The first 16 years of the 20th century saw the rise of a reform movement in the U.S. that affected every aspect of America’s social and political life. Much of the momentum came from the Populists, whose party disappeared by the turn of the century.
Whereas the Populists had little support for their program outside the rural classes, the reformers of the Progressive Age were supported by members of the middle classes and many individuals of the wealth establishment.
The spectacular rise of big business during the Gilded Age presented the urban middle classes, farmers and small business owners with two serious threats: What chance did small businesses have to survive in the uneven competition with big businesses and how far would big business go in taking over control of the government itself.
The Progressive movement was in large part an attempt to preserve small business as a way of life in the U.S. This new awakening in 1903 owed much to the “muckrakers,” a group of energetic journalists who made it their chief concern to discover and exploit in popular articles the seamy side of business and political behavior.
Theodore Roosevelt is most responsible for the term “muckraker.” In two addresses in 1906, he likened the brilliant group of writers to the man with the rake in the John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress, who was more interested in the filth on the floor than in a celestial crown, and referred to them as “muckrakers.”
The vehicle for the muckrakers were the magazines that the 1890s produced. They were ephemeral pulp publications that occupied your time in a waiting room, riding a commute or satisfying your curiosities about what was moving society forward.
The popular magazines of the time were Everybody, Cosmopolitan, Colliers, American, Arena and Pearsons. But of all the newspapers and magazines of the time, the most entertaining, exposing graft and corruption, and capturing the attention of readers, was McClure. It was also the most influential until it folded in 1931.
Samuel S. McClure, the magazine’s founder, was born in 1857, an Irish immigrant who had an electrifying personality and a volcano mind that exploded with ideas at the rate of one per minute. At an early age, teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his curiosity to learn.
When he was seven, his father died and left the family destitute. His mother, desiring a better life for herself and the four boys, migrated to America and then settled in Indiana.
Longing for higher education, Samuel headed to Knox Academy in Galesburg, Illinois, and after seven years graduated third in a class of 30. He had no definitive plans for the future, only large nebulous visions that flooded the terrain of his brain.
McClure peddled microscopes door-to-door, managed a bicycle rink where individuals came to learn the art of riding a high-wheeler, and basically did whatever it took to earn some money.
Finally, he developed a writing syndicate that purchased the articles, stories and research of noted authors and then sold the materials to newspapers across the country. By 1887, he was distributing 50,000 words a week to over 100 newspapers and magazines in the U.S.
So successful was the syndicate that by the 1890s, McClure was moving toward starting a magazine of his own. It would sell for 15 cents, appeal to the money and educational readers and contain four distinctive sections: the Edge of the Future would profile scientists and inventors, Human Documents would feature famous people, Real Conversations consisted of oral interviews with well-known individuals, and the last section, Short Stories presented the writings of accomplished authors.
The first issue hit the newsstand in June 1893. The McClure magazine was a literary success and its contribution to the Progressive Age reforms is due to the gifted writers that appeared in the magazine’s pages.
The magnetism of the McClure office symbolized the future. It was routine for everyone to write “The Chief” asking for some position in the office. The magazine built around itself a reputation for unique wide-ranging journalism.
The McClure magazine family was built around the likes of Ida Tarbell writing extensively about Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller; Ray Stannard Baker who investigated the Pullman Railroad strike; Lincoln Steffens who uncovered the scandal of St. Louis; and William Allen White, the Kansas editor, who captured the politics of the Populist causes. Staff intermittents like Burton Hendrick, Stephen Crane, George Turner and W.S. Porter (O. Henry) supplied colorful fiction to the McClure subscribers that reached 400,000.
McClure’s biggest competitors — Harper’s Monthly, Scribner’s Magazine, The Century and The Atlantic — were left in the dust and soundly beaten by the entertaining reading and exposing justice articles of “Sam” magazine.
By the 1920s, the magazine industry that provided information and entertainment to the general public gradually lost its appeal. Thomas Edison’s moving pictures captured the people’s imagination, as did the radio.
World War II patriotism gained a foothold on the public and criticizing mainstream progress was out of vogue. As reforms such as Standard Oil and Pure Food and Drug Act passed into law, there was a sense that the mission had been accomplished.
Sam McClure’s magazine folded in 1931. He was part Citizen Kane, and part Wizard of Oz, but above all, McClure was a blazing talent with self-belief and discoverer of writing talent.
Retired McClure lectured at clubs and universities and published three books that failed to impress the readers. He struggled to make ends meet when he fell under the spell of Benito Mussolini, praising the Italian dictator in public.
In 1944, he was awarded the order of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The “slender, gray man with stooped shoulders, whose speech and movement was still precise and quick,” died March 21, 1949, at age 92.
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