When Life Was Cheap

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Before Life magazine became Henry Luce’s photojournalism gem, it was a “cultured” humor magazine founded in 1883 with an emphasis on satirizing New York’s social scene, lower classes and racial and ethnic minorities. In the 1900s, when it cost just 10 cents, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson devised the magazine’s most celebrated figure in its early decades. His creation was the Gibson Girl, a perfectly proportioned, regal beauty—the nation’s feminine ideal.

Life became known as a haven for clean and pristine wordless cover illustrations. It showed a WASP America, lily white and platonic beauty.

Gibson was the art editor and in 1914 encouraged editor/publisher James Mitchell to inject politics through fiery pro-American editorials and imagery. Mitchell and Gibson were incensed when Germany attacked Belgium.

In 1918, Gibson bought the magazine for $1 million but its brand of humor and style of art had become passe since its golden age in the early 1900s. Still, it left a significant mark on the worlds of illustration, manners, mores and style.


Cover: C. Coles Phillips, known for his disappearing garments.


Cover: Henry Hutt, a Life regular.


Cover: C. Coles Phillips’ illusionism.




Cover: John Cecil Clay’s hint of art nouveau.


Cover: C. Coles Phillips’ masterful composition.


Cover: C. Coles Phillips’ satire on how suffragettes were dating for votes.


Cover: C. Coles Phillips’ view of women’s relationships with men.


Cover: James Montgomery Flagg on men’s relationship with women.


Cover: Charles Dana Gibson’s ideal American woman.


Cover: Paul Gould celebrating Life’s readership.


Cover: James Montgomery Flagg on wisdom and folly.


Oh heavens!


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →