Friday, August 7, 2015

From Alice’s Scrapbook: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine

Poster advertising the April 1895
issue of The Century
 The late nineteenth century was the great age of American magazines. Along with daily and weekly newspapers, periodicals made up the majority of Americans’ regular reading material. In addition to hundreds of specialized academic, professional, business, and religious magazines, there were dozens of popular general-interest publications aimed at middle-class audiences. These magazines combined fiction (both short stories and serialized novels) with current events, travel writing, history, biography, and literary criticism, and were generally lavishly illustrated.

The model of this type of magazine, and the one from which Alice Miner most frequently saved articles for her scrapbook, was The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Founded in 1870 by poet and essayist Josiah Gilbert Holland, entrepreneur Roswell Smith, and publisher Charles Scribner, and originally called Scribner’s Monthly, the magazine aimed to cultivate high morals, respect for culture, and faith in American progress as it informed and entertained its readers.

Portrait of Richard Watson Gilder
by Cecilia Beaux
In 1881, the magazine changed its name to The Century and came under the editorship of Richard Watson Gilder, who would head it until his death in 1909. (At this point, the magazine no longer had any connection with Charles Scribner, and confusingly, another publication called Scribner’s Magazine was started in 1887.) The Century grew exponentially in popularity under Gilder, and it was at this time that Alice became a regular reader. 

Richard Watson Gilder took his responsibilities as an editor very seriously, knowing, as he wrote, that the magazine reached “an audience of not much less than a million of people” each month. He was careful never to include anything that might cause offense and even his own contemporaries sometimes found him excessively prudish. But he also had great faith in the power of art to elevate and transform society, and The Century set the standard for other magazines in its attention to culture. 

Alice and other readers of the magazine in the 1880s and 1890s would have had the opportunity to read serialized novels by some of the most important authors of the day: William Dean Howells, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Henry James, George Washington Cable, and Mark Twain, among many others. These fiction pieces were accompanied by Edmund Clarence Stedman’s poetry criticism and in-depth studies of major literary figures such as Dante, Keats, and Tennyson.

Engraving by Cole of a 14th-c.
Italian fresco, saved by Alice
in her scrapbook.
The Century also became famous for the quality of its illustrations, particularly those that accompanied its articles on the fine arts. In 1883 the magazine sent Timothy Cole (who had almost single-handedly revived the dying art of wood engraving) to Europe to create a set of engravings of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, and English Old Master paintings. At this time, when only a very few cities even had art museums, most people rarely had opportunities for viewing original works of art. The Century’s skillful engravings thus played a very important role in the art education of its readers.

In a way, The Century was a victim of its own success. By the 1890s it had a number of competitors that modeled themselves on The Century—but cost less. Munsey’s Magazine, founded in 1889, initially cost 25 cents but in 1893 reduced its price to a dime in order to compete with the new McClure’s Magazine. The Century, by comparison, cost 35 cents an issue. With Americans facing an economic crisis as a result of the Panic of 1893, these inexpensive magazines seemed like a good alternative. While still addressing serious topics (McClure’s became famous for publishing Ida Tarbell’s exposé on Standard Oil, for example), the new monthlies were more lighthearted in tone than Gilder’s CenturyMunsey’s advertised itself as “a magazine of the people and for the people, with pictures and art and good cheer and human interest throughout.” 

The dozens of articles that Alice saved from The Century between 1882 and 1895 show that she was making a concerted effort to educate herself about literature, music, travel, history, and art long before she became a collector, and even before she moved to Chicago. Like many women with cultural aspirations living in small towns, she turned to magazines as resources she could trust to tell her what she needed to know. 


Mark J. Noonan, Reading The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893 (Kent State University Press, 2010).

Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1865-1885 (Harvard University Press, 1938).

Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1885-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1957).

Digitized issues of The Century are available through Google Books.

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