'So What Is Pulp?: A Brief Material History of American Pulp Magazines'

Most people would never see an actual pulp magazine unless they went looking for one, and in the right place. Ask about pulps in most comic book shops, and you'll likely get only a few blank stares. If the guy behind the counter is old enough, he might tell you he's got a few issues of Doc Savage or The Shadow at home; but he hasn't had any pulps to sell in decades. Even for collectors who regularly scour antique malls, flea markets, used book stores, and estate sales in search of vintage magazines, finding genuine pulps while gumshoeing about is rare indeed. Largely, any conception of what a pulp magazine actually is or was has completely disappeared from our cultural consciousness. It's no wonder that some people might ask: so what exactly is a pulp?

On the other hand, ask the modern reader what pulp is, and you might also get some vague genre definition: hard-boiled, action-packed, sleaze. Or something like that. And to be fair, this is understandable. The explosion of cheap crime and sex paperbacks (which are one of the forms that replaced the pulp magazines along with comic books and television) are also referred to as pulp and loom more recently in the popular imagination. Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, has become the touchstone usage of the term for my generation; and many reviewers describe books by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen as pulp. Such cases suggest that the term pulp is interchangeable with noir, another descriptor that gets bandied about often without too much meaning. Certainly much of the fiction in the pulp magazines was fast-paced and often violent as part of the formula, but pick up an early pulp, and you might find that the pace is not nearly as fast, nor the action as violent, as you imagined. Equating pulps with detective or crime fiction ignores the other 99% of the genres they published; there were western pulps, science-fiction pulps, the love pulps, the sports pulps, adventure pulps, and general-interest titles like People’s and The Popular Magazine. The early pulps encompassed a whole range of genres, and the hundreds of pulps that followed had something of interest for everyone.

Magazines and American Modernity, 1850-1910

Pulp magazines originated in the 1890s, the same decade that saw an industry-wide revolution in magazine production and consumption in America. As the century was about to turn, a number of events in American life converged to allow for a wider magazine readership. Prior to this decade, there were some excellent American periodicals, and they did indeed contain fiction. Century, Harper's, and Scribner's are a few that stand out, and the outstanding Making of America project at Cornell has actually made these magazines digitally available. I have issues of Century with Mark Twain, Harper's with Walt Whitman, and Scribner's with Joel Chandler Harris, but it's fair to say that on the whole these magazines weren't exactly geared toward the masses in content or in price. They were aimed at an idealized genteel reader of means and reflect that old bothersome inferiority complex about America's place in the arts. In Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Theodore Peterson writes:

"[The monthly magazines] in retrospect seem curiously remote from the dramatic changes then taking place in American life. Literature, art, manners, travel, and history got their attention, and their editors often seemed to have had their eyes more closely on Europe than on America. Thus the reader of Harper's, skimming his copies for 1890, could settle down to subjects as remote from the contemporary American scene as Edwin Lord Weeks's 'Street Scenes of India,' 'The Social Side of Yachting,' Prof. F.B. Goodrich's 'The Young Whist Player's Novitiate,' and 'Agricultural Chile.'"

Beautifully printed and often greatly interesting, the nation's most popular monthlies had circulations of around 100,000 copies circa 1890. On the other end of the fiction spectrum were the cheap weeklies, story papers, and dime novels. Peterson notes: "Between there were few magazines of popular price and general appeal."

But if there was a gap in the content being offered in the national periodicals, there were also other forces at work in creating new possibilities for the American magazine. A truly national infrastructure had emerged concurrent with the industrial revolution. America completed its first transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the octopus of rail grew ever larger with new tentacles reaching ever further as the century unfolded. More than 5,000 miles of new rail were being laid each year at the turn of the century. While the system of roads and waterways expanded, local and regional markets were subsumed by emerging national markets. The number of rural delivery mail routes grew from 44 in 1897 to 4,000 in 1900 to 25,000 in 1903. The average factory, between 1850 and 1910, increased its capital more than 39 times, its number of workers by 7 times, and the value of its created goods more than 19 times. National markets meant the emergence of name brands and the birth of the psychology of advertising. Signs and handbills and local papers could no longer meet the advertising needs of American companies trying to reach this national audience. Indeed, whatever appetite an increasingly educated populace had for reading material might not have been satisfied if the interests of the advertising beast had not worked together with the well-being of a new type of magazine publisher. Revenue from advertising is where most magazine publishers made their money, even in the pulps which did not carry as much advertising as the slicks (the absence of advertising in the pulps is largely a misnomer, particularly in the early years, as the pulps of the first decade of the 1900s might easily have 60 pages of ads, most often printed on a slick stock of paper and placed in advertising sections at the beginning and end of the magazine). It was this confluence of forces that sparked the enormous growth in the circulation of American magazines. Publishers realized that if they were to lower the price of their magazines far enough to get them the hands of enough people, a killing was to be made through advertising revenue alone.

Frank A. Munsey and The Golden Argosy (1882)

The man who would revolutionize the industry and quickly thereafter create the first all-fiction pulp magazine was Frank A. Munsey. In the late 1870s, Munsey had worked as a manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company in Augusta, Maine. He had seen the success of magazine publishers there (Peleg Vickery's Fireside Companion and Edward Charles Allen's People's Literary Companion) and was convinced that there was big money to be made in the periodical business. Munsey's first venture into publishing was the story paper, The Golden Argosy, targeted toward the juvenile market. For five years, The Golden Argosy did not do very well. Munsey was often in debt and would write material himself when he could not afford to buy it. The magazine began to prosper by 1887. In November 1888 Munsey changed the format to include non-fiction and wider areas of interest in hopes of attracting even greater numbers of readers.

Golden Argosy

Golden Argosy

Golden Argosy

Golden Argosy

By 1893, Munsey had found himself $100,000 in debt. In dire straits, the publisher announced that the cover price of his other failing magazine, Munsey's—a mixed-content magazine that began in February 1889 as a weekly and that had converted to a monthly in October 1891—would be dropped from $.25 to $.10, while the subscription price would be dropped from $3 to $1. His decision would change the American magazine industry forever.

The Rise of the Ten-Cent Magazine

In September 1893, Munsey took out a full page ad in The New York Sun proclaiming the news. The September issue of Munsey's also carried this announcement:

"At ten cents per copy and at a dollar a year for subscriptions in advance, Munsey's will have reached that point, a point below which no good magazine will ever go, but to which all magazines of large circulation must eventually come. The present low price of paper and the perfecting of printing machinery make it possible to sell at a profit a magazine at these figures—as good a magazine as has ever been issued, provided it is not too heavily freighted with advertisements."

The American News Company—which distributed the bulk of the country's magazines—stood in the way of Munsey cutting his prices, however, because this would also mean cutting into their profits. So Munsey made another bold move, announcing that he would sell directly to newsstands instead. Letters and handbills by the thousands were posted to news-dealers across the country, but the real motivator for merchants was when requests came pouring in from all directions from customers for Munsey's Magazine. The first $.10 issue sold 40,000 copies. The second sold 60,000. By the fifth issue, circulation was 200,000. By April 1895, circulation was 500,000. By March 1898, Munsey claimed his magazine had the largest circulation of any magazine in the world, and in 1901 would boast that Munsey's circulation was double the combined circulations of Century, Harper's, and Scribner's.

The biggest magazines in America in the 1890s had circulated in the neighborhood of 100,000 monthly copies. By 1900, the circulation of the top U.S. magazines—many of which had dropped their cover price as Munsey had predicted—was closer to 1,000,000, representing a ten-fold increase in the number of magazine readers within a single decade. According to Theodore Peterson:

"[Munsey] vividly demonstrated a basic economic principle of twentieth-century magazine publishing—a principle which McClure, Waker, Curtis, and others were discovering in the late nineteenth century. It was simply this: one could achieve a large circulation by selling his magazine for much less than its cost of production and could take his profits from the high volume of advertising that a large circulation attracted. For not only did Munsey, like McClure and the others, make his appeal to a large mass of hitherto ignored readers; he also made his appeal to a large and untapped class of advertisers, advertisers as eager for inexpensive space rates as readers were for inexpensive magazines. Not long after his announcement in the Sun, advertisers knew him for his famous rate of $1 a page for each thousand of circulation."

Magazine publishing thus became an exercise in mass production. Making this mass production possible, by keeping production costs low, was the rotary press, capable of printing ten times faster than the older flat bed presses while allowing for halftone illustrations and multicolor printings. The expensive engravings and hand-colored plates which only the established, high-end magazines could afford were then replaced by much cheaper photo-engravings. Century Magazine had employed a rotary press in 1886, and other magazines improved upon the basic idea throughout the 1890s. Magazines like McClure's, The Saturday Evening Post, and the Cosmopolitan would make great use of these new technologies.

"The story is worth more than the paper it is printed on."

Munsey would take his second magazine, The Argosy, in a completely different, but equally new and revolutionary, direction. In 1896, Munsey converted the title to an all-fiction magazine printed on a rough, low-grade wood paper, and boasted on its cover: "A Dollar's worth of reading for Ten Cents." Munsey gambled that his readers would value a fistful of fiction more than the paper it was printed on; and, of course, much of the pulp magazine revolution had to do with the stories and authors themselves. George Britt's Forty Years—Forty Millions: The Career of Frank A. Munsey quotes Munsey’s description of the kinds of magazine fiction he was looking for:

"We want stories. That is what we mean - stories, not dialect sketches, not washed out studies of effete human nature, not weak tales of effete human nature, not weak tales of sickly sentimentality, not 'pretty' writing....We do want fiction in which there is a story, a force, a tale that means something - in short a story. Good writing is as common as clam shells, while good stories are as rare as statesmanship."

Munsey's prescription for fiction was already being followed by the new style of magazine in the 1890s; it was not peculiar to The Argosy. Indeed, many of the forbears of pulp genre fiction appeared in the slick magazines of that period. Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure yarns were published in Scribner's and McClure's. Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories were serialized in both The Strand and Collier's Weekly. Rudyard Kipling appeared in Cosmopolitan. H.G. Wells's "scientific romances" appeared in both Cosmopolitan and Pearson's. Fiction in the early pulp magazines had just as much in common with these slicks as with the story papers. The anthology fiction of early pulps like The Argosy, The Popular Magazine, and All-Story was not low-brow fiction; and in fact many authors operated in both realms. Stories rejected by editors of the slick magazines often landed in the pulps, and vice versa. This would continue to be true for many authors throughout the pulp era. And as the field expanded and splintered into more and more titles—there were pulps for every taste and preference written to various segments of society. Lumping all of pulpdom in together is rarely an effective exercise.

Pulp and Paper Manufacturing: The Materiality of Pulps

The pulp paper itself and the mode of its manufacture is the most effective way to identify a pulp magazine. Munsey correctly predicted that target audiences would care more about the stories themselves than the paper they were printed on. By keeping production costs low—using only the cheapest paper, cheapest ink, and paying authors in pennies per word or even less—publishers could supply thousands of readers monthly with hours and hours of entertaining fiction reading for just a dime, and with fewer advertisements (I'll repeat my caveat, however, that most early pulps did indeed have advertisements; just ask the guys who scan 80 pages of ad sections in the course of an issue). Ed Hulse writes:

"The average pulp measured approximately seven by ten inches... Successful pulp magazines earned plenty of coin for publishers because they were so easy to produce. The paper was crudely and economically manufactured. First, wood chips were pulverized into tiny fibers. These were poured into a slurry of acid, which was incompletely neutralized as the bleached mixture was spread into large sheets, quickly dried, and rolled up in large spools. (Close examination of woodpulp paper will reveal tiny, embedded slivers of wood that weren't fully dissolved in the slurrying stage.) The rapid production prevented thorough neutralization of the acid, and it's the acidic content that causes pulp paper to degrade as it ages—a process invariable accelerated by continued exposure to heat, moisture, and sunlight."

The Life photoarchivehosted by Google includes a number of photographs depicting lumber industry workers and pulp mills at the turn of the century, and these provide an incredibly useful visual aid. Here in these photos, the mass production of paper and newsprint is writ large on a grand, modern scale. The photos are from facilities in Canada (where many NY publishers got their paper), Eastern Europe, and Georgia:

Sea of Logs


Mountains of Trees

Wood Chips Digested


Loading Docks

Drying Pulp Paper

Drying Pulp Paper

Paper Rollers

Regarding the printing of pulp magazines, Ed Hulse continues:

"Printed on massive presses that emptied the large paper spools at frightening speed, sixteen pages 'signatures'—four folded sheets, each covered on four sides with text—were stacked in groups and stapled together... Four-color wraparound covers, most printed on lightweight coated stock were then glued to the stapled signatures.

The majority of pulps were not 'finished,' i.e., trimmed. Rotating saw-toothed blades left serrated edges on pages cut from the paper spools, and by skipping the step of trimming the stacked signatures, publishers were able to save time and money. This economy also led to covers being slightly larger than the 'text block' of stapled signatures. The cover draped over the block, and those overhanging edges became subject to creases and tears owing to the way pulp magazines were bundled and handled."

Hulse allows nonetheless for a number of exceptions to this definition. Some pulps experimented with a "bedsheet" format, for example, wherein paper dimensions grew, usually as page counts shrank. During the Second World War, when paper shortages caused many publishers to cut down on their number of titles, some pulps converted to a smaller "digest" size (a few would return to the larger format after the war). Magazines that began their life in pulp format, Hulse continues, might still be considered pulps even in their later digest format. And while pulp magazines are most often all fiction, that is not always the case either.

Pulp Magazines and Pulp Print Cultures

Yet many purists exclude classic titles like Manhunt or Galaxy, because of their dimensions or paper stock; even though authors who wrote for the pulps also wrote for these magazines, and artists who did the covers and illustrations for the pulps also provided the art. Purists exclude the "true" genres as well: true crime, true story, confession magazines, and post-war men's adventure magazines (sweat mags). And yet, when you read novels and magazines of the period, it is not uncommon for any of these genres or formats to be referred to as pulp, either because they were printed on the same quality of paper or sold from the same newsstands as all-fiction magazines. To be sure, writers and editors who worked for pulps did use the term often in their personal and professional correspondence. You can find the term used in the writer and publisher trade magazines of the day as well.

Pulp as a blanket term for lowbrow or sleazy genre literature is a misnomer. Yet for some, the term "pulp" simply means basura, or below consideration; while for others, pulp is embraced as gritty and exciting, authentic and dangerous, delightfully taboo. That much of the fiction in the pulp magazines themselves, and especially the early pulps, was solidly middle-class has been lost to the ages, I suppose, and I admit that my personal definition of pulp reflects this as well. To me there is the narrowly considered class of pulp magazines I've delineated above, and then there is a broader pulp print-culture medium. The pulps are pulp. True crime magazines are pulp. Confession magazines are pulp. Comics are pulp. Sweat mags are pulp. Pocket mags are pulp. The mass market $.25 paperbacks that shouldered out the "true" pulp magazines are pulp. Music and monster and exploitation mags are pulp. Anything printed on cheap pulp paper qualifies, trimmed or no, and plenty of mags on slick paper are pulp, too.

Beau Collier, Darwination Scans

This essay has been revised—by permission of the author—from an earlier version on pulp and paper production which first appeared @ Darwination Scans (10/30/2011), http://darwinscans.blogspot.com/2011/10/pulp.html. The above cover scans of The Golden Argosy from 1888 are Public Domain; all other images are the © copyright of Life Magazine.