11 Things You Might Not Know About the Saturday Evening Post

How a Maine transplant turned a dying Philly publication into the most popular magazine in the world

Saturday Evening Post covers, public domain.

Saturday Evening Post covers, public domain.

Today is the 195th anniversary of the premiere issue of the Saturday Evening Post, once the most popular weekly magazine in the world. It was published right here in Philly by the Curtis Publishing Company, founded in 1891 by Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis, a native of Maine who became the 20th richest American ever. To celebrate the occasion, here are a few things you might not know about Curtis and the Post.

  1. The Post traces its origins (possibly apocryphally) to Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he bought in 1729 and turned into the Colonies’ most successful newspaper. It published the first political cartoon in the United States, the famous “Join, or Die,” drawn by Franklin himself. Officially, the Gazette ceased publication in 1800, 10 years after his death.
  2. When Cyrus Curtis (1850-1933) was 13, he bought a small printing press with savings he earned from a paper route and began to print his own newspaper in his hometown of Portland, Maine. A few years later, after a stint as a sales clerk in Boston, he took a job in newspaper advertising; three years after that, he started his own weekly magazine, the Ledger. But printing costs were high in Boston, so he moved to Philly, like Ben Franklin before him.
  3. In 1879, Curtis and a partner started an agricultural magazine, Tribune and Farmer, with a one-page “ladies supplement.” His wife, Louise Knapp Curtis, hated the supplement and took it over herself. Under her leadership, the supplement evolved into Ladies’ Home Journalthe first magazine ever to reach one million subscribers. It formed the backbone of the Curtis Publishing empire.
  4. In 1889, Louisa turned the editorship of LHJ over to Edward Bok, who would edit it for the next 30 years. In 1896 Bok married the Curtises’ only child, daughter Mary Louise Curtis, who was a supporter of the Settlement Music School and later founded the Curtis Institute of Music and the Curtis Arboretum in her father’s memory. After Bok’s death, Mary Louise married famed concert violinist Efrem Zimbalist (father, by his first wife, of actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., of television’s 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I., and grandfather of actress Stephanie Zimbalist (Remington Steele).
  5. In 1898, Cyrus Curtis paid $1,000 for a weekly magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, that was on the brink of collapse. Within a decade, its circulation, too, reached one million. It published the work of such writers as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Paul Gallico, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner and Owen Wister, and of illustrators including, of course, Norman Rockwell, as well as the Brandywine Valley’s N.C. Wyeth. Curtis was the first publisher to lower the cost of a magazine subscription to below the cost of production; on principle, he refused to accept advertising for patent medicines (he considered them fraudulent), cigarettes and cosmetics.
  6. In the 1890s, Curtis commissioned the Curtis Building at Sixth and Walnut streets to house his company. At the height of its popularity, from 1899 to 1937, the Post was edited by George Horace Lorimer (1867-1937), a Kentuckian who’d gone to Yale, became a reporter in Boston, and moved to Philly to work for Curtis. Hired as the literary editor, he was named editor in chief within weeks. For many years he was paid a princely salary of $100,000 a year. The site of his Wyncote estate is now the campus of Ancillae-Assumpta Academy Catholic school; Lorimer Park in Abington Township was a gift from his family to Montgomery County.
  7. Hate pop-up ads? Customer surveys? Curtis is the man to blame for them. Early in the 20th century, he began pioneering the new tool of market research, examining subscriber demographics and using them to aid advertisers in tailoring their messages to readers. In 1911, he founded his company’s Division of Commercial Research, led by Charles Coolidge Parlin, known today as the father of market research.
  8. Twenty-year Post economics writer Garet Garrett, who opposed the New Deal and U.S. entry into World War II (his book The People’s Pottage was adopted as one of the “One Dozen Candles” of the John Birch Society), was a vocal critic of FDR; he was fired after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Post’s increasingly conservative bent cost it readers in the 1950s and ’60s, though television no doubt contributed to its decline. The magazine replaced its illustrations with photographs; younger writers preferred to appear in trendier, better-paying publications.
  9. But the Post’s death knell was the loss of a landmark $10 million defamation lawsuit, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, in the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1963 article in the Post, “The Story of a College Football Fix,” said that Wally Butts Jr., coach of the University of Georgia football team, had colluded with Alabama head coach Bear Bryant to, well, fix a game. The Supreme Court held that the Post acted with “reckless disregard” in publishing the story. The magazine actually paid out much less than $10 million, but it nonetheless shut down in February 1969.
  10. The Post has since been resurrected and is published six times a year by the nonprofit Saturday Evening Post Society, headquartered in Indianapolis. The most recent cover features a painting by Jamie Wyeth of the Maine lighthouse he uses as his studio.
  11. Last month, repair work at the renamed Curtis Center was halted by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections over fears that renovations would damage the renowned Dream Garden mosaic mural in the lobby. The mural, the creation of Louis Comfort Tiffany, is based on a painting by Philadelphia’s own Maxfield Parrish and was installed in 1916. Back in 1998, the sale of the 15-by-49-foot mural to casino owner Steve Wynn, who planned to move it to Las Vegas, was met with a public uproar; the Pew Charitable Trusts eventually gave the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts $3.5 million to buy it back.

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