America’s First Popular Men’s Magazine: The National Police Gazette

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 30, 2013 · 21 comments

in Manly Knowledge, Travel & Leisure

gaz

Several years ago I was wandering the stacks at the University of Tulsa library when I happened to chance upon an old, pink book with the words “Police Gazette” gilded on the spine in fancy script. I don’t know why, but I took it off the shelf and started to thumb through it. Inside I found page after page of 19th-century newspaper re-prints that featured big, bold, and inflammatory headlines along with cool illustrations of bare-knuckle pugilists, old-time strongmen, and lots of women in bloomers slugging each other senseless.

Little did I know that the musty book in my hands was a collection of facsimiles of America’s first hugely popular men’s magazine: The National Police Gazette. Intrigued by what I saw in the book, I began researching the history of the Gazette and discovered that it was the magazine of American men living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only was the Police Gazette insanely popular, but it played a large role in shaping modern America’s idea of rugged and rebellious manhood and pioneered the pillars of much of today’s male-orientated media. The Police Gazette’s content consisted of a mish-mash of true-crime stories, gossip, sports, and pictures of buxom babes; basically, it was Sports Illustrated, National Enquirer, and Maxim rolled into one weekly magazine.

Below I give a brief history of this virile magazine that was, according to scholar Howard P. Chudacoff, “the unofficial scripture of the bachelor subculture” during the Golden Age of the American Bachelor. I’ve also included some of the amazing wood-engraved illustrations to give you a glimpse of a magazine that your great-great-great-grandpa probably thumbed through while waiting to get a shave at the barbershop.

The History of the National Police Gazette

Origins

The National Police Gazette was founded in New York City in 1845 by  journalist George Wilkes and attorney Enoch Camp. The Gazette’s early issues were dedicated to giving extremely detailed crime narratives, and Wilkes and Camp claimed they printed the magazine to help police officers recognize criminals and bring them to justice. Of course they were also simply trying to cash-in on the American public’s growing interest in tawdry and sensationalist tabloid news. In keeping with their publication’s stated mission of helping cops catch crooks, each issue contained lists of names of alleged offenders, their aliases, physical appearances, and in some cases even their home addresses.

The Police Gazette experienced mild success under Wilkes’ and Camp’s leadership. However, they eventually sold the rag to former New York City police chief George Washington Matsell in 1856. Matsell made three changes that propelled the magazine to national popularity. First, he expanded story coverage to include lurid sex crimes and gossip about the sexual affairs of New York’s dignitaries. Second, Matsell  introduced what would become a defining feature of The National Police Gazette: full page, wood-engraved illustrations. Up until this innovation, the Gazette consisted of page after page of intimidating blocks of  text. By illustrating the content with vivid engravings, Matsell hoped to add not-so-literate readers to his subscriber rolls. Finally, Matsell aggressively expanded the number of correspondents working for the magazine and eventually had reporters in every major U.S. city.

Unfortunately, Matsell’s wholesale expansion eventually forced him to sell the publication in 1866, as he could no longer afford to fund its huge budget. After the sale, the Police Gazette entered a decade-long slump of declining circulation and ad sales and was on its way to being thrown in the dust bin of history. Things quickly changed, though, when a scrappy Irish immigrant named Richard Kyle Fox joined the magazine’s team.

Becoming the Bachelor Bible

fox

From policegazette.us

Fox was a character straight out of a Horatio Alger story. He arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1874 penniless but full of ambition. Needing a job, he began selling ads for the Police Gazette. While the job didn’t pay well, Fox hustled and quickly became the magazine’s business manager in just a year. Although the Gazette continued to struggle, Fox felt it was capable of becoming a media juggernaut. After somehow convincing a bank to loan him the money, he bought the publication in 1877, named himself editor-in-chief, and made changes that would transform the The National Police Gazette into America’s first widely popular men’s magazine.

readingPG

Men reading “the bachelor bible” in a saloon.

First, Fox reduced subscription rates for saloon keepers, barbers, and hotel managers — business owners that happened to cater to the Police Gazette’s target audience of young, single, urban men. Second, Fox further increased the number of illustrations and effectively created the men’s magazine tradition of featuring sexy layouts of women by introducing his “Footlight Favorites” — engravings of buxom burlesque dancers and soubrettes who showed an occasional bare arm or ankle (*wolf whistle* *cat call* *drooling*). Third, noticing America’s increasing interest in sports, Fox had the vision to create America’s first journalistic sports department in 1879 and wrote full-page stories about boxing, football, and baseball. Fourth, to provide stories for his magazine and to curry favor with his readers, Fox began sponsoring boxing prize fights. Finally, ever the marketing and branding master, Fox began printing the Police Gazette on distinctive pink paper that became a trademark for the magazine. Fox framed all these new additions and features with a cheeky irony and humor that made the magazine an easy and entertaining read.

Fox’s changes to the magazine paid off big time. In just a few short years he tripled the circulation from what it was under Matsell and ad revenue was on par with some of the largest and most popular magazines of the time. Alternatively referred to as the “bachelor bible” and the “barber shop bible,” circulation reached 150,000 a week, with special issues snatched up by more than 400,000; and these numbers really understate the magazine’s reach, as one copy of the Gazette might be read by a hundred men at a saloon or barber shop. The magazine was so firmly established as a fixture in the latter that a common joke sprung up that went like this: “Did you read The National Police Gazette?” “No, I shave myself.” (yuk, yuk, yuk.)

Decline

Beginning in the 1900s, the Police Gazette’s popularity waned as competitors copied features once unique to its pages. Many of these new imitators were the big, respectable daily newspapers that once thumbed their noses at the magazine’s low-brow content. Seeing the demand for sports news, large newspapers began their own dedicated sports sections and full-time sports departments. The sports coverage from these larger newspapers often surpassed that of the Gazette. Moreover, these same large, respectable newspapers began publishing the kind of tawdry stories that had been the Gazette’s bread and butter.

By the 1920s, the Police Gazette was on life support. When Fox died in 1922, the plug was pulled. Without his charismatic leadership (and with saloons shutting down because of Prohibition, the magazine withered in circulation and readership. By 1932, it went bankrupt and was sold to another publisher. For the next four decades several publishers tried to revive this once notorious magazine, but with competition from glossier, more niche magazines like Sports Illustrated and Playboy, the Police Gazette, after churning out 5,000 issues over 130 yearsceased publication altogether in the 1970s.

Today there’s a website that continues to publish under The National Police Gazette name. The articles on the site hit the same themes as the 1890s pink-papered version. In addition to creating new sensational content that Richard K. Fox would be proud of, the site is dedicated to researching and preserving the history of the Police Gazette. Definitely recommend checking it out, especially the history section.

Examples of Police Gazette Content

Below are some examples of the type of content you’d find in The National Police Gazette. 

Sports

Sports coverage made up a large part of the content in the Gazette, with boxing getting the lion’s share of the attention. When the magazine started, boxing was not yet legal in the States. The magazine filled an untapped niche by covering the details of the nonetheless enormously popular underground matches.

Image depicting John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain battling for the “Championship of the World.” Until the formation of the National Boxing Association in 1920, the Police Gazette was the organization that determined “world champion” boxers.

Jake Kilrain fighting in a charity fight for the victims of the Johnstown Flood in Johnstown, PA. The flood was one of the worst disasters in American history, killing over 2,000 people and causing upwards to $425 billion (in 2012 dollars) in damage.

Image depicting John J. Corbett (“Gentleman Jim”) defeating John L. Sullivan. It was Sullivan’s only defeat during his long career. That match was also his last. Richard Fox and John L. Sullivan had an ongoing public feud that was likely exaggerated to drum-up publicity for both parties. The Police Gazette would snub Sullivan by consistently backing Sullivan’s opponents and downplaying his victories.

Football scrimmage on Berkeley Oval at Yale College.

In addition to sponsoring boxing matches, the Police Gazette would also sponsor strongman events. Above is a winner of one such event.

baseball2.com

Crime & Violence

Crime stories, particularly those involving some sort of love triangle, sensational woman-on-man violence, or gruesome deaths, made the Police Gazette famous in its heyday.

Scorned woman creeps in with a knife to kill her husband and his lover.

Another philanderer attacked by an angry woman. This gal went after this gent with a straight razor. The man survived. I imagine the relationship did not.

Mustached man catches his gal in flagrante delicto with another mustached chap. Shoots them both.

wifebeater

From policegazette.us

Telegraph repairman electrocuted to death after falling into electric and telegraph lines. A bunch of people watch.

The Police Gazette of the 19th and early 20th century was often racist and xenophobic, playing on this fear to drum up readership. Common stories featured minority-on-white crimes and violence. This is an illustration depicting a story about an Indian raid on a U.S. Army calvary unit.

Illicit Activities of the Sporting Male

Besides sports like boxing, baseball, and football, the Police Gazette covered illicit activities that 19th century working-class men enjoyed watching and gambling on.

Two bulls enter; only one leaves.

Pool halls were a popular bachelor hangout in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Legendary pool champion Wimpy Lassiter said this about pool halls of the period: “A long time ago I used to stand there and peek over the lattice work into that cool-looking darkness of the City Billiards in Elizabeth, North Carolina… And it seemed as though the place had a special sort of smell to it that you could breathe. Like old green felt tables and brass spittoons and those dark polished woods. Then a bluish haze of smoke and sweet pool chalk, and strongest of all, a kind of manliness.”

So, rat killing was a thing men gambled on back in the 19th century. They’d get some cute dogs and put them in a pen with a bunch of rats. Whichever dog killed the most rats won. I guess you had to get creative to entertain yourself when you didn’t have fantasy baseball.

The Police Gazette covered all kinds of weird competitions (like water-drinking or egg-eating contests), record-setting feats, and stupid human tricks. Bridge jumping was a popular event back in the 19th century. People would try to outdo each other by jumping from higher and higher bridges.

log

From policegazette.us

Buxom Babes in Their Bloomers

Showcasing scantily clad women was a common feature in the Police Gazette, and by scantily I mean the occasional bare arm, ankle, and cleavage. By today’s standards it was pretty tame stuff, but at the time it was envelope-pushing, particularly for a weekly periodical sold to the public. In the 1880s, Fox began a feature called “Footlight Favorites” in which he dedicated an entire page to an illustration of an attractive young woman. Yeah, The National Police Gazette invented the Centerfold Girl. And it paved the way for near-nude women to be a mainstay of most men’s magazines — the Art of Manliness that odd exception.

Foreshadowing Animal House, a group of college men pull a prank on their female classmates.

“My milkshake brings all the mustaches to the yard…”

A few Footlight Favorites frolicking in their swimsuits. Hubba hubba.

I’m not sure what’s going on here except that lady’s bosom is coming dangerously close to being revealed!

Caption: “An aged St. Louis, MO. dramatic agent gratifies his failing senses by having young women don tights for his special delectation.” Creepy.

Ladies Doing Manly Things

When readers weren’t ogling the Gazette’s lineup of “Footlight Favorites,” they were marveling at women doing uncharacteristically masculine things for the time, like smoking, fighting, and wearing pants. 120 years ago stuff like this was shocking, fascinating, and apparently newsworthy. Here are a few of my favorite illustrations of ladies doing manly things.

“A League of Their Own” has nothing on these dames. Also, we need to resurrect the word “baseballist.”

Girl fight! Girl fight! Of course, their clothes are coming off. Of course.

collegegirls

Brawling wasn’t limited to working-class women, as shown by this co-ed battle royal. And here you thought women of the time were always sweet and demure… (from policegazette.us)

This is the best one. “Wore Bloomers in Church.”

Today men ogle women in yoga pants; 120 years ago men ogled women wearing pants, period. I guess this was the Hooters of the day.

surfing

From policegazette.us

Class conflict was a common theme in the Police Gazette. To appeal to their primarily blue collar audience, the Police Gazette frequently featured stories of working-class women going to town on a white collar man. It was kind of titillating, and the implication was that soft-handed office workers were losing their blue collar ruggedness and becoming effeminate.

More fighting.

And more fighting. Also, “biffed” is another word that needs to make a comeback.

strongwoman

From policegazette.us

Barber of the Month

If I ever fulfill my dream of becoming a barber, my business card will say, “Brett McKay: Knight of the Razor.”

To encourage barbers to subscribe to the magazine, the Police Gazette had a section called ”Tonsorialists of the Week” in which they featured barbers who subscribed to the magazine. It was great advertising for the barber. I’ve thought about starting something similar on the Art of Manliness. Anybody interested in me highlighting barbers and their barbershops once a month?

Advertisements for Cures of Your Manly Woes

Most of the revenue for the Police Gazette came from the classified section at the back of the magazine. There were lots of ads for products that promised to cure erectile disfunction, or as they called it in 1885, “lost vigor.”

You can actually read this book for free online. The gist: stop whacking off. 

 

_________________________

Sources:

The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture by Howard P. Chudacoff

The Gilded Age by Joel Schrock

The National Police Gazette

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jesse Malhi April 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I applaud this post, it was an interesting read no doubt!

2 jim l April 30, 2013 at 9:29 pm

So I just got this article in my email as I was sitting down to watch Sherlock Holmes a game of shadows and Watson picks up the police gazette! What timing!

3 Sergio May 1, 2013 at 1:55 am

The “lost vigor” ads in the past are the little blue pill spam nowadays… Some things never change.

4 Moss May 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

5 Steve Westlake May 1, 2013 at 9:22 am

Thanks for the great profile! Btw, in the picture above referring to “strongman events,” the person depicted is Louis Cyr. A major Canadian film studio has just made a movie about Louis Cyr (which also has lots of Police Gazette in it). It’s being released in Quebec in July.

6 Pike May 1, 2013 at 10:26 am

I’d be all for highlighting barbers and their shops. If you do, definitely hit on the Quinntessential Gentleman in Baltimore. Aside from a great haircut the store associated with it exemplifies many of the manly virtues this site perscribes.

7 Matthew May 1, 2013 at 10:38 am

Great stuff, McKays.

Though, I can personally attest that there was no “clothes hiding” going on at Washburn when I was there! = )

8 Mauricio May 1, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Three cheers for a great post!

9 Orac May 1, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Regarding those “Lost Vigor” ads. I’m pretty sure they’re also claiming to cure venereal diseases. People have forgotten how prevalent and damaging sexually transmitted infections were prior to the advent of antibiotics. All sorts of quackery was advertised to take advantage of the situation.

10 Mr. Wallace May 2, 2013 at 8:16 am

It would be an incredible service to profile barbers on this site. My previous criterion, namely that the gentleman behind the chair either have faded naval tattoos or habitually refer to Germans as “Jerries” has been outmoded by the passage of time.

11 Paul May 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

Almost spit my coffee over my computer screen when I read “Knight of the Razor!”

haha, great article. Oh how I wish for a manly magazine.

12 Pauline May 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm

What a fascinating read about the literary pursuits of days gone by!

Your observation about the class conflict theme throughout the Police Gazette definitely resonated – perhaps not unlike the difference between AoM and some of the more metrosexual targeted publications of today? (And, I suspect, related to the strength with which your readers love AoM!)

In any case, I sure love the article. My husband discovered the blog recently and we’re both enjoying the content!

13 Taber May 2, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I bet a lot of readers would love to see articles about barbers and their barbershops, knights of the razor indeed!

14 Charles May 3, 2013 at 9:03 pm

This is an awesome post! It also highlights just how far we’ve come from these kind of manly publications, and that’s a bad thing!

I think AoM is the closest we have to this.

15 Eric May 4, 2013 at 11:17 pm

“Biffed” definitely needs to make a comeback.

16 Eric C May 6, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Although I haven’t seen it or heard it used in years, I remember using the word “Biff” when I was very young. We would use it in reference to say crashing on a bike or skateboard. Needless to say, the word disappeared from our young vocabulary soon enough, and hasn’t been heard from since this article.

17 Steve Westlake May 9, 2013 at 11:31 am

On the surface the Police Gazette could seem extremely racist, etc. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find for the most part it was the same type as practiced by Howard Stern at the height of his radio show–or Zach Galifanakis in his more risque material–i.e., for shock and entertainment value with a large heaping helping of irony thrown in. In its serious coverage of boxers and professionals such as barbers, the Gazette was completely colorblind and actually way less racist than the average white mainstream publication of the time. Try explaining to someone who doesn’t get it how Howard Stern and Zach Galifanakis are not racist and you’ll see the problem here. I thought Art of Manliness provided a great overview while avoiding going down that particular rabbit hole. It’s a dissertation by itself trying to explain that the publication that put up the following headline is NOT racist: “Wooly Headed African Half Ape Stretched from Tree by Righteous Mississippi Gentlemen.” Good luck!

18 Jerry May 9, 2013 at 11:35 am

“Biffed” is still current where I come from. When I was a kid, my sainted mother would threaten to biff me if I acted up.

19 Rorry May 15, 2013 at 9:23 am

I just wanted to add support for the Louis Cyr reference, he was probably the strongest man in the world at the time. To find out more about him and even read a biography written by 1920s fitness promotor George F Jowett, see
http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/Competition/Cyr/cyr.htm

20 Fiona March 9, 2014 at 9:22 pm

I have recently received a bundle of old magazine which included 41 copies of the New York police gazetted from january- October 1931. They are awesome. Don’t know what to do with them …. Any thoughts?

21 Zack March 12, 2014 at 7:32 pm

Awesome article It makes me sad there are no publications out like this today

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