The Whole Truth: The Chronicle of an Amazing Magazine
The new Truth was a hit. It quickly attained a circulation of about 50,000. But it was also expensive to produce. In an era when money from subscribers, not advertisers, paid most of the bills, 50,000 readers was not enough. In 1895, Truth's debts had mounted to such an extent that its printer, the American Lithograph Company, was forced to assume control of the publication. Contributor Ford noted in his memoirs that the American Lithograph Company might have known how to print pretty pictures but it knew nothing about running a humor magazine. If that is true, the Company's ineptitude took years to affect the weekly in any noticeable way. In fact, in the two years after Hall's departure, with Tom Hall in the editor's chair (no relation), Truth was even brighter than before, featuring the most beautiful covers of any weekly ever published in America up to that time and increasingly sophisticated and refined centerspreads. Future Pulitzer Prize winner, Charles McAuley (as he spelt his name then), even contributed a considerable number of graceful political cartoons during the 1896 campaign, without causing irreparable harm to the magazine's studied detachment from world events.
In 1897, however, the contents of Truth did begin to shift away from humor, presumably because the magazine was still not profitable and the owners were seeking a remedy. In the fall, Truth became a hybrid: three of four issues a month continued the style and flavor of the magazine as it had been for the previous five years, but the fourth issue was devoted to more serious subject matter, along the lines of what could be found in any issue of Harper's Monthly or Munsey's Magazine. The format for these "magazine issues" changed too. Once a month, Truth shrunk to the size of the current Reader's Digest. It still sported a colorful cover but the signature centerspread and back cover cartoons were gone. This schizophrenic existence had no hope of working, in that the smaller "magazine issue" appealed to a very different readership than did the regular weekly issues.
This foolish experiment ended in December and with the issue of December 18, 1897, the third incarnation of Truth ended as well. With that issue, the magazine reduced its size (to a quarto) and its price (from ten cents to a nickel). The color cover and centerspread were retained, but they were more illustrative than comic in nature. The contents were dominated by miscellaneous non-fiction, serial novels, short stories, poems, and an occasional cartoon. Pretty drab stuff. But wait, with the advent of the Spanish-American War in April, the contents became even more drab -- the covers being mostly patriotic in nature and the centerspreads becoming portraits of generals or gatefolds of battleships, essentially military pornography.
This unattractive phase decreased somewhat with the war's end. There are, for example a few lovely covers from the latter part of 1898. But the weekly was clearly adrift. The reduction in price could not offset the drag of a muddled format. At the beginning of 1899, the American Lithograph Company started all over again, reinventing Truth as a high-priced (25 cents) 32- to 40-page monthly. The content was varied (biographies of artists, travelogues, tours of famous residences, fashion news, fiction), and though not uniformly distinguished, it was a considerable improvement over the nadir period of 1898. But what made the new Truth special was its appearance. It returned to its old small folio size and was printed on heavy coated stock. Color punctuated the contents, with two or three blank-reverse lithographs on pebbled paper and several other full-color portraits in each issue. It was as if the American Lithograph Company had decided to make Truth a showcase for the sophistication of its printing capabilities. The first year of the new Truth was impressive, the second even better, and the third, 1901, absolutely breath-taking. Surely no more beautiful publication was being issued in America at that time. Each issue is a testament to the maturity of the printing arts. William de Leftwich Dodge, the famous painter, was commissioned to draw a half-dozen spectacular Art Nouveau covers, Dodge, Mucha, Leyendecker, and others, contributed color supplements, Henry James and Stephen Crane wrote fiction. Even the back-page advertisements surpassed anything appearing in the other general interest monthlies of the period.
Alas, such beauty could not last. The financial troubles of 1901 apparently hit the American Lithograph Company hard. It decided to sell the magazine at the end of the year. With the January issue, Truth became radicalized as "The Woman's Forum," an unofficial organ of the Federation of Women's Clubs and a medium of communication among all progressive women's clubs around the country. The eclectic content and the colorful interior did not fade immediately. Issues from 1902 are dotted with attractive features and a number of important women writers became contributors (Charlotte Gilman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton), but as a group these issues pale in comparison to those of the year before. This, the sixth incarnation of Truth, lasted less than two years. The magazine was suspended for a time in 1903, but was revived before the end of the year as a sorry vehicle for the next two years for reprints from British publications.
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Richard D. Olson, Ph.D., 40 Infinity Drive, Poplarville, MS 39470-9006 (601) 795-4838 firstname.lastname@example.org
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