It was November 1929, only a month after the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression, and Henry Luce, founder of Time Magazine, had an idea. In the prospectus for a new magazine he wrote:
Accurately, vividly and concretely to describe Modern business is the greatest journalistic assignment in history.
Luce thought that business periodicals of the early twentieth century were stodgy, drab, and overly statistical, reflecting the men who read them while excluding the general public. Instead, he wanted to “bring entrepreneurs out of their back offices, give them an identity, and make them accountable to the public”. ¹ He wanted to produce something much more than a trade journal. Fortune was to be a stylish and exciting magazine that would “explain the way the world worked”.²
To achieve this, Luce hired a group of talented writers and artists. The magazine’s contents would comprise literate and engaging human interest pieces by the likes of James Agee, Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, Dwight Macdonald, and Alfred Kazin. Each issue would be an extravagant 14 × 11 inches with a bold illustrated wrapper, and the hiring of pioneer photo-journalist Margaret Bourke-White as associate editor and staff photographer, and designer Thomas Maitland Cleland as art editor, ensured stunning visuals.
Fortune’s signature article quickly became “the company story, a long, vivid portrait of one of the major businesses of the day, vast in sweep and intimate in detail…”.² The very first was on the pork producers Swift & Co. and featured a diagram on the economic significance of each part of a pig (see photo below). Other pieces covered business, politics, and foreign affairs from a critical, but tempered, perspective.
It exposed the munitions industry without losing advertisers. It published pieces which alternately criticized both Hoover and Roosevelt. And though the tone of its columns had a socialist twinge, Fortune presented a disturbing picture of communist Russia in March of 1932 while praising Italian fascism in July of 1934. Fortune seemed to have a magical ability to be seen as both a challenge to business and a boon, to keep its integrity while throwing its hat into the political ring.¹
Despite the Depression, and a cover price of $1 in an era when the Sunday New York Times cost five cents, Fortune was an immediate success. It debuted in February 1930 with 30,000 subscribers and by 1937 it had a circulation of 460,000, with annual profits of half a million dollars. Luce’s magazine, with its vision and compelling content, mirrored his expansive view of American business: “the distinctive expression of the American genius”.³
Here at Peter Harrington we’re thrilled to have acquired a beautiful set of the first twelve issues of Fortune. Below, more images from that set, including the covers of every issue (click to enlarge any image).
Fortune’s adverts were as lavish and visually interesting as its journalistic content, and they’re a superb record of early 20th-century advertising and media culture:
Below, covers from the first year of Fortune: