The History Of Women's Magazines At The Women's Library

By Freya McClelland | 21 November 2008
a magazine cover with a drawing of a man and a woman

Peg’s Paper, 1926, (out of print/publication- 1919-1940) was one of the first romance fiction magazines, published weekly, that specifically targeted a young working-class female readership. © Women's Library

Exhibition Review - Freya McClelland ventures into the world of women's magazines by visiting Between the Covers, showing at the Women's Library until April 25 2009.

They date back to the 17th century and have survived industrialisation, huge social upheaval and two world wars: The Women’s Library’s latest exhibition ‘Between the Covers’ examines the changing face of woman’s magazines.

The exhibition features over 130 magazines and affiliated objects from the rich 300 year history. The structure and layout of the show is effective and looks at the industry in bite size sections from the early editions, to famous contributors, marketing and advertising trends to content and the perceptions of readers themselves.

Running clockwise the first magazine showcased is the 1728 almanac The Ladies Diary, which included a compendium of puzzles as well as advice on everything from pastry to perfumes. Interestingly, of the 109 replies to a puzzle only 9 were thought to be from women.

a magazine cover with a women in regal dress

The Queen, March 1919. © Women's Library

Similar to The Lady’s Magazine 1770-1847 it was a book to instruct and entertain the upper classes. Although called magazines, these were in book format, expensive to produce and buy; purely for those who could and had the luxury of time to read for leisure.

It crossed my mind that the readers of these magazines would be shocked know these would one day stand alongside the almost naked cover girls and ‘sex!’ headlines gracing Cosmopolitan.

The captions for each magazine are concise and informative. Spare Rib, the feminist title, began as an underground magazine in the 1970’s as an alternative to the commercial magazine culture. Feminist in values, this magazine stood for equality, lifestyle choice and freedom from outdated gender roles in a male dominated industry. At its height it had a readership of between 20, 000 and 30, 000 but folded in 1993.

a magazine cover with a drawing of a young woman and young men behind

Boyfriend 1965, a new kind of girls' paper, was launched in the spring of 1959. It was the first girls' magazine to truly put music first. © Women's Library

Also in the line-up are Claire Rayner, Sue O’ Sullivan, Linda Kelsey, Louise Chunn and Ashant Omkar. Sadly missing is Oscar Wilde who contributed to, edited and was known to have loved women’s magazines.

The industry had unstable beginnings, the first ever woman’s magazine The Woman’s Mercury launched in 1693 but soon folded and it almost another century before the industry picked up.

Now in the biggest period of social flux history, the woman’s magazine has had to respond to cultural changes in order to survive.

This was done through segmentation. Increasingly in the 20th century women were earning and educated. As a result magazines started to publish with different readers in mind.

a mgazine cover with a photograph of a woman with a suitcase slacks and sweater on train station

Woman Today, 1947. © Women's Library

This also meant advertisers could pay to use pages to advertise their product to their ideal audience. By the 1950’s the industry was at its peak and making a vast profit. 5 out 6 women were thought to read at least one magazine a week.

Advertising became a huge and lucrative aspect of the industry as it is to this day despite various commissions that have found that excessive advertising ‘obstructed content’. Alternative and cutting edge magazines such as Nova and Spare Rib found it impossible to survive in a distribution system so geared towards making money.

With increasing competition, marketing teams have to find new ways to attract custom. The exhibition looks at the effect of ‘free gift warfare’ on the industry and showcases free gifts collected over the period of a year.

The exhibition shows that specific cover models are of crucial and surprising importance in the sales stakes and yes, sex sells. It would seem we certainly do judge a magazine by its cover.

a magazine cover with a woman up a step ladder

Woman & Home, 1929 (Woman and Home, An IPC Media Publication) Photo © Women's Library

The section on magazine content covers the controversy of the Suffrage papers to the enduring pages relating to domesticity, celebrity, fashion and personal issues. The exhibition does mention the lack of political articles in modern magazines but as with other difficult questions raised it doesn’t probe why this is case.

Although, in a specially commissioned film by Annis Joslin, contemporary magazine readers talk about their personal relationship with women's magazines and this is one of the points returned to. It becomes apparent that magazines are now used as glossy escapism. That this can be addictive is also highlighted by one interviewee.

The film runs on loop in a clinical white waiting room with a selection of magazines on a rack for your perusal.

There is also an interactive version of the quiz, ‘How Liberated are You?’ which originally ran in a 1978 edition of Cosmopolitan. This allows you to compare your answers to the most popular answers when the quiz was first published. In 1978, 50% of women said that they would be embarrassed to have male employees working below them. It was surprising that the percentage for today’s women was not much lower.

This is a varied, colourful and nicely curated exhibition that looks at the multifaceted nature of Women’s magazines: ‘Between the Covers’ has something for everyone.

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