Golden Anniversary

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Parton asked to appear before Congress to rectify the situation. This long shot took three anxious years. On February 11, 1958, he appeared before the Committee on the U.S. Post Office and Civil Service. He’d had a long time to prepare his remarks, and he gave them forcefully. Heritage met all the postal requirements of a magazine with dated and sequenced material, he said. It had a regular list of subscribers, original content, and a set limit on its thickness. It failed being classified as a magazine in the government’s eyes only because its covers weren’t soft. The eloquent plea paid off with a ruling in American Heritage ’s favor. Annual mailing costs for 1958 dropped by more than $150,000, to $52,650. The magazine survived.

And flourished. David McCullough remembered Heritage in its early maturity as “the best place I ever worked as an employee. There was a minimum of office bitterness, gossip, scandal, or jealousy. We had too much to do and too much fun doing it. People were enthusiastic about the magazine, about history, about the success of the publishing company. They were receptive to new ideas, with very high editorial standards, high accuracy, and quality of writing. They delivered in the sense that they provided to the subscriber a magazine that more than lived up to its advanced promises. As an employee you felt like you were cast in a hit show with great people.”

McCullough summed up the founding triumvirate succinctly: Thorndike, Jensen, and Parton “were interested in everything, humanists in the best sense. They were the result of good liberalized education with a sustained, accelerating interest in the world around them.”

Another frequent contributing writer of nearly four decades, Thomas Fleming, said of Heritage ’s success: “They were right in tune with the times, because television was turning everybody into a visual consumer. Here was a magazine that was combining good visuals and some very interesting historical material. We had by the early fifties now become unquestionably the most powerful country in the world, and I think that made our history all the more interesting to a lot of people.”

In five short years American Heritage had grown from a slim quarterly with 10,000 subscribers to a vigorous 120-page hardbound bimonthly, topping 310,000 in circulation. Later on, Parton occasionally liked to recapitulate how he and his partners had gone about things. Heritage knowingly violated all the conventional rules: It had little startup money and no advertising, charged the highest price, used expensive printing, sank twice the capital anyone else ever had into promotion, and, in the most audacious of editorial choices, picked history as its subject. American Heritage ’s story is unique in publishing.

In 1957, after his magazine was a success, Jim Parton gave a speech before the Annual Congress of Historical Societies, saying what had made it so: “The best way to refuel an American’s sense of purpose and place in the world is to put him in his ancestors’ footsteps for a little while. Nothing so lights up history as the electricity inherent in the phrase ‘This is the place’ or ‘Here he stood’ or ‘Your grandfather lived like this.’”

The magazine continues on today by reminding Americans that we all matter, that we all are part of an epic that is still unfolding and will be ready, one day, to be received and read by generations to come. *