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Golden Anniversary

May 2024
15min read

Like the nation it covers, American Heritage was revolutionary at its birth. And like that nation’s story, ours is a real cliffhanger.

It is rare for any magazine to live half a century. This one’s unusual longevity has been immeasurably helped by the circumstances of its birth, when a brilliant array of people came together hoping to produce a publication for all those interested in our American story. 1, for one, have a personal stake in this account, as my father, Robert L. Reynolds (1924-1981), was on the American Heritage staff—ending as managing editor—from 1958 through 1970. But even for those with no familial tie to the magazine, the story of how the founders and staff of Heritage brought it about is a fascinating one.

It was almost no story at all. Research published here for the first time reveals an undertaking that came within hours of complete failure. But the founders were as tough and persevering as they were gifted. Not only did they save an evidently doomed enterprise in its infancy, they passed on to their successors a tone and quality, set 50 years ago this month, that still rests squarely upon the shoulders of James Parton, Oliver Jensen, and Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr.

In 1953, Thorndike, then 40, Jensen, 39, and Parton, 41, were three very different individuals who nonetheless shared not only a New England Yankee background and Ivy League schooling at Harvard and Yale but most of all a love and respect for the written word that kept them together for two decades. All of them already had distinguished careers in publishing, but it was during those 24 crucial months between the autumn of 1953 and another autumn two years later that all three came to understand that what they’d made would last and would be the legacy they’d be remembered for.

Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., had gone to Harvard with James Parton, and on the Crimson he began what would be a lifetime of writing and editing. After graduation Thorndike joined the staff of Time , later moving on to its fledgling off-shoot Life , where he became managing editor. But after 13 years he found himself restless to be on his own, so in 1950 he teamed up with his friend and Life colleague Oliver Jensen.

Jensen had seen publishing at its most desperate while on the staff of the expiring humor magazine Judge and had served in the Navy and written a fine account of carrier war in the Pacific. Now the two young partners were scrabbling for editorial work for their freelance consultancy firm, Picture Press, finding stability when they won the contract to produce an elaborate fiftieth-anniversary book for the Ford Motor Company.

Picture Press became TJP when the two persuaded Parton to join them. Parton had started out at Fortune, moved to Time, and during World War II had become chief historian of the Mediterranean theater. While stationed in England, he spotted a series of illustrated war pamphlets selling for about 35 cents. Stunned to learn that each issue had a circulation of a million copies, he pitched to his superior, Gen. Ira Eaker, the idea of a similar publication brought out under the auspices of the Army Air Force. It was a hit, and after the war Parton went on to create a successful history called Target: Germany. The experience, he recalled in 1959, “made me feel strongly that there was a need and opportunity in this country for a revival of popular historical writing.… As little as five or six years ago, history was regarded as a dull, dead subject. Before World War II we were complacent, smug and successful. All of a sudden we’re faced with this great ideological conflict with Russia. It seems to me that uncertainty makes people look back to the rootsprings of how they got where they are, hoping to find guidance as to where they’re going from here.”

More than anyone else, it was James Parton who made American Heritage a practical reality. In November of 1953 he attended a board of directors’ meeting of his old prep school, Loomis, near Hartford, Connecticut. While there he spotted a slim publication entitled American Heritage sitting on the desk of the headmaster, who told him, “That is one of Winthrop Rockefeller’s struggling projects.” Minutes later, Mr. Rockefeller, also a board member, said this wasn’t true at all. He put Parton in touch with the publisher, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), in Albany. Losing no time, Parton sent a letter on December 22, 1953—and traveled upstate two weeks later—to offer the services of TJP to the publication. This letter is the first documented step leading the three men toward forming a new company that would own (in 7 months) and publish (in 12) a very much more substantial American Heritage magazine.

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).”

The first pressing order of business now was to obtain ownership from the AASLH. Parton asked to appear at their next meeting—in a month’s time on April 21, 1954, in Madison, Wisconsin—for the sole purpose of requesting the association’s vote to sell their magazine. When he arrived at the Hotel Loraine, it was discovered, to the dismay of all in attendance, that with 12 members present they were one shy of a quorum. With the clock ticking, a frantic phone call went out to another member, Henry D. Brown of the Detroit Historical Society, imploring him to come immediately to Madison. Brown arrived at midnight, and his yea vote cleared the first hurdle in the eventual transfer of the magazine to the newly formed American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.

Now Parton faced an even more daunting task, raising $50,000 by June 30, only a little more than two months away, to capitalize the venture. Otherwise, said the contract, “the magazine and all its assets” would revert to the association. The clock was ticking even more insistently.

The next nine weeks saw an outpouring of letters and phone calls from New York to potential investors. Touting the new publication as “a handsome, lively magazine devoted to our country’s history … aimed at a cross-section of intelligent Americans,” Parton received commitments from Marshall Field III of the Chicago real estate family, James Sachs of Wall Street, and Robert Strauss of the Macy’s fortune, all old friends of his.

With the deadline two weeks away, Winthrop Rockefeller agreed to “lend” the additional money needed, adding, “My family will think I am nuts.”

But in mid-June, with the deadline two weeks away, he was still short $8,000. He approached his Loomis classmate Winthrop Rockefeller, asking him to invest. Rockefeller said he wouldn’t—publishing was outside the family’s usual business territory—but he would “lend” the money. Parton recalled that Rockefeller added cheerfully, “My family will think I am nuts,” but he sent the check out of loyalty to a friend, never really expecting to be paid back. However, finances were still very tight. In mind-July Parton took a second mortgage on his summer home in Vermont, bringing the total funds to launch the venture to $64,000. (In a coda to the Rockefeller “loan,” Parton was so concerned with honoring this commitment that even as Heritage began showing promise, he took out a $10,000 personal death policy naming Rockefeller the sole beneficiary, “should I step off a curb and collide with a bus.”)

Now the larval magazine needed an editor. The position was first offered to Earle Newton of the AASLH. Newton accepted but soon withdrew. He did not wish to live in New York City and would have liked the New York crowd to relocate to New England (preferably Sturbridge, Massachusetts). After a second candidate, the Columbia professor John Kouwenhoven—whose magnificent newly published illustrated history of New York City might have served as a template for the magazine’s highest editorial aspirations—turned the partners down, their third choice proved the charm.

Thorndike traveled to Washington, D.C., to make a formal offer to Bruce Catton. A former newspaperman, Catton had been born in 1899 in Petoskey, Michigan, and grown up in nearby Benzonia. World War I had interrupted his studies at Oberlin College, and though he tried twice afterward to finish, he found himself repeatedly pulled away to work for a succession of newspapers, the Cleveland News, the Boston American, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (He was awarded an honorary degree from Oberlin in 1956.) Too old for active service in World War U, he put his formidable writing skills to work as information director for the War Production Board. He left the government in 1952 to begin writing A Stillness at Appomattox , which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. After hearing Thorndike’s proposition, he had some reservations, thinking he would stand too much in contrast with the Ivy League founders. But these hesitations melted away when he met the three men in New York. He accepted on August 1, 1954. With Catton aboard, Heritage immediately acquired a cachet that later attracted great writers, additional financial backing, and respect in the publishing field.

Catton put his stamp on Heritage on the first pages of the first issue: “We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.”

Parton now directed most of the startup money into promotion, leaving Catton, Thorndike, and Jensen to put together the first issue. Weighing in one week after the sale with a seven-page memo, Jensen, as associate editor, spelled out how he envisioned American Heritage ’s editorial content: There must be a balance, with stories that are “important,” “entertaining,” and “thoughtful,” with “regional variety,” and spanning various “periods in history.… We should look over every issue to see whether it offers a good look at how people lived in the past, what they wore, ate, looked at, laughed at and loved. There needs to always be good writing, one or two exciting discoveries, a few things to smile at mixed with plenty of nostalgia and solid information.”

Jensen described in his “treatise” what is essentially the magazine that exists today, one whose “beat” (as the newspaperman Catton called it) lies not only in the momentous but also in the minor—that is, what goes into the forming of any nation as well as any human being. The founders staked their success on a brochure describing this blend that went out to hundreds of thousands (and later millions) of people from lists they had begged, shared, borrowed, or reluctantly bought. Parton mailed the first piece in July 1954, saying, he later recalled, that “if it worked, we’d go ahead, if it didn’t we’d fold up our tents.”

To make this vision persuasive to the potential subscriber, Parton hired a promotional copywriter named Frank Johnson, who found the assignment so congenial he stayed with Heritage the rest of his working life. And to achieve the look that would help justify the magazine’s steep tariff, Oliver Jensen hired Irwin Glusker, who was Vogue magazine’s promotions art director, for the job of graphic designer. At first Glusker moonlighted, not fully convinced this new venture would make a go of it. (If he had not finally come on board, he wouldn’t have met his future wife, Lillian, who was then Oliver Jensen’s secretary.)

Glusker had a good time. “It was an opportunity to play with guys I liked in a game I liked.” But he needed a steady paycheck. For the first mailing piece, he set out to create “what they call a bedsheet; the folding piece of paper that keeps on unfolding and unfolding, like an accordion.” This seductive origami, Glusker remembers, “later became the Heritage standard for direct mail—and was copied by others—for a long time thereafter. I don’t know if we invented it but we perfected it.”

Within two years Glusker rose to oversee all of the company’s artwork and Murray Belsky stepped into his shoes. These two men achieved Heritage’s classic “look” by mixing three printing processes: letterpress (from a raised surface), offset (from a flat surface), and gravure (using etched plates or cylinders). It was all a matter of taking infinite pains. If anything went awry during the printing stage, Belsky said he immediately “stopped the presses,” something easier said than done, since they were the size of trucks. He would “bring up a little yellow in this section … pull back a bit there on the green… until George Washington really looked like George Washington.”

Even with the combination of great writing and beautiful illustration, it still took one more individual to bring Heritage out onto the national stage. Richard V. Benson joined the effort in late 1953. A 33-year-old economics graduate of the University of Maryland, he was given control of the magazine’s circulation. He thought the quality of the mailings had to reflect the quality of the magazine-to-be, and took a big risk to make sure it did. “ Heritage spent nearly $110 per thousand instead of the more normal $60,” he recalled, “because we were the first to understand that cost per order was what mattered, not cost per thousand.”

Benson’s business acumen lent order to impending chaos, as the numbers from the mailing lists that Heritage culled eventually neared seven million. In that precomputer age, Heritage, out of necessity, created “mail purge”—by successfully labeling the order cards, alphabetizing by post office, and removing duplicates—all painstakingly done by hand.

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.

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. *

We hope you enjoy our work.

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