Reading the world’s first magazine

by Steve Watson in February 2024
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Art & design

A few days before Christmas, as a sort of end of year treat, I took myself off to the National Art Library at the V&A Museum, to read the world’s first magazine. The Gentleman’s Magazine was first published in January 1731 and it ran for nearly 200 years, finally coming to an end in 1922. It’s renowned as the first printed thing that called itself a magazine and I wanted to see it for myself – instead of reading about it, I wanted to read it, and get a sense of how it compares to what we think of as a magazine today.

As I signed in at the beautiful, two-storey reading room, the magazine was taken from a locked cabinet and placed on a grey cushion, which the librarian called a ‘book sofa’, explaining that it would help me to open the pages without straining the delicate spine. She also gave me a couple of strands of lead beads that I could drape across the pages to hold them open, making it easier to write notes and take pictures without damaging the magazine. The leather cover is disintegrating fast and my first impression was of something very ancient and distant from our time, but opening it up reveals fantastically vivid endpapers – an 18th-century psychedelia of black, yellow, red and white streams running around oily grey and green blobs. I took pictures and I’d love to show them here, but unfortunately an image licensing executive from the V&A explained that I’m not allowed to publish them anywhere — drop me an email if you’d like me to share them with you!

I’d heard before that the publisher, Edward Cave, called his publication a ‘magazine’ in reference to a storehouse for explosives, but I hadn’t really understood what that meant. The volume I read collects the whole first year of issues, and an introduction explains that the aim of the magazine was: “to Give Monthly a View of all the Pieces of Wit, Humour, or Intelligence, daily offered to the Publick in the News-Papers, (which of late are so multiply’d, as to render it impossible, unless a Man makes it a Business, to consult them all)…”

If the endpapers felt suddenly fresh after the crumbling cover, then this description also struck me as surprisingly alive and relevant to our time. It’s easy to imagine we’re the first generation that has felt overwhelmed by its media, but it seems people in the 1700s were also struggling to keep up with the sheer amount of stuff being written, and so a gap in the market was created. By building a storehouse for the best bits taken from other newspapers, Cave helped his readers to feel that they didn’t need to see literally everything, and in doing so created a model for magazine making that has endured through the ages. (For example George Newnes’s Tit-Bits in the 19th century, Reader’s Digest in the 20th century, and The Week today.)

And you don’t need to read much to get an understanding of its explosive power, too. The first five essays in the first issue summarise pieces that appeared in a publication called The Craftsman, reporting on government, politics and popular protest, and criticising another title called The London Journal. The next five essays then recount pieces from The London Journal, outlining their arguments and firing back at The Craftsman. It seems that with his new magazine, Cave was tapping into a tit-for-tat feud that was raging against a backdrop of social upheaval and massive change, as Britain began to industrialise and expanded its colonial ambitions.

Alongside this gossipy, febrile reporting there are also plenty of guilty pleasures that would have appealed to readers’ baser instincts. For example a special report on ‘Credulity in Witchcraft’ provides an excuse for listing in gory detail the terrible things that people had recently done to women who were accused of being witches. There’s an account of an Irish murderer and his punishment, in which he was, “sentenced to be hanged for two minutes, then his head to be cut off, his bowels to be taken out and thrown in his face, and his body divided in four quarters to be placed in four cross ways.” There are duels (including one fought because of publishing a pamphlet), experimental surgeries, and a bishop’s heart found preserved in a jar. The whole thing reminded me of nothing more than late-90s FHM, with its mix of cool facts, weird stories and horrible accidents, but whereas that magazine’s mission was to provide the reader with all they needed to impress their mates in the pub, The Gentleman’s Magazine was providing ammunition for readers in their local coffee house.

Clearly, The Gentleman’s Magazine doesn’t look much like a magazine by today’s standards – each issue had just one main image, on the cover, showing St John’s Gate, where Cave kept his printing press and where he worked to publish the magazine. There are no headlines or pull quotes or any of the other devices that would evolve over the centuries as ways of drawing readers into a story, but there’s still something essentially magazine-y about it. He understood which stories his audience wanted to read and he told them in a way that was accessible to people who may have no previous knowledge of the subject. He wrote under the pseudonym Sylvanus Urban, a punning reference that encompassed both the countryside and the city, and gave a knowing wink to the growing middle class of gentlemen in their rural homes who wanted to keep up with the latest from London.

That friendly, easy, playful accessibility seems to have been a core component of the magazine’s success, and it remains an important part of what I love about magazines now. Compared to a newspaper, say, or an academic journal, there’s something in the DNA of a magazine that is just more fun – regardless of the subject matter, it wants to give pleasure as well as imparting information, taking the reader by the hand and presenting them with something they might not otherwise have come across. I’d argue that’s something you could see in every one of the magazines we’ve delivered to our subscribers over the last 16 years, but also most, if not all the magazines you’d find on the shelf in any supermarket – a kind of shared identity that unites anyone who has ever sat down to make a magazine.

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