The Fantastic Pulps

Collecting Pulp Magazines

The Lillian Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library is home to the Merrill Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy Publications. Over 55,000 books, and works of art are in the collection, including a large collection of pulp magazines. Every May for the past 19 years, the library has been home to a one-day sale of vintage pulp material. The event includes the opportunity to hear lectures, have a tour of the collection and meet and discuss the history of pulps with one or two authors in attendance. Enthusiasts can even have their book autographed.

The pulp magazine was introduced in 1896 by publisher Frank Munsy. The October issue of his Argosy Magazine included articles and format that would become standard in the pulp publishing business. Munsy’s All-Story pulp magazine printed the first Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars stories. That first copy of All-Star recently sold at auction for $59,750 (US). The rapidly expanding mass audience, found pulps were cheap and easy to read, and eventually many different types were published to reach everyone’s interests.

There were detective pulps, romance, adventure, science fiction, horror, aviation, sports, westerns, war, spicy starlets, crime and crime fighters such as the Shadow and Green Hornet, The Spider; all would appear in pulp format. Men and women searched each week at their local newsstand or corner smoke shop for new issues, or to follow up on cliff hanger stories that had been published in the previous issue.

From the 1920’s through the mid 1950’s the pulps became the Number One source of reading material available on newsstands. In second place was comic books. The name pulp is derived from to the fact that each was printed on cheap, thick paper with ragged edges and were originally intended to be purchased and then discarded. The inside of the magazines were printed in black and white and were very drab. There was only the occasional black and white drawing to show some of the action. But the covers were the opposite, spectacular, colourful artwork and teases to sell the publication. As with any consumer item, competition was fierce and something special was needed to draw the buyers in to purchase, not just that week or month, but to become long time consumers of the specific pulp magazine.

The graphic cover was a marketing ploy that comic books picked up and employed to sell their titles. The cover jumped out at the customer and screamed "buy me" to get the rest of the exciting story on the inside. Western Story Magazine boasted "Big Clean Stories of Outdoor Life", Air Stories, "The First Air Story Magazine." Inside read, "The Jungle Pirate of Jungle Skies, Yellow Death."

Many famous illustrators began their career doing covers for the pulps. Rudolph Belarski, Frederick M. Blakeslee, Glora Stoll Karn, Norman Saunders. They would move on to magazine illustrations and covers for paperback books which would replace the pulps as big sellers after World War II.

Wow, all this adventure and excitement for fifteen cents. But as with comic books the consumer learned that in many instances the cover had nothing to do with the story inside the magazine. With the competition, each magazine had to develop a "hook" to get someone to pick up the pulp and walk to the counter and pay their money and take it home. When the pulp market was hot there were hundreds of different titles on every newsstand. The publishers hoped to keep repeat customers coming back for the next issue.

Publishers hit upon the idea that rather than each issue being comprised of several complete stories by different authors a recurring hero might make the public become attached to the character. Born were such figures, as The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, Captain Future, and others.

The characters developed crossover appeal. Many characters began in pulp magazines and then were featured in their own radio shows. In other cases, the pulps followed the interests of the consuming public. Once again in the 1930’s and 40’s there was a crossover with many pulp characters moving onto Hollywood and appearing in movie serials. The late 1920’s-1930’s was the Golden Age of Aviation so the newsstands were filled with adventure stories connected to aviation. One in the 1930’s even contained plans to build a balsa wood model of the new Pan American China Clipper aircraft that was opening the Gateway to the Orient. College football, baseball and even ice hockey had their own publications. As with the radio serials of the period the pulp publishers began to attempt to sell more magazines by finishing a story on a cliff hanger or creating master villains that would return at some point in the future. A good villain could not be killed off.

Many famous authors and artists received their starts writing for the pulp magazines or doing the front cover art work. One famous author noted he could do a story a day. He would write the story and the next morning turn it into the New York City publisher, he would then take his chit to the pay master and make enough to pay for the next weeks rent. The next story would be for groceries. Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian story appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Even the famous Tennessee Williams wrote for the pulps under the name of Thomas Lanier Williams. He sold his first story in 1928 to Weird Tales, The Vengeance of Nitocris. He was only fourteen years of age at the time. Dashiell Hammett’s original Sam Spade and the Thin Man started in the pulps. Raymond Chandler’s famous Phillip Marlowe appeared, as well as works by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, the list is endless.

The famous Hugo Gernsback published the first true science fiction pulp magazine - Science and Invention in August, 1923. One story was entitled, "Television News" and envisioned a public watching news and sports on television sets. The cover of one issue features two men watching a boxing match on a television set. What was the date of that issue? Why it was 1925.

As time went on many of the pulp magazines made extra money by advertising certain products on the inside pages and back covers. Companies became aware that with millions purchasing pulps each week in the United States and Canada, it was an excellent opportunity to spend their marketing dollars. This was especially true in the 1930’s as the world came out of the Great Depression. Cigarette companies advertised in many pulps: crime magazines appeared to be the favourite advertising venue of whiskey and beer. Dime Sports usually contained a back page ad for Chesterfield Cigarettes and mentioned a specific radio show sponsored by the company. In Canada the same magazines sold a totally different set of advertising to Canadian companies, Bright’s Wines, Buckingham Cigarettes, Carling Beer. To the serious pulp collector, no collection is complete without two issues of the same magazine, one printed for the US market and the second for the Canadian.

There were ads for body building, medicine to control pimples, home education kits including the new world of repairing radios at home. After World War II it became the repair of early television sets. A new noiseless Remington typewriter was available for ten cents a day, sent direct from the factory. If you needed a new stove, that could be ordered from the back page of Amazing Stories for eighteen cents a day. One of the strangest ads appeared in the December, 1934 issue of Amazing Stories. On page two was an ad by Dr. Frank B. Robinson and his new theory of "Psychiana". The brief information indicates it is a new theory about religion developed by Dr. Robinson. Many pulps are collectible for not for the stories, but the strange and different ads.

By the end of World War II the majority of pulp readers were turning to the cheap paperback books that were appearing on the newsstands. Like a pulp, each contained a graphic cover, but were smaller and easier to carry in a coat pocket. By 1954, like radio the pulps were almost all gone. The only major ones that survive are printed once a month and focus on science fiction and crime. After the successful launch into earth orbit of Sputnik in October, 1957, advertising became focused on books dealing with the new rockets, satellites. The Edmund Scientific Company of Barrington, New Jersey had full page ads advertising their new inexpensive telescopes. My parents purchased my first telescope in 1957 from the company. The July, 2003 issue of Ellery Queen - Mystery Magazine has a story by Henning Mankell featuring his famous Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. The Wallander detective mysteries have been made into movies.

According to Robert Graber, a major dealer in the pulps, the biggest sellers are the crime ones, followed by westerns, romance and science fiction. Two years ago I assisted him in purchasing a elderly gentleman’s collection of several hundred pulps. He began collecting in the 1920’s and felt it was time to downsize.

The wonderful thing about collecting pulp magazines is the sheer number of different titles that were published. The majority are inexpensive, but the one key is the condition and when purchased to store them properly.

Some of the front covers of the pulps are interesting and collectible for that reason. Many have the National Recovery Act eagle symbol on the cover. This dates them to the first years of FDR’s Presidency. The Act was declared unconstitutional and the eagle disappeared by 1935. World War II pulps have the Minuteman and requesting the buyer to purchase war bonds or stamps to assist in the war effort.

Values of a Select Few

  1. Cupid Caper - November 1933 issue which sold for 25 cents on the newsstand valued at over $300.
  2. Spicy Mystery - August, 1936 issue $500.
  3. Jungle Stories - Winter, 1939 issue #1 $175.
  4. Tailspin Tommy - October, 1936 issue $400.
  5. Captain Future - Winter, 1940 issue #1 $150.

Some Important Events And Milestones In Pulp History

  • Weird Tales became the home of horror, fantasy and later became known as the home of the famous Conan the Barbarian.
  • Black Mask became the home of hard boiled dete4ctive fiction. Home to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op and Sam Spade stories.
  • Detective Story Magazine hit the newsstand on October 1915. The magazine would have a run of 1,057. Street and Smith Publications would become one of the major publishers of different pulp titles. The Shadow, Wild West Stories, Sport Story, Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Love Story, Cowboy Stories, Bill Barnes.
  • Western Story Magazine issue #1 published on July, 1919 would have a print run of 1,285 issues.
  • Argosy Magazine the first pulp would run for 1,600 issues.
  • Underworld became the first gangster pulp publication. It would be followed by Greater Gangster Stories, Dragnet, Mobs, Courtroom Stories.
  • Popular Publications the largest of the pulp publishers would issue The Spider the first real pulp hero.

Other Reading And Reference Books

  • The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchinson published by Mosiac Press.
  • The Incredible Pulps - A Gallery of Fiction and Magazine Art. Published by Collectors Press.
  • Belarski - Pulp Art Masters by Adventure House.

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