Magazines are one of today’s most overlooked collectibles. They offer an affordable, readily available way to glance at events, places and people that shaped the past. One of the most popular is Life.
Actually, there have been two Life magazines. From 1883 until the mid-1930s, Life featured some of the greatest writers and artists of that era. From 1936 until 1972, it was an oversized weekly magazine known worldwide for its realistic photography.
In 1882, New York City illustrator John Ames Mitchell used his $10,000 inheritance to start a weekly magazine he named Life. The first Life was published Jan. 4, 1883. The motto of this first issue was “Where there’s Life, there’s hope.” This successful publication attracted outstanding writers and artists as contributors.
A frequent contributor was artist Charles Dana Gibson whose Gibson Girl images became the standard for feminine beauty and fashion.When Mitchell died in 1918, Gibson bought the magazine for $1 million. But the advent of World War II changed the reading tastes of Americans and Gibson struggled.
In 1936, Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce paid $92,000 for the rights to use the name Life. Luce sold its existing subscription list and features to another magazine because his vision for Life had no resemblance to the earlier publication. Luce’s version became the first all-photography American news magazine. Printed on heavy coated paper, each issue cost a dime. In just four months, circulation skyrocketed from 380,000 copies for Luce’s first issue to more than one million.
During the early 1940s, the magazine solidified its place in photo journalism history with its weekly coverage of World War II. When the war ended in 1945, Life followed the exuberant mood of Americans. In the 1950s, it began some outstanding series that included Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and President Harry Truman’s memoirs. During the 1960s, Americans paged through Life for riveting images of civil rights activities, President John Kennedy and his family, the Vietnam War and America’s space program.
But by the end of the 1960s, Life was struggling, partly because Americans were getting their news from television. Economics and changing tastes led to its demise in 1972. It re-emerged as a mildly successful monthly magazine in 1978 only to barely sputter into the 21st century and cease publication in March 2000. Life once again returned in 2001 with some special edition publications that more closely resembled books. A newspaper supplement started in 2004 ended in April 2007.
The continuing popularity of Life magazine has spurred a full-time business for a Southern couple. “My husband, Shane, and I are owners of www.originallifemagazines.com, which is located in Durham, N.C.,” Laurie Blakeslee states. “Our business started more than 20 years ago when we began collecting Life as a hobby. After giving Life magazines to family and friends for birthdays and anniversaries and seeing how much fun they had seeing what life was like the week they were born or were married, we decided to begin selling them. We have grown and evolved to become the leading source for original Life magazines.
“Life magazines are important because they evoke feelings and memories from the past,” she continues. “Original issues are important to 21st century collectors because it’s great fun to travel back in time to the week they were born or were married. No other magazine chronicled the famous people and events of the 20th century like Life did. Their pages show history as it happened, with stunning photographs that have become American classics. The large 11-inch by 14-inch format is unique in today’s downsized world. They don’t make ’em like they used to.
“Though the weekly Life’s life span covered only 37 years, it is impossible to think of any other magazine that had such an extraordinary impact. This magazine brought the world home to readers in a way they had never seen or experienced before. Experienced is the crucial word. A great picture is not merely seen; it demands an emotional response. Life created such responses countless times for millions of readers.
“Collecting trends we’ve noticed are theme issues such as World War II, President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe,” Blakeslee concludes. “And many people enjoy giving Life as gifts.”
At its peak, more than 13.5 million Life magazines were sold each week, so they aren’t scarce. Most antique shops, flea markets and online auction sites have a large selection for under $10 each. Expect to pay more for issues with photo covers of major entertainment stars such as Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles, as well as sports icons such as Mickey Mantle.
Ads also play an important role in the value of issues. The April 13, 1962, issue featured Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris baseball cards in a Post Cereal ad. If the original cards remain intact, that issue is one of the most valuable issues. Collectors also seek issues with sports and entertainment personalities endorsing products as well as ads for specific products such as Coke, Lionel trains and Corvettes.
Even if you’re not a magazine collector, it’s fun to pick up an issue from the month of a special event in your life, such as a birth or wedding. But before making a costly purchase, realize that condition affects the value. Make sure all pages are there. Many copies are missing a few ad pages. Any damage to the cover, including a subscription label, also lowers the value. And no one wants a musty smelling magazine.
When you get your magazines home, it’s best to store them in archival sleeves. At the very least, store them flat in an area away from temperature extremes, excessive humidity, direct sunlight, possible exposure to rodents, bugs, and potential water damage.
What’s It Worth?
Values of Life vary greatly depending on the condition of the magazine, subject matter of cover and articles, and popularity of ads. Here are some recent sale prices from eBay.
May 18, 1893 — Line art on cover, $9.99
April, 1922 — Maxfield Parrish cover art, $129.49
Aug. 14, 1944 — Normandy soldier cover, $32
Aug. 25, 1952 — College fashions cover, $.99
Jan. 27, 1961 — President Kennedy inauguration cover, $6.99
August 1964 — Beatles cover, $52 to $21
March 11, 1966 — Batman cover, $19.99
1969 — Special Woodstock Edition, $23.50
October 15, 1971 — Disney World Opens cover, $9.99