Playboy, Penthouse & Hustler


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You would think that in time pulp magazines were replaced by “male lifestyle magazines” (what today one would call pornographic magazines).  However, the history is more complex than that.  In fact, men’s adventure magazines ran along side pornographic magazines for many years and targeted a different demographic.  Playboy is one of the most famous of these popular early magazines.

From Playboy’s conception in 1953 to 1970, circulation grew from 70,000 to over a million.  Circulation peaked at seven million in 1972.[1]  Magazine historian John Tebbel writes that Playboy’s “image was that of the undressed girl-next-door enjoying her sexuality.”[2]  Hugh Hefner talks about Playboy’s readers:

Playboy is an entertainment magazine for the indoor man… a pleasure-primer for the sophisticated, city-bred male… We hoped that it would be welcomed by that select group of urbane fellows who were less concerned with hunting, fishing, and climbing mountains than good food, drink, proper dress, and the pleasure of female company.

Playboy was only one of three successful magazines that were serving sex in this time period, along with Penthouse and HustlerPenthouse was the most explicit, depicting genitalia in scenes of masturbation and lesbian erotica, for example.  Hustler was more crude and less sophisticated than its competitors and featured raw sex and outrageous articles.

While Playboy’s women were “healthy, clean, the type of women a man would want to marry,” Penthouse’s women were depicted as the other: “experienced, jaded, perverse, women who could be used and abused. Its models were also older, more often black or of other ethnic groups.”[3]

These sex-focused men’s magazines and their audiences were very different than adventure magazines.  Playboy was printed on glossy paper, cost twice as much as most pulps (50 cents as opposed to 25 cents), and targeted “the sophisticated, city-bred male.”[4]

[1] Marty Jezer, The Dark Ages, Life in the United States, 1945-1960  (Boston: South End Press, 1982) p. 66

[2] John William Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman, The Magazine in America, 1741-1990 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 284

[3] Ibid.

[4] David M. Earle, All man!: Hemingway, 1950s men’s magazines, and the masculine persona (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2009) p. 101


The First Pulp Magazines


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Adventure magazines grew out of a history of mass-produced pulp novels and magazines that began in the 1890s, most of which were mystery and crime pulp fiction.  The magazine Argosy is considered to be the first pulp magazine, initially publishing in 1882 but converting to all-fiction magazine in 1896.  Argosy, like other pulp magazines until the 1940s, cost ten cents per issue and ran around 150 pages of fiction stories every month.

Whereas “respectable” magazines (such as Ladies Home Journal or The Saturday Evening Post) were printed on more expensive glossy paper and relied on advertising to stay in business, “trashy” pulps were printed on untrimmed, rough wood-pulp paper and used ultra-cheap production and high circulation numbers as a successful business model.[1]

Pulp magazines peaked during the 1920s and 1930s, when hundreds of different magazine titles filled newsstands and solicited ten million readers a year. [2]  It was 1933 when Marcus Duffield called the pulps “day dreams for the masses,” when the escapism offered by the magazines enticed men suffering from the Great Depression to scrounge up a dime to purchase one. [3]  Popular genres included science fiction, westerns, crime stories and mysteries, war and outdoor adventures, and some romances.  Most of the stories were written by men, although some romances were written by women.  During WWII, many of the pulps went out of business and ceased publication, in part due to paper shortages.

It is generally understood that the readers of pulp magazines were working class men, although there is less data on the readership than from other magazines.  Because more reputable magazines (“slicks”) conducted significant market research about their comparatively wealthier, middle-class consumers but no research was done on pulp readers, it can be inferred that “publishers did not believe their incomes were large enough to make them worth courting as consumers.”[5]

Erin Smith analyzes the advertisements in these interwar magazines to better understand the audience.  Her research shows that pulp magazines during the 20s and 30s targeted marginal readers: adolescents, the poorly educated, immigrants, and laborers.[6]  Readers were often soldiers, sailors, miners, dockworkers, ranchers and rangers.  One survey indicates that the typical reader was “a young, married man in a manual job who had limited resources and lived in an industrial town.”[7] Another study found that 55 percent of the readers had only a grade school education and only nine percent had college degrees.[8]  Although this type of research has not been done on the men’s magazines from the ’50s and ’60s, similarities in the magazine contents and advertisements suggest that the readership was probably very similar to that of the interwar pulps.

[1] Erin A. Smith, “How the Other Half Read: Advertising Working-Class Readers, and Pulp Magazines,” Book History 3 (2000)204-205

[2] Ibid 204

[3] John William Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman, The Magazine in America, 1741-1990 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 343

[5] Erin A. Smith, “How the Other Half Read: Advertising Working-Class Readers, and Pulp Magazines,” Book History 3 (2000) p. 205

[6] Erin A. Smith, “How the Other Half Read: Advertising Working-Class Readers, and Pulp Magazines,” Book History 3 (2000) p. 205

[7] Qtd in Smith p. 205

[8] Ibid.  “Into this underworld of literature most of us never dive unless, like Mr. Hoover’s Committee on Recent Social Trends, we are curious about the literary preferences of those who move their lips when they read.” Vanity Fair, June 1933, Markus Duffield

1950s “Family Values”


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In contrast with Americans’ romanticized historical memory of the postwar period, the cultural history of the 1950s was complex.  Today, the most common popular vision of the American family during the 50s is that of a nuclear family, with the woman as full-time housewife and mother, the man as provider and authority, and their children sheltered and innocent.[1]  The conservative culture that focused on the family and home emerged from the insecurities surrounding both World War II and the Cold War.[5]

1950s Fitz Family Photo

Not all families participated in the consumer expansion: 25% of Americans were poor in the mid-1950s, and only half of the population had any savings in 1959.  Women’s move from the workforce to the home was not freely chosen.[7]

Women who could not walk the fine line between nurturing motherhood and castrating ‘momism,’ or who had trouble adjusting to ‘creative homemaking,’ were labeled neurotic, perverted, or schizophrenic.[8]

Men, too, were criticized for failing to fulfill their familial duties: bachelors were categorized as “immature, infantile, narcissistic, deviant, or even pathological.”[9]  The “range of acceptable family behaviors—even the range in the acceptable number and timing of children—narrowed substantially.”[10], [11]

Furthermore, the 1950s were not as universally white as popular media and historical memory suggest. Prior to WII, most blacks and Mexican-Americans lived in rural areas and three fourths of blacks lived in the South, but by 1960, a majority of blacks resided in the North and 80% of both blacks and Mexican Americans lived in cities.[12]  Minorities were excluded from the economic gains and social privileges afforded to white middle-class families and were therefore disproportionately poorer than white Americans.

[1] Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 2000) p.7

[5] Social anxiety over men returning from war and being sex-crazed and/or homosexual, and over women joining the workforce and gaining too much independence created a culture in the 50s that overemphasized gender roles “[prescribing] that men were men and women were housewives.” Yvonne Keller, “Ab/Normal Looking: Voyeurism and Surveillance in Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Cold War Culture,” Feminist Media Studies 5, no. 2 (2005): 181, doi:10.1080/14680770500112020 (accessed April 21, 2010).

[7] While 95% expected to quit jobs at the end of war, “by 1945 almost an equally overwhelming majority did not want to give up their independence, responsibility and income, and expressed the desire to continue working.” Coontz p. 31

[8] Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 2000) p. 32

[9] Ibid p. 33

[10] Ibid p. 33

[11] The Lavender Scare, entrapment, policing of homosexuals, and linking of homosexuality to Communism made any non-normative sexual behavior extremely dangerous.  The 1950’s was a difficult time for gay men and lesbians due to this “the matrix of religious beliefs, laws, medical theories, and popular” [ John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1998), 40]

[12] Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 2000) p. 30

Intro to Men’s Magazines


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Americans remember the 1950s as being socially conservative and sexually repressed.  However, a large print culture of comics, magazines, and pulp novels emerged that highlighted erotic sensationalism and revealed hidden social anxieties.  Lasting until the late 1960s, magazine stories that included teenage drug addicts, undercover suburban spies, “twilight” housewife temptresses and Nazi torturers sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

This almost giddy cynicism revealed hidden social anxieties, deftly exposing the soiled underbelly of the American Dream’s gleaming postwar topcoat.[1]

Most of this print genre was directed at blue-collar working men who had returned to the United States after WWII. Having left the adventure of war for the tedium of home and work, they took refuge in the excitement and allure offered by these magazines.

Men’s adventure magazines reveal the complex fears and desires surrounding sex, gender, race and nationality held by a large number of straight, white, lower-class men from 1950 to 1970.  Both the magazine covers and contents provide lessons on white masculinity, creating a realm of sanctioned appropriate behavior for the male readers.  The periodicals encouraged men to be physically strong, sexually adept, racist and xenophobic, essentially establishing a hegemonic masculinity that subordinated all forms of otherness.

[1] Anastasia Jones, “Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities: Lesbian Pulp Novels, 1935-1965,” Beinecke Library, entry posted February 23, 2009,
(accessed April 20, 2010).