- Historic Sites
Like the nation it covers, American Heritage was revolutionary at its birth. And like that nation’s story, ours is a real cliffhanger.
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
In the early months of the new year, Parton analyzed the editorial and financial aspects of the magazine and quickly reached the conclusion that rather than be advisers, TJP should take over the entire venture. Thorndike, Jensen, and Parton would be publishing in effect a third incarnation of American Heritage. The first had made its debut in January 1947 as a 32-page black-and-white publication selling for the then not inconsiderable price of one dollar a copy. Its editor, Mary E. Cunningham of the New York State Historical Association, targeted it to the secondary-school market, achieving a modest circulation of 800. This first Heritage was improved when taken under the wing of the AASLH beginning in 1949. Published as a quarterly under the editorship of Earle Newton, with expensive four-color illustrations and annual subscriptions selling for three dollars, it ran contributions submitted gratis by staff members or friends of the association; the high printing costs precluded any payments to authors. This true labor of love was carried on nobly for four years until Newton, near exhaustion both financially and physically, noted in the association’s newsletter of September 8, 1954, that the cost of obtaining new color plates for the past summer’s issue had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Parton invited Newton and some of his colleagues to New York in early March of 1954 and told them he would like to form a new corporation, entitled American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., which would buy their magazine, take over all aspects of publishing it, and pay the association an annual royalty based on sales figures. (This amounted to $4,200 in 1955 and to a cumulative total of $744,295 by the end of 1969, the sunset of Parton’s tenure.)
In a follow-up letter, Parton praised the association for what it had accomplished with its magazine and went on to lay out an ambitious plan. Describing American Heritage ’s economic status as “frighteningly marginal,” he stated that three new ingredients were needed immediately: “a sound business formula, a professional publishing agreement and adequate capital.” To that end he urged the AASLH to have “no further thought of charitable endowments, borrowing printing plates, free articles or unrealistic staff salaries. The magazine must stand on its own two feet and earn its ‘keep’ entirely from circulation.” He specified that it should carry no advertising, because getting revenue that way made the small publication’s task doubly hard, and anyway he thought it doubtful they could get ads at all. But deep down he felt there was an inherent schism between this particular publishing venture’s editorial content and the rules of commerce, a “basic incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of advertising… the juxtaposition of a Raphael painting next to an ad touting the joys of tomato soup just would not work for Heritage .”
Parton felt Cold War readers wanted to “look back to the rootsprings of how they got where they are, hoping to find guidance as to where they’re going.…”
Parton pointed out that the articles at the time were “a bit too devoted to the quaint, odd or the quizzical,” adding, “there ought to be at least one major piece of significant scholarship per issue.” American Heritage had never managed to break the 10,000 circulation mark, all the while teetering on extinction with a swollen annual budget of nearly $54,000. Sound financial footing in the future meant six bimonthly issues at the subscription rate of $10 a year, the highest to date for an American magazine. To justify this price to the public also meant each issue would be expanded to approximately 116 pages with four-color reproductions and high-quality black-and-white engravings, on the best paper available. To top it off, Heritage would be “enclosed within hard covers giving the entire project a first rate look.”
Parton offered installment payments for subscriptions (a publishing first) and shrewdly calculated that any hesitation on the part of future subscribers would ultimately be counterbalanced by the perception that this “periodical in book form was a bargain all the way around.” (In fact, later Heritage questionnaires revealed that 96 percent of the readers held the magazine in such high regard that they kept all their issues, often displaying them on newly built bookshelves.)
While negotiating with the association, Parton knew of an effort under way since 1950 to launch a hardcover magazine titled History , cosponsored by the Society of American Historians (SAH), headed by the esteemed Columbia University professor Allan Nevins. Though test mailings predicted History would be a success, its promoters continued to fall short of funding to launch the project, even after spending $40,000 on “dummy” issues. Fearing that two history publications simultaneously on the market would blunt the success of both, Parton contacted Nevins and asked: Why not merge these two historical groups to sponsor the new Heritage ? They would end up with the best of both worlds, “the ^ grassroots, humble historians on one side (AASLH) and academia on the other (SAH).”