Well, That's Life | Newberry

Well, That's Life

Well, that’s exciting. We’re going to have some issues of Life magazine to sell next July. We very seldom get donations of Life magazine, and I plan to see to it that these rarities wind up in places of honor on the Collectibles table.

If you are puzzled at this point, scratching your head and saying, “But, Uncle Blogsy, I see boxes of Life magazine on the floor under the tables in Collectibles every year!”, I can explain. You’re thinking of LIFE magazine, and I’m talking about LIFE magazine.

LIFE magazine was a big, pictorial photo magazine which showed up on the newsstands in 1936, an illustrated version of its cousin, Time magazine, with less text and great big illustrations. It was a hit, the darling of readers who wanted to see the greats ad near-greats of the day in black and white (at a time when the only other chance for this was the newsreel at the local movie house) and of critics, who decried the reliance on illustration over thoughtful text. (“Hey, boss!” a Life magazine writer called out, in a New Yorker cartoon, “Can we call our subscribers ‘readers’?”) Every week it sold so many issues that an executive at R.R. Donnelley, which printed the magazine, said there were no figures on how many copies of each issue were printed. They just kept printing until the pages came in so they could start printing the next week’s issue.

As television took hold, Life began to decline (it was TV Guide which took its place as the bestselling weekly magazine in America) and became a monthly, stopped publishing, started up again, and stopped again. Over the years, it had become something you gave your grandchildren to read when they came to the house. Then it became a “collectible” and the next generation of grandchildren was not allowed to flip through the pictures of Henry Stimson and Katherine Cornell. It was bundled away into safe places in the basement, where it got mustier and mustier until the next generation came along and decided to send the whole odorous pile to the Newberry Book Fair. THAT’s the Life Magazine YOU’RE thinking of. We DO get a lot of ‘em, but very few are worth a bountiful price: there were lots printed, and everybody saved ‘em. (Look for the issue with baseball cards bound inside, the issues with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, the issue with Batman…that’s a whole nother blog.)

But in 1936, Henry Luce (whose whole magazine empire was pilloried in the mystery The Big Clock) had to pay Life magazine for the right to call HIS magazine Life magazine. This older Life is the one we’ve received.

Life was one in a long series of spinoffs from The Harvard Lampoon; its first literary editor was a founder of that magazine. It saw the light in 1883, convinced, like a lot of Harvard Lampoon alumni, that there was room in the larger world for what it had been doing in college. A magazine which was a collection of jokes and cartoons was not an especially new idea. Punch had been doing something similar in England for years, and the United States had several Punch imitators already, particularly Judge and Puck. Life competed with new printing technology which made the art show up better. It also lured in artists to make the actual art better. Cartoons tended to be of the old fashioned type–two or three lines of dialogue—and the jokes were of their age. (Life was accused of relying heavily on Jewish jokes; Judge at the same time relied on anti-Irish jokes…it was the heyday of Shove Thy Neighbor humor.)

Years went by: humor and the magazine changed. It picked up people who would later be famous elsewhere: Robert Benchley did drama reviews, Norman Rockwell did covers. After World War I, jokes grew racier and racier in the other magazines and Life, which had a strong family readership, tried to keep up without losing those readers who wanted to find the same joke they’d laughed at in the 1890s. The arrival of The New Yorker was a blow to the established humor magazines, and by 1936, Life was so deep in debt that it sold its name to Henry Luce and its subscription list to its old competitor, Judge.

I was going to close this blog with an observation that the jokes are still as good as they were in 1916, the date of the issues I’ll have for sale. But, um…well, here’s this one, which could easily be updated for 2018. This lady calls for an Uber, and demands, “Are you sure you can get here on time?” The driver answers, “Sure, lady. Nothing’s surer than death and taxis.”

I didn’t say the jokes were Good. Just that they’re as good as they were in 1916.

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