Golden Anniversary

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By the late fall of 1954, prepaid subscriptions were coming in at the rate of 300 a day. Glusker recalls the sheer exuberance that met each day’s tally: “These guys [Thorndike, Jensen, Parton] started jumping up and down, flapping their wings over two or three percent returns.” Parton was quite clear on what these returns meant: “The $50,000 we spent on promotion brought in about $700,000 in pre-paid subscriptions…giving us in effect the capital to operate.” He put the money right back into more mailings. By the time the first issue appeared, Heritage had 40,000 prepaid orders; by the third issue that number had reached 100,000. American Heritage not only found itself widely popular but quickly attained the respect accorded such venerable journals as Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly , and Scientific American. The three founders took equal satisfaction from the reviews: “An extremely promising project… the most ambitious attempt yet made to merge readability with historical scholarship … its auspices are distinguished,” Orville Prescott, The New York Times; “An extraordinary performance,” Joseph H. Jackson, the San Francisco Chronicle.

Stephen W. Sears, then a young new employee, remembers an excited, exhausted staff gathered around that first issue, so recently off the press it was still unbound, laid out page by page across the office floor. Oliver Jensen’s article “The Old Fall River Line” led the table of contents, capturing the era of the big side-wheelers that plied Long Island Sound between New York and Massachusetts. What followed was the eclectic array of subjects readers would come to expect from American Heritage , from Allan Nevins’s profile of Henry Ford to a fondly sardonic look at some famous New York social clubs; from that “suburb of hell” Panamint City, California, during its boom days, to reminiscences of the late advertising genius Albert Lasker.

Sears, who later became a celebrated Civil War historian in his own right, was hired straight out of Oberlin College, and at 22 he found himself working immediately under Catton and with the gifted picture editor Joan Paterson Mills. Joan Mills had roomed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scotty, at Vassar and majored in child psychology; later she had worked a short reporting stint on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 campaign. Her longest and only “real” job, according to her daughter, Ally, was at American Heritage.

David McCullough said of working at American Heritage in its early maturity, “You felt like you were cast in a hit show with great people.”

Frequent “picture meetings” explored every possible way to illustrate the stories; Mills would then go to search the New York Public Library, the Bettmann Archives, Brown Brothers, the Culver Picture Service, and she would go far afield. She discovered in out-of-the-way historical archives much that has since become part of the visual canon of America’s past. Sometimes inspiration struck closer to home. Sears remembers being sent on a mission and returning with several battered doors from a junk dealer in Long Island City to provide a background for a photo to illustrate an article about the American West.

Parton put in an order for 80,000 copies for the first issue. They sold out in 10 days. But however careful the company was with every penny, Parton calculated that by the following June “our cash would be all gone because it would be time to renew our subscriptions, and until we could put out a renewal letter, we wouldn’t get any more cash flow in.” He “battened down our hatches, figuring we’d have a very grim summer.” Almost as an afterthought, Parton tacked a postscript onto his renewal letter offering a lower rate of $18 for two years, a savings of $2. To his amazement, half the subscribers chose this option, bringing in an unexpected, very much needed $100,000. One miscalculation, however, whose consequences were gathering like a storm cloud just ahead, seemed certain to wreck the newly launched vessel.

As it happened, the magazine, which drew its life from the U.S. mail system, fell under the more expensive parcel post rate once a postal ruling stated that “ Heritage could not claim book rate [although] it had hard covers and neither could it use the periodical rate of a magazine.” The bill for mailing the first issue totaled $24,000. By the end of 1957 it hovered at $36,000 per issue, or $216,000 annually.