While perusing a collection of the original Life magazine from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, I came across two very familiar themes. The one below, from 1917—”Where Wealth Accumulates, and Men Decay”—suggests that perennial favorite, the sin of greed. Perhaps today’s Occupy movement could adopt Ellison Hoover’s caustic cover illustration as a lesson in lessons never learned. Life was not, incidentally, a left-wing journal.
The one below, from 1920, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” is a merciless attack on childhood obesity or, as they called it, “corpulence.” Just think—the cover of a highly read American weekly magazine, illustrated by Victor C. Anderson, lampooning the fattening of children in such a crude and cruel manner. Still, in recent years this issue has remained high on the evening-news rotation, and the critical tone has only become more vehement.
Life magazine was founded in 1883 by John Ames Mitchell, who published it until turning it over to America’s leading illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson, in 1918. The magazine was published until the early 1930s, when the financial difficulties caused its folding. The name was later purchased by Henry R. Luce for the famed picture magazine.
As a source of criticism and commentary, Life took no prisoners. And it was a wellspring for illustration: Life published Norman Rockwell’s first cover in 1917, and 28 others between 1917 and 1924. Robert Ripley (“Ripley’s Believe It Or Not”) published his first cartoon in Life in 1908. Charles Dana Gibson sold his first professional pen-and-ink drawing to Life in 1886; later, his famous “Gibson Girls” ran in the magazine.
Life presented fantasy and romance—but also, as these covers show, the real life of American society.