Life Magazine

Volume 23, No. 9

September 1, 1947

Underneath the magnificent Bourke-White photograph of the Fort Peck Dam, the very first issue of Life Magazine is dated November 23, 1936. Eleven years later, this iconic American weekly magazine is still using the same cover format. The September 1, 1947, edition offers a full-length portrait of John Cobb standing beside his Railton Special at Bonneville. Inside there is no Cobb cover story, but there is a dramatic, full-page photograph of the car on the Salt Flats. The caption reads: “ON RECORD COURSE John Cobb’s 28-foot, 8-inch Railton Special is silhouetted against the dawn near Wendover, Utah just before his first test run. Cobb drives from the cupola, which juts up in the middle of racer’s nose. A truck starts car, pushing it until a speed of about 20 mph is attained. Then Cobb cuts in his two motors and roars away.”

Because of my interest in automobiles, the Cobb photograph prompted me to purchase this magazine, and I was disappointed that no in-depth article on Cobb appeared within. But my disappointment soon abated as I leafed through this now historic document. It is not hard to see why Life’s popularity lasted throughout the decades (Life was published as a weekly until 1972 and as an intermittent special until 1978. It survived, from 1978 until 2000 as a monthly publication.). There is something for everyone. In sports, we find a gallery of pro golfers and exciting action baseball shots, Jackie Robinson among them. Readers are titillated with some fashion news from France—corsets are making a comeback as “waist pinchers.” The coverage of a sordid California homicide trial would have made even Perry Mason blush. The arts are represented with an article on the paintings of the Haitian artist DeWitt Peters, a John Chamberlain essay on American authors (the caricatures, ink drawings, of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Farrell, et al, are delightful), and the movie Black Narcissus is reviewed accompanied by several stills from the film. We have an inside scoop on Max Fleischmann’s (the “Yeast King”) new yacht, and some cute orangutan photos from the St. Louis Zoo.

World affairs are not ignored. An illustrated article shows the mayor of Hiroshima planting a symbolic camphor tree, “celebrating” the day of the dropping of the atomic bomb, and there is a story of a defense conference in Rio de Janeiro. Two items eerily foreshadow current events: A one-page article on ice-free lakes on the South Polar continent, found during the Admiral Byrd expedition, wonders if this is a “possible sign that the Antarctic may be growing warmer,” and the magazine’s editorial describes and discusses the universal health care plan that is about to be implemented in Great Britain. The editorial concludes that since there is such a contrast of situation and need between rural and urban America, more study is needed to consider whether a similar plan would be good for the USA.

And when perusing decades-old magazines, perhaps what becomes most interesting are the advertisements: Clothing, electric shavers, cars, beer, ice cream, pens, furniture, silverware and key fobs. Although photography is represented in the ads, many use commercial illustration. It is also interesting to note that most of the color illustrations in the magazine are the ads rather than the feature pictures. Perhaps the most telling of the advertisements—some things do change—is the full-page ad (in color) on the back cover: “MORE DOCTORS SMOKE CAMELS than any other cigarette.”

Old magazines are easy enough to find, and vintage copies of Life are quite prevalent. Since you are reading, your interest in finding these magazines may center on the ads and stories of automobiles, planes and trains; but I am certain that you will be fascinated and charmed by the entire contents and will be hard put to not read each one from cover to cover.


Copyright 2012, Bill Wolf (

Life Magazine
14 x 10.5 inches
104 pages
Original price: 15¢ ($5.50 for a year’s subscription)
Price as purchased today: $12.00

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