Back in the Victorian Era, many Americans believed that if a man squandered his "male essence,” he’d erode his might, intelligence, moral tenacity, and sanity. Clearly, anything that encouraged him to do so was the work of the devil. Which is why the first “romance” publications in the U.S., which popped up around 1860 in New York City, were sold surreptitiously. This practice was tolerated until 1868, when a young Christian bookkeeper from Brooklyn named Anthony Comstock caught wind of them. With the support of the Young Men’s Christian Association, Comstock lobbied the government to prevent the spread of such publications.
The ante was upped in the 1870s, when French cabaret owners began shipping performance programs featuring bare-breasted burlesque dancers to the United States. Comstock was so panicked by the flow of these early men’s magazines, he eventually convinced the U.S. government to pass “The Comstock Law” in 1873, which states: “That no obscene, lewd, or lascivious book, pamphlet, pictures, paper, print, or other publication of indecent character, or any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of contraception, or procuring of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, … nor any letter upon the envelope of which, or postal-card upon which indecent or scurrilous epithets may be written or printed, shall be carried in the mail... .”
Still, so many French magazines were being sent to the country, it was impossible to stop them all. The French, of course, saw their exports a little differently. There, publications such as “La Vie Parisienne” had gained the respect of sophisticates with its combination of artistically tasteful nudes, racy fiction stories, and comedy. By the early 1890s, the tide started turning in the U.S., too, as American courts began to accept the defense of artistic integrity in pornography cases.
As mainstream magazines boomed around the turn of the century, American illustrators took to drawing fully clothed idealized “pretty girls” and head-and-shoulders “glamour art” to help sell the product on the newsstand. Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl,” in full Edwardian dress, became the first nationally beloved “pin-up” and “centerfold” for “Collier’s.”
But the innocence of such American fare evaporated during World War I, when U.S. soldiers sent to France rediscovered blatantly sexual publications like “La Vie Parisienne,” and brought their illicit treasures home. By the 1920s, the mores of U.S. culture had shifted, as liberated flappers hit the town alone, Ziegfeld Follies girls danced and posed topless, and U.S.-made calendars adopted the style of French soft-core.
Suddenly, risqué magazines were everywhere. These new “girlie," "girly," or “pin-up" magazines, as they are variously known, were packed with black-and-white photographs of scantily clad beauties, from movie stars to models to showgirls. The covers of such titles as “Film Fun,” “Movie Humor,” “Gay Book,” “High Heel,” and “ Silk Stocking Stories” were generally illustrated, depicting a comely woman in revealing or form-fitting clothes.
Pulp magazines, on the other hand, offered their readers sensational tales of adventure, crime, horror, the Wild West, or outer space. These, too, would feature a painting of a s...
While these magazines were big hits, most men enjoyed them in secret. But in 1933, “Esquire” changed all that. Under publisher David Smart, “Esquire” employed a top-notch staff of writers, editors, photographers, and artists to produce a publication of the highest literary and artistic quality. Snuggled between the intellectual fodder would be an unrealistically gorgeous pin-up centerfold, drawn by George Petty or Alberto Vargas, who started out painting posters for the Ziegfeld Follies. Vargas’ pin-ups were so popular, “Esquire” issued a best-selling “Varga Girls” calendar every year for eight years, starting in 1941.
While “Esquire” was trying to class up the joint, pulp magazines were still being published through the 1950s, until pulp paperbacks took over. Pin-up magazines in the 1940s and '50s were dominated by Robert Harrison’s publishing house, which distributed “Beauty Parade,” “Whisper,” “Wink,” “Eyeful,” “Titter,” “Flirt,” and “Giggles.” In addition to the usually nearly naked film and stage stars, these publications also debuted unknowns like Bettie Page.
Launched in 1937, “True, The Man’s Magazine” attempted to follow in “Esquire’s” footsteps, with a bit of the pulp formula mixed in for good measure. “True” focused on stories of derring-do and high adventure, humor, and interviews with sports icons. George Petty signed a special agreement with “True” in 1945 to supply the magazine with a Petty Girl centerfold every issue, and “True” issued two best-selling Petty Girl calendars in the '40s.
By the time America entered World War II in 1941, pin-ups were not only seen as socially acceptable, but necessary and patriotic. Both generals Eisenhower and MacArthur publicly endorsed the idea of men bringing pin-up imagery with them, and magazines sent to the soldiers overseas, including “Esquire,” “Yank,” “Life,” and “Look,” all featured pin-ups with patriotic themes.
During the late '40s, Vargas and “Esquire” split ways, but “Esquire” held on to the copyright for the misspelled moniker “Varga Girls,” forcing the artist to sign his work from the 1950s onward as “Alberto Vargas.” Al Moore, who painted perky college girls more along the lines of popular calendar artist Gil Elvgren, took Vargas’ place at “Esquire,” but his calendars were never quite as popular. Over the years, though, “Esquire” maintained a stable of gifted pin-up artists, such as Fritz Willis, Thornton Utz, Ernest Chiriaka, Joe DeMers, Frederick Varady, Eddie Chan, Ben-Hur Baz, and Euclid Shook.
In 1953, a new player arrived on the lad-mag scene. That was the year a young Hugh Hefner published the first “Playboy,” which he envisioned as an improvement on “Esquire’s” concept, taking into account Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 best-selling sexology book, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” The first issue of “Playboy,” which bore no date, featured a centerfold painting of none other than Marilyn Monroe. Immediately, the magazine sold 54,000 copies of its 70,000 run.
Except for “Esquire,” men’s magazines like “True” tended to focus on rough, outdoorsy masculinity involving hunting, fishing, brawling, and drinking. “Playboy” was meant to be more refined and urban, for the man who sipped cocktails, wore suits and silk pajamas, but was still debonair enough to woo the ladies.
Because “Playboy” paid such high rates, the magazine drew the creme-de-la-creme of controversial writers, including Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Philip Roth, and John Updike. Throughout its history, the magazine also landed don’t-miss interview subjects, too, such as Miles Davis (interviewed by Alex Haley in 1962), Ayn Rand, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, and The Beatles.
In 1958, Hefner sought out Alberto Vargas to have his pin-up art featured monthly in “Playboy.” Vargas quickly adjusted to the more obvious sexuality and edgier moral standards of the magazine, and by the end of his career, he had produced a total of 152 images for “Playboy.” Only two of images ever appeared on “Playboy’s” cover, though, in 1961 and 1965. In the 1970s, however, old-school pin-up paintings were dropped in favor of color photography.
By 1960, “Playboy” was selling a million copies a month. Hefner, meanwhile, made an example of how to live the “Playboy” lifestyle, launching a TV show, sponsoring a jazz festival, and purchasing his first famous mansion in 1960. The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, and by the early 1970s, “Playboy” was selling seven million issues a month, and the brand had bloated into a public enterprise that included 23 Playboy Clubs, resorts, and casinos around the world, a book publishing house, a modeling agency, a record label, a TV- and film-production company, and even a limo service.
Naturally, “Playboy” was such a success that others copied the template, and then took it even further. In 1965, an American cartoonist living in London, Bob Guccione, started “Penthouse,” which offered more sensational articles, some of which exposed scandals and cover-ups within the United States government. “Penthouse” also presented much more sexually explicit images than “Playboy” did. Then, in 1974, Larry Flynt published a magazine geared toward working-class men called “Hustler,” which also pushed the boundaries of graphic sexual imagery.
The women’s movement in the 1970s started to push back and reject the ways women were depicted as sexual objects in these magazines. And then, after wrangling with the feminists, the girlie magazines faced a new obstacle in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s Meese Commission, established in 1984 to study the social effects of pornography. The commission’s study, published in 1986, determined that pornography was damaging, indeed.
“Playboy,” which had avoided the more explicit imagery favored by its newer competitors, got lumped in with “Penthouse,” “Hustler,” and the rest anyway. Distributors and advertisers across the country dropped “Playboy,” and the magazines sales dipped to around 3.5 million a month, where it has stagnated pretty much ever since.