In recent posts I have tended to dwell on science fiction magazine cover art. In my own case, at least, the exterior artwork is still doing its job: attracting attention to the contents within. Hopefully they are as exciting as the cover, right? But artwork is only a single point of entry into the study of science fiction pulps as artifacts.
And I can only assume we are keeping them in the first place in order to preserve the artifactual value. [there is a pretty significant Greenwood microfilm series of the early SF magazines] I’m not sure if the mainstream of analytical bibliography or its book history morph has yet to reach yellow-backs or dime novels, much less the pulps or their post-war paperback successors. The established bibliographical methods are generally appropriate only to hand-made books, so much more variable (and personal and evocative) than the relatively anonymous products of the popular machine press. And there is very little mystery in an actual copy of Amazing Stories. But there are some notable varieties of textual and extra-textual content which accompany and broadly inform the fantastic features which were the ostensible point of the science fiction pulps and related publications, and which are attention-worthy. How about:
“Pulpwood magazines offer two methods of escape from reality: one, by their fiction – that magic carpet that carries the reader off to parts unknown; the other, by their advertising of comparatively inexpensive means to keep the reader physically and mentally fit so that he can take the hero’s part in any romantic adventures he reads about, or dreams of having himself . . . . Advertising pages are as much a part of the magazine as those devoted to stories: parallel lines spoken by two sets of people but with a single thought: to catch and hold the reader’s attention.”
Harold Brainerd Hersey, “Pulpwood Editor: The Fabulous World of the Thriller Magazines Revealed by a Veteran Editor and Publisher (Greenwood, 1974): 77, 83.
The ads are fun, but the question is: to what degree they were tailored to SF pulp readers specifically? Could you infer that this demographic was underemployed, musically-challenged, and spindly to a degree that the western pulp readership was not? Were their noses more unsatisfactory than the norm?
The tough part about having deep holdings in SF magazines but not in other category pulps is that such comparisons are difficult, so I have to lean on Algis Budrys for some commentary (as far as I know, the only commentary of its kind germane to advertising policy in SFnal publications). In the following quote, he is trying to prove a larger point (grind a bigger ax) about the essential triviality of magazine SF, or at least to point out some of the the more unexpected influences on the literature which may not be appreciated by most scholars or other publishing neophytes, and he accidentally provides us with an interesting bit about the ads:
“From the publishers’ point of view, the competition for readers during the chain period was a competition not between authors (who were regarded as ‘bylines,’ that is, as blurb material in most respects), and not even between individual magazine titles and genres within the chains, but between chains . . . . The publishers’ view of things can be deduced from the fact that advertising in the magazines was sold not by the individual title but by the chain; the only smaller unit offered was the ‘group’ within the chain. The content of the advertising – for High John the (luck-bringing) Conqueror Root, for an ‘encyclopedia’ of Female Beauty Around the World with supplementary torture photographs from the Orient, and for the Audel home-workshop manuals – conveys a very specific picture of the perceived demographics of the chain audience.”
Budrys, “Non-Literary Influences on Science Fiction,” (Borgo Press, 1983): 7.
So, the ads are not necessarily an absolutely essential source of information on readership, at least not SF genre-specific readerships. But they interesting nonetheless, and definitely entertaining. You might even call them evocative (Budrys would say: evocative of exploitation and disdain).
Next time: the letter column.