History of Cosmo

The history of Cosmo

Cosmo’s March 1894 cover

We’ve featured some cool, vintage publications – magazines that I never guessed had such extensive and eclectic roots. Today I’m introducing one more to join the ranks: The Cosmopolitan. I bet you’ll be surprised to learn that this monthly staple for young ladies started out life in the late 1800s as a family-centric publication. Please join us as we venture through the history of Cosmo.

First hitting shelves in 1886, The Cosmopolitan launched as a go-to magazine for mom and the little ones. Within its pages women could find some fashion and cooking tips, while the youngsters would find fun articles too. For the first two years of its life their audience was steadily growing (even reaching nearly 30,000). But then its publication company went out of business. The first bump in the road, but not the last! Cosmo was soon rescued by the entrepreneur John Brisben Walker. A man who was ahead of his time, Walker was a champion of giving voice to the female perspective.

The history of Cosmo

Elizabeth Bisland looking fly on race day

In between developing real estate and creating early automobiles, he worked to triple Cosmo’s audience share. He started by employing one of the first fearless females – Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore. She famously raced Nellie Bly around the world in a bid to improve upon the fictional 80 days timeline. Even though Elizabeth would lose the race, in the battle for the captivated reader Cosmo came out light years ahead. On the heels of this buzzy international event, Walker hired Harper Bazaar’s talented editor. Combining the improved illustrations and captivating content, he soon achieved his tripling target.

For a guy with no background in publishing, Walker didn’t do too shabby. His brazen and innovative business sense definitely paid off, but after the turn of the century he decided to sell to the well-established publisher William Randolph Hearst. Maybe he decided it was time for another adventure; who knows why people step away from early success. Hearst was one of the wealthiest men in America so his offer of big money probably had a say in the matter! Hearst took the magazine in a new direction, focusing on scientific and investigative pieces. He hired journalists with real gumption and fiction writers who would make modern day issues spring to life off the pages.

You must keep your mind on the objective, not on the obstacle. – William Randolph Hearst

The rabid appetite for these tales inspired Hearst to form a film production company, devoted to bringing these stories to the big screen. (Could you imagine what a Cosmo film today might be like?!) Circulation was growing in leaps and bounds during the 1930s and 40s, but the mid-century ushered in a new consumer of the written word. Paperbacks and flashy headlines were the style of the moment. And in this moment, just as readers started to walk away from Cosmo, another fearless female came into the picture – Helen Gurley Brown.

The history of Cosmo

Helen Gurley Brown ready to rock it!

Brown is responsible for defining the voice for the modern Cosmo. In 1965 she re-imagined the magazine as a must-read for the single, working woman. The cover, previously dominated by text, transformed into a cover shot of a leading lady. This gal was confident and capable – the kind of chick you’d like to brunch and swap advice with.

Like her predecessors, Brown championed for causes. During the free-loving 60s perhaps no other issue was more polarizing than sexual freedom. Cosmo took a strong stance, voting for a woman’s right to be educated on these matters and be free to express them in a safe setting. Hold on to your girdles, this is not your grandma’s Cosmo!

As you can imagine, this was a controversial move. But the fan base she collected from her hit book Sex and the Single Girl was devoted. With the monthly nationwide platform of Cosmo, this message strengthened and inspired healthy discussions. You didn’t have to agree with Brown, but she welcomed an intelligent debate.

Beauty can’t amuse you, but brain work – reading, writing, thinking – can. – Helen Gurley Brown

Let’s pause for a moment to think about our world today. Do you think modern society fosters debate and encourages us to appreciate our differences? Sometimes I’m not so sure and perhaps the history of Cosmo can teach us a bit about our present state of affairs…

For our readers: What do you think the next iteration of Cosmo will look like? What’s the new perspective to champion? Let us know in the comments…

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