Sunday, July 29, 2012

TRUTH, ever changing – weekly 1881-98, monthly 1899-1905

Truth New-Year’s Number 1896
     by Richard Samuel West
During its 25-year existence (1881-1905), Truth, in contradiction to its name, was ever changing. In fact, it had seven distinct incarnations. It is remembered today for two of them, when it was a weekly full-color humor magazine from 1891 to 1898 and when it was a sumptuously illustrated monthly from January 1899 to 1901.

Truth covers for June 2, 1894, 
and July 14, 1894
Its first incarnation lasted nearly four years, from 1881 through 1884, as a gray weekly of no particular import or distinction. After a year’s suspension, it was back in early 1886, this time poised as a competitor to Col. William Mann’s scandalous society sheet, Town Topics. As such, it was full of newsy gossip about New York’s ‘400,’ amateur sports events, the stage, and other aspects of upper class life. It fared little better in this second incarnation than in its first, however, and after five years of languish, looked decidedly unlike a publication that would be welcomed into the homes of New York’s high society.

Truth, June 2, 1894,  
 comic strip page by George Luks
At the beginning of 1891, backers were secured to transform the weekly a third time. Blakely Hall was installed as editor. He seemed determined above all that his Truth would not be dull. He immediately secured recognizable names to write for the weekly. And as the year progressed he introduced more and more color into its pages. By the end of the year, the new Truth had arrived: it modeled itself after two other successful magazines of the period, combining all of the vigor and eye-catching color of the mighty political cartoon weekly Puck with the more refined and less partisan orientation of the comic weekly Life. The result: a beautiful and lively 16-page magazine, small folio (the new Truth had the size of the later photographic Life), built around three full-color cartoons in each issue, and ornamented with small black and white cartoons, short stories, theatre reviews, gossip, and jokes. Truth’s cartoons were an important element of the revived magazine. While Truth’s three full-color plates could have been created on the same presses that printed Puck and Judge each week, they looked decidedly different. First of all, Truth’s cartoons almost never featured a caricature of a famous person from any profession, be it politician, industrialist, impresario, or actor of note. Secondly, they almost never had any connection to current events. So, instead of a colorful broadside aimed at President Cleveland’s monetary policy or a somber memorial to the late General William T. Sherman, Truth’s cartoons concerned themselves with more timeless matters: the rituals of courtship, the change of seasons, racy glimpses of a Broadway backstage, matrimonial discord, social hypocrisy, the first blush of young love, etc. Among the artists who limned these eternal subjects were Charles Howard Johnson (who would die young in 1896), Archie Gunn, A.B. Wensell, W. Granville-Smith, and Thure de Thulstrup. The back page cartoon, usually more comic in nature, was drawn by Syd B. Griffin, George Luks, and Hy Mayer, among others.

On June 2, 1894, Richard F. Outcault introduces 
the character who would become the Yellow Kid
Editor Hall was no intellectual, but he had taste enough to recognize talent. Hall, assisted by the versatile James L. Ford as literary editor (sometimes identified as “managing editor”), published several early short stories by Stephen Crane when no ‘respectable’ publisher would touch him.

Truth, November 14, 1896, 
Rose O’Neill full-page illustration   
Truth’s most famous discovery was comic artist Richard F. Outcault, who introduced the Yellow Kid (before he was known as such) in its pages on June 2, 1894. Less than a year later, Outcault would be working full-time for the New York World and the Yellow Kid would be making journalism history as the kid who started the comics. In 1896, the graceful drawings of a young Missouri woman named Rose O’Neill began appearing regularly in Truth. A little over a decade later, O’Neill would invent the ‘Kewpies,’ securing her place in history as the first successful female cartoonist.

Truth center-spread, June 2, 1894
The new Truth quickly attained a circulation of about 50,000. But Truth was an expensive magazine to produce and selling 50,000 copies a week was not enough to pay the bills. In 1894, Truth’s printer, the American Lithograph Company, took control of the magazine and forced Hall out. Editor Ford noted in his memoirs that the American Lithograph Company might have known how to print pretty pictures but 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 three years after Hall’s departure, with a parade of anonymous or obscure men in the editor’s chair, 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. During the 1896 presidential campaign year, Truth also featured the political cartoons of future Pulitzer Prize winner Charles McAuley (as he then spelled his name), without causing irreparable harm to the magazines studied detachment from world events.

Truth covers, December 29, 1894, and May 9, 1896
Mott says Tom Hall (no relation to Blakely) was the editor from 1896 through 1898. Conflicting evidence suggests that Canadian writer and poet Peter McArthur was editor from July 1895 to July 1897 and that Emma Sylvester took over the chair before the end of that year, so if there is any accuracy to Mott’s claim, Tom Hall’s editorship would have been limited to a short time in 1896 or 1897. Hall, a West Point graduate and Rough Rider (not to be confused – as Sydney Kramer did in his Stone and Kimball bibliography – with the Tom Hall who was a Harvard graduate and professor of literature), was a major contributor of poetry and prose to Truth through the mid-1890s, but we could find no evidence that he ever held the top spot on the magazine.

Truth center-spread, October 17, 1896
By all appearances Truth was thriving. But the magazine’s financial fortunes must have flagged in 1897, because, 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 was also different. 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.

Truth’s quarterly, 1895 and 1897 covers
This ill-conceived experiment soon ended 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 quarto, the size of the current Time magazine), 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 nonfiction, serial novels, short stories, poems, and an occasional cartoon. Pretty routine stuff. But then in April along came the Spanish-American War. The covers were now devoted to patriotic themes and the centerspreads to portraits of generals or gatefolds of battleships – a sort of colorful military pornography. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was Truth’s most successful period with a circulation during the war approaching 400,000. When the war came to an abrupt end, so too did Truth’s phenomenal success, despite the fact that there were many lovely covers during the latter part of 1898.

Truth covers from 1898 when the magazine 
was quarto sized (the same size as Time magazine), 
September 7 and  21, 1898
At the beginning of 1899, the American Lithograph Company started all over again, reinventing Truth as a high-priced 32-page monthly (for 25 cents) to a 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 more substantial than anything that had come before. 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 full-color plates on pebbled paper – to make them resemble classic stone lithographs – 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 was a testament to the maturity of the printing arts. William de Leftwich Dodge, the celebrated painter, was commissioned to draw a half-dozen Art Nouveau covers. Dodge, Mucha, PAL, Leyendecker, and others, contributed color plates in the form of separately published supplements, laid into the magazine, or distributed with the magazine for free. 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 downgraded the magazine with the New Year and published three issues of a weakened and clearly less expensive Truth before selling the property in March.

Covers of Truth’s 1899-1901 incarnation, 
May and July, 1901
With the May 1901 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 progressive women’s clubs around the country. The May and June issues feature contributions by important women writers (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton), but the new magazine failed and was suspended. In 1904, the title was resurrected as an octavo sized monthly – the same size as the old pulp magazines – that served as a sorry vehicle for reprints from British publications. Truth survived thus until the end of 1905, when it folded for the last time.

By 1902 Truth was in decline, 
March and May covers

* Richard Samuel West’s new book Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling can be purchased HERE.


  1. Any comments or thoughts on the February 1900 cover? Who the sitter was? Is it by Maria Brooks?

  2. Any idea on appraisal value of these magazines? I have some in amazing condition dated 1899 and 1900

    1. Try your query at

    2. Do you still have them? I'm looking for the January 1900 edition. Thanks.

    3. I have no. 594 the little drummer boy from 1898 been trying to find some answers on its worth also.

  3. _Historic Kern_, Quarterly Bulletin of the Kern County Historical Society (vol 28, no. 4, Dec 1979) excerpted the article about the grave of Peter Lebeck that was written up in the August 10, 1898 issue of Truth Magazine. Can you tell me where I might find that issue? --Gilbert Gia.

  4. Any idea what libraries might hold Truth? WorldCat seems to be of little help in finding it and it doesn't appear to have been digitized online anyway.

  5. Just discovered Truth from some clippings. The art is so great. I'd like to find more of the good stuff but don't know where to look. I read incessantly and knew about humor magazines but had never encountered Truth.