands during their heyday in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, their garish covers competing for the attention of their ten million regular readers. Although most often featuring stylized, brightly colored paintings of scantily clad women or men engaged in violence on their covers, these 7 x 10 inch magazines were remarkably unassuming on the inside. Column after column of uninterrupted, densely packed print greeted the reader, punctuated only by an occasional pen-and-ink line drawing and [End Page 204] a few pages of ads clustered at the front and back. A reader could expect to pay between five and twenty-five cents for roughly 130 pages of stories between 1896 and 1953, a great deal of fiction for the money. 3 Although “respectable” magazines published on more expensive, “slick” paper—Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post—often sold for less, their substantial production costs were subsidized by advertisers. Pulp magazines were ubiquitous between the wars, but few of them survive. First, few readers deemed them worthy of preserving. Second, pulp paper is delicate and decomposes rapidly. Most titles were quite literally read to pieces. 4
The evidence about who read pulp magazines is sketchy. 5 The absence of data itself suggests a primarily working-class readership, since slick-paper magazines during this period did a great deal of market research about middle-class consumers. That these widely practiced techniques were not applied to pulp magazine audiences suggests that publishers did not believe their incomes were large enough to make them worth courting as consumers. Scholars concur that pulp magazines targeted those who were in some way marginal readers—adolescents, the poorly educated, immigrants, and laborers. 6 The largest volume of sales came from the Midwest. One survey by Popular Publications found that the typical reader was “a young, married man in a manual job who had limited resources and lived in an industrial town.” 7 Pulp publisher Harold Hersey maintained that most readers were office or factory girls (romance pulps), soldiers, sailors, miners, dockworkers, ranchers, rangers, and others who worked with their hands. 8 Their taste for “trashy” reading matter was cause for social concern. Cultural commentators throughout the 1930s and 1940s lamented that the proletariat read little else besides pulp magazines. 9
This popular perception that working-class readers preferred pulp magazines to more reputable publications was confirmed by studies done at the University of Chicago library school in the 1930s. 10 One study found that 55 percent of the pulp magazine audience had only a grade school education, 29 percent had a high school education, 7 percent had some college, and 9 percent had college degrees. 11 Other statistics indicate that residents of a working-class Chicago neighborhood read detective and adventure pulps roughly ten times more often than middle-class residents of a St. Louis suburb. 12
How do we construct scenarios about how these working-class readers read? Although wealthy people with access to education and print media leave all sorts of evidence—diaries, letters, autobiographies, personal libraries—that give testimony...