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Buying and Selling Vintage (and Not So Vintage) Magazines
Part II: Collectible Covers

Buying and Selling Ephemera Series

by Michele Behan

#128, 29 September 2008

In Part I of this series on the ephemeral appeal of magazines, we examined the collectible magazine cover.

Assuming that the cover has served its intended purpose of visually stimulating the consumer to not only pick up the magazine - but also actually purchase it - the magazine's content then picks up the baton and runs with it.

Content comprises the articles, stories and illustrations printed in magazine format that make up the magazine itself. The publishers of a magazine carefully select their magazine's content to appeal specifically to the targeted demographic audience.

Obviously, the publisher of a woman's home magazine will choose entirely different content than the publisher of, say, a pornographic magazine. Each magazine is specifically targeted toward its particular consumer base and all of the articles, stories and illustrations featured in a magazine reflect that fact. Even magazine advertisements, which will be covered in a future installment of this series, are tailored specifically to that magazine's niche audience.

As sellers of vintage magazines, it is up to us to determine how best to present a magazine's content to appeal to our own customer base. Not only do we have to take into account the demographics of the magazine's original audience, but also the intervening years add their own layer of complexity to the equation.

For example, a woman's magazine published 150 years ago may now appeal primarily to male customers (booksellers, antique dealers and collectors) than to women. The historical aspect of a vintage magazine often supersedes the original publication's purpose.

Due to the vast scope of the subject of magazine content, we will concentrate in this installment on the 19th century magazine - those magazines published from 1801-1900.

Let's begin by taking a look at some of the key selling points - or flashpoints, to use BookThink language - of the 19th century magazine. Aside from the covers and the advertising, there are three distinct areas of content that deserve attention from a seller's perspective: authors, illustrators, and subjects.

One famous author of the 19th century whose work was originally published in magazine format was Arthur Conan Doyle. With his story of "A Study in Scarlet" in the 1887 edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual, Conan Doyle introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes to the world.

According to Vintage Magazines Price Guide by Richard and Elaine Russell, "In 1990, a complete copy, while not in the best condition, sold for $57,200 at Sotheby's Auction in New York. A private sale for a copy in excellent condition had an asking price of $125,000 in 1990. The most current auction records are: 2001 for $15,000 (plus buyer's premium) at Christie's New York for a bound copy without the all-important cover or advertisements and a fair copy, complete, auctioned at Sotheby's for $153,600 in 2004."

The Russells aptly christened the 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual as "the most expensive magazine in the world." Since the time their price guide was published, another copy of the 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual sold in 2007 for $156,000 (including buyer's premium) at Sotheby's New York, setting a new auction record for that issue. It was a complete copy with spine in facsimile and some restorations and repairs.

What accounts for this very impressive price? It is apparent that first appearances of important works that burst upon the literary landscape through an innocuous magazine appearance hold the potential to excite and thrill the reader even decades later when found in their original state.

However, before you start ransacking the attic in search of vintage magazines, keep in mind that magazines are transient (hence, they are categorized as "ephemera"). Most magazine paper of the 19th century was of the lowest quality and old magazines can literally crumble into oblivion. There is an inherent scarcity which adds to the collectibility of extant copies of desirable magazines.

Another famous 19th century author who is much more accessible to the average bookseller is Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's early magazine appearances are quite frequent. He was a prolific writer who authored fiction and poetry, as well as book reviews, and he was published in magazines as diverse as Godey's Lady's Book and The Pioneer. Perhaps Poe's most well-known magazine appearance was the April 1841 publication of "Murders in the Rue Morgue" - acclaimed as the first modern detective story - published in Graham's Magazine.

Whenever you run across a pre-1900 bound volume of magazines, be sure to pick it up and browse through the table of contents for mention of famous 19th century authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe or Charles Dickens. It is not difficult to run across contemporaneous bound volumes containing six months' worth of 19th century magazines (with covers and advertisements removed by the publisher prior to binding).

Such volumes were offered to the 19th century public in various bindings. The more elaborate bindings were often full or part leather, while cheaper cloth was also available. I have encountered many such volumes of bound 19th century magazines, such as Graham's or Harper's Magazine, containing works by important authors.

I once sold an 1864 bound Harper's Monthly Magazine for a good price, not on the basis of its Civil War articles (although the Civil War is a strong selling point, as will be discussed later), but because it contained a three-page piece by Charles Dickens titled "In Memoriam" about the recent demise of the famed English author William Thackeray. (The winning bidder disclosed his strong interest in Dickens after the auction closed.)

Other than authors, famous illustrators draw buyers to vintage magazines. Well-known 19th century illustrators include Charles Dana Gibson, Winslow Homer, Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington and Thomas Nast (known for his political cartoons and early depictions of Santa Claus). For more on Thomas Nast and his role in the creation of the iconic Santa Claus, please refer to my BookThink article,"The Evolution of Santa Claus."

Another noteworthy illustrator whose work appeared in 19th century magazines was Palmer Cox, creator of elfin cartoon creatures he called the Brownies. Palmer Cox's Brownie stories and illustrations were published in St. Nicholas Magazine for children.

St. Nicholas Magazine was first published in 1873, and featured essays, stories and poems by prominent British and American writers. The publishers bundled six issues of magazines into each beautifully bound volume, comprising the months of May through October and November through April, respectively.

Because the bound magazine issues were protected by the sturdy cloth binding, they survived at a much better rate than the wrapper-bound individual issues. Although they lack covers and advertisements, at least the magazines' content is preserved for future generations of collectors to enjoy.

Due primarily to the Palmer Cox Brownie illustrations and stories, I was able to sell an 1887 volume of bound St. Nicholas magazines for $215.50 and an 1894 volume for $104.49 in October 2007 to a serious collector of Palmer Cox Brownie memorabilia.

Okay, you've found some vintage 19th century magazines, but cannot recognize any famous authors or illustrators ... how then do you sell them?

There are several topical 19th century subjects that are fervently collected. Here is a list of hot topics found in 19th century magazines that sell well on eBay:

The Civil War
Abraham Lincoln
Thomas Alva Edison
Early magicians and magic shows
Nikola Tesla
African-Americana, including slavery and the abolition movement
19th century women's suffrage movement and early feminists
Jack the Ripper
Gold mining in California
Settlement of the early West
Anything having to do with early baseball

In Part I of this series, we discussed the controversial New Yorker Obama cover. It is interesting to note that vintage 19th century magazines were not without their own share of controversy. Munsey's Magazine was founded by Frank Munsey in 1889. In 1893, the astute publisher reduced the price of the magazine from 25 cents to 10 cents. Sales were sensational during the 1890s, perhaps due to his price strategy, but more likely due to Munsey's controversial policy of printing artwork of "half-dressed women and undressed statuary."

This engraving of a semi-nude woman was featured in the March 1896 issue of Munsey:

While rather tame according to today's media standards, it proves that content helps sell the magazine ... both in the 19th century and today.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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