The Decline of Middlebrow Taste in Celebrity Culture: The First Fan Magazines (2024)

The Oxford Handbook of Silent Cinema

Rob King (ed.), Charlie Keil (ed.)



Online ISBN:


Print ISBN:



  • < Previous chapter
  • Next chapter >

The Oxford Handbook of Silent Cinema


Sumiko Higashi

Sumiko Higashi

History, SUNY Brockport

Find on

Oxford Academic

Google Scholar

Sumiko Higashi is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the College at Brockport, SUNY. She is the author of Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine (1978), Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era (1994), Stars, Fans, and Consumption in the 1950s: Reading Photoplay (2014), and essays on women in the media, film as historical representation, and film history as cultural history. She has served on the editorial boards of Cinema Journal and Film History. At the Society for Cinema Studies conference in 1992, she co-founded the Asian Pacific American Caucus in a Pittsburgh coffee shop.



  • Published:

    22 February 2024


Higashi, Sumiko, 'The Decline of Middlebrow Taste in Celebrity Culture: The First Fan Magazines', in Rob King, and Charlie Keil (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Silent Cinema, Oxford Handbooks (2024; online edn, Oxford Academic, 22 Feb. 2024),, accessed 22 May 2024.





Advanced Search

Search Menu


-As the first fan magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine (later Motion Picture Magazine) exemplified middlebrow culture by validating film as narrative but soon capitulated to female fans clamoring for publicity about the stars. Founded in 1911, MPSM affirmed the didactic and moral value of the movies by publishing storyized versions with stills. A product of Progressive-Era stewardship, it sanctioned uplift and upheld class, ethnic, and racial divisions. But a cultural transformation based on the emergence of modern personalities was occurring. What MPSM and MPM failed to anticipate was the significance of gender at a time when women and girls were fast becoming ardent fans—first of romantic heroes and then of daring serial heroines. As a result, storyizations were superseded by publicity about stars consuming fashion, mansions, and roadsters. Such stories provided lower-class fans with compensatory experience while stimulating the purchase of aspirational goods—a practice that is still pervasive today.

Keywords: commodification, consumption, fan magazines, fans, goods, middlebrow taste, publicity, social class, stardom, gender


Film Literature


Oxford Handbooks

Collection: Oxford Handbooks Online

Selling Middlebrow Culture: Stewardship

When Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl, was mobbed by crowds during a personal appearance in Jersey City in 1910, her popularity registered more than brisk box-office business.1 Writing about the emergence of such personalities, Warren Susman argues that “somewhere in the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, there rapidly developed another vision of self […] and an awareness of significant change in the social order.”2 Among the forces effecting this transformation were modern personalities displacing Protestant character, middlebrow taste signifying proper social class, and the leisure industry thriving under consumer capitalism. As cheap amusem*nt, the movies attracted immigrant workers as well as the proletarianized lower middle class. Aspiring girls and women earning scant wages were enthralled with personalities like Florence Turner, who used a chafing dish at her table and claimed kinship with British painter J. M. W. Turner. Capitalizing on such class dynamics, J. Stuart Blackton, an entrepreneur who co-founded Vitagraph in Brooklyn (1897), legitimized movies as middlebrow culture. As a matter of fact, he exploited well-known classics to validate a “novelty amusem*nt” by marketing it as an accessible, but reputable, product. Adaptations of Treasure Island (1908), Romeo and Juliet (1908), and Francesca da Rimini (1910), as well as historical films like The Life of Moses (1909) and Becket (1910), enhanced the studio’s reputation.3 As an entrepreneur, however, Blackton founded a magazine that unwittingly illustrated the ease with which middlebrow taste—itself a product of commerce—could be debased in a modern celebrity culture.4 Within a short period of time, an emphasis on film as an uplifting literary narrative gave way to publicity about glamorous stars and lifestyles. Motion Picture Story Magazine (MPSM), which began in February 1911, was retitled Motion Picture Magazine (MPM) in March 1914.5 The elimination of the word “story” from its moniker signified vast differences in the social class and cultural consumption of its readers; that is to say, lower-class females focused on stargazing were more dynamic fans than middle-class subscribers intent on proper self-making.

Blackton, a former lecturer who showed film on the Lyceum circuit of churches, schools, and clubs, was among the middlebrow entrepreneurs displacing the Brahmin elect as cultural stewards.6 Such a transition exemplifies what Janice Radway, following Pierre Bourdieu, labels as “class fracture” among an elite with conflicting responses to a standardized mass market.7 Commodore, as he was called after hobnobbing with Oyster Bay patricians, was a social climber who rewrote his English patrimony to include Eton credentials. The Blue Book Magazine labeled him “A New Belasco,” as he claimed that “the successful pictures of the future will come from the pens of the great playwrights and authors.” And the players, he added, “must be actors with stage experience, having personality” as well as refinement.8 Vitagraph represented the highest standards in the US—at least until D. W. Griffith’s tenure at Biograph—and was even better known in Europe.9 As members of the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a trust formed in 1908, both studios achieved excellence.

Attempting to gain publicity as well as legitimacy, Blackton was as innovative a publisher as he was a filmmaker when he printed storyized versions of MPPC films in MPSM. Such a recycling of narrative in a magazine addressed to an aspiring audience, rather than circulating in-house, yielded additional revenue. A storyization by a bestselling author, moreover, could improve a mediocre or even a poor film release.10 While translating film into literary narrative, Blackton was also promoting visual culture in a consumer society enthralled with spectacle. As sacrosanct Arnoldian high culture—“the best that has been thought and said”—was being debased in a market economy, he asserted that “moving pictures are the books of the masses.” Despite claims that MPSM could “stand alone on the quality of its art and literature,” early issues exemplified middlebrow taste: literary adaptations; biblical, historical, and frontier themes; biographies of well-known figures; sentimental domestic melodramas; Middle Eastern and Oriental exoticism; and occasional comedies.11 Poetry was inserted between storyizations. As for the personalities, their photos appeared in a “Gallery of Picture Players” in the front, but unlike coverage in Photoplay, which promoted performers in its earliest issues, publicity about them was scant. Cast lists of the films in which they appeared were infrequent.

What was the nature of the middlebrow reading experience during these transformative years in the Progressive Era? And why was literature published for educated consumers so easily debased in modern celebrity culture? Around the turn of the century, as Christopher Wilson argues, middlebrow magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, unlike highbrow Harper’s, Scribner’s, and the Atlantic, ceased to address “the gentle reader” and transformed reading so that it was no longer an “inner and contemplative” process. Rather, mass-market publications naturalized a realistic, but illusory, world reinforcing vicarious experience and a prefabricated response. An appealing consumer rhetoric that had saturated a sales economy now pervaded representations of the public and private spheres for middle- and lower-class readers.12 Signifying this marketing strategy was Norman Rockwell’s illustration of folksy American life on Saturday Evening Post covers; the first appeared in 1916. Such appeals to middlebrow taste, essentially anti-intellectual, suited MPSM because it recycled film narrative as plot summaries in sentimental prose and poetic stanzas. Storyizations would not interest the most literate readers, but they stimulated reading and filmgoing as related forms of moviegoing consumption. And as part of a marketplace with interpenetrating levels of taste, they reproduced canonical texts while denoting the higher exchange value of middlebrow products. Film adaptations enhanced interest in Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and Stevenson, as well as Shakespeare and Dante, but readers turned to “Chambers, Glynn, McGrath, and the rest” for contemporary works. A full-page ad for an annual MPSM subscription, costing $1.50, showcased “celebrated writers” like Rex Beach, Montanye Perry, and Will Carleton, who legitimized movies with storyized versions. Beach was the bestselling author of The Spoilers (1906), a novel about the Alaskan frontier that was recycled in stage and screen versions.13 Authors like him who wrote for middlebrow magazines that privileged gossip columns, celebrity profiles, practical advice, popular science, and timely stories appealed to passive and voyeuristic readers. Within such a context, the publication of the first fan magazines signified that the line between middlebrow and lowbrow culture could indeed be tenuous. MPSM was more literary than Photoplay, a humbler rival founded six months later in Chicago to advertise independent exchanges and players, but in less than three years after it became MPM, it compromised its mission of validating narrative in favor of stargazing for its female readers.

A close reading of the July 1911 issue of MPSM characterizes Blackton’s stewardship in cultivating a middlebrow sensibility among readers. An ad, the cover reproduces a long shot of actors as American cavalry and Mexicans on the Texas border in the Méliès production The Honor of the Flag. Underneath are the lines: “STORIES FROM THE WORLD’S BEST PHOTOPLAYS, BEAUTIFULLY ILLUSTRATED TO CHARM[,] INSTRUCT AND ENTERTAIN.” All magazine covers copied trade paper Moving Picture World (MPW) by showing dramatic scenes of a film that was not initially storyized in the contents in an intertextual relay promoting releases. MPSM was dependent on MPPC manufacturers, as they were called, to provide movies and stills for storyizations. The “Gallery of Picture Players,” which displayed eleven photos of stars, including Florence Turner, was followed by seventeen “Photoplay Stories” of film releases, four “Poems,” and six “Special Articles.” D. W. Griffith’s storyized film “Enoch Arden” would be best known today, but the director and players, unlike the author Montanye Perry and an attribution to Tennyson’s poem, went unmentioned. The educational and commercial value of literary narrative was unquestioned. Storyizations followed middlebrow conventions and exemplified dense plots often set in exotic locales and historical periods, well-delineated characters, and moralistic closure.

A Pathé Frères melodrama about the genteel middle class titled “The Stepsisters,” for example, was storyized by Louis Reeves Harrison, later a writer for MPW. Advertised in MPSM’s back pages, this trade paper had published brief profiles of “Picture Personalities” and artless plot synopses that the fan magazine translated into literary storyizations. Written in purple sentimental prose to heighten emotional and moral fervor, the storyization of “The Stepsisters” was meant to appeal to female readers.14 A scheming fortune hunter named Sophie provides for herself and her daughter by marrying an upstanding widower who has a daughter of his own. As Harrison moralizes:

Idleness is woman’s curse. The desire […] to lay all the burden of disagreeable or enforced work upon men, lies deep in the nature of woman. Having the means […] of using money only for self-indulgence, she […] will vent whatever is meanly critical or otherwise odious in her nature upon the man […] denying himself to make her happy.15

Upon her husband’s death, Sophie learns that his estate has been bankrupted, but his loving daughter, unlike her own, anticipates marriage to an earnest and prosperous young man. What female fan would not have been pleased by such a resolution? Also storyized in the issue were a few non-fiction Essanay films like “Wild Animals in Captivity” and “Life at Hull House/Chicago’s Melting Pot.” An editor commended the latter for “demonstrating the best methods of converting large numbers of foreign people into useful American citizens.” Such non-fiction, which was not storyized for very long, was included in the early issues to affirm the educational value of film. As a way to solicit input regarding such storyizations, a “Cash Prize Contest” offered eighty-five prizes totaling $250 to readers expressing their preferences. At first addressing literate subscribers, the staff, seemingly unaware of lower levels of literacy among moviegoers, later announced that writing and spelling were unimportant and that thousands from all walks of life had posted letters. Women, interestingly, outnumbered men by two to one.16

As this close reading shows, MPSM and later MPM under Blackton and his managing editor Eugene V. Brewster, a Princeton graduate, articulated a Progressive ethos undergirded by Protestant morality for urban masses. Assimilating unprecedented immigration from southern and eastern Europe was a troublesome issue. A series of melodramas sponsored by civic organizations to warn immigrant girls at Ellis Island about prostitution and white slavery was commended. But a contest titled “What Improvement in Motion Pictures Is Needed Most?” had prompted a reader to protest that he had had “more than enough of the morbid drama dealing with the sex problem and the human fiend.”17 Readers usually wrote to demand more authenticity and realism. The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), an eight-part serial written and produced by Blackton himself, was exemplary in preaching pacifism while warfare ravaged the Old World. A storyized version was serialized not only in MPM but also in Motion Picture Supplement, a spin-off that was advertised in September 1915 and retitled Motion Picture Classic at the end of the year. Circulation for its third issue reached 205,000, a figure yet to rival MPM at 292,000 in mid-year. Any reader following the melodrama would have had to purchase both magazines.18 An example of lower-middlebrow taste, the story was written in a florid sentimental style and demonized rapacious Germans:

How kind, how wise the Creator when, with all the blessings of memory and knowledge with which human beings were endowed, He, in His infinite wisdom, withheld from them the power to … solve the question of even tomorrow! How merciful that big, generous, tender-hearted John … could not know the abyss of terror which yawned at the feet of those he loved best in all the world!19

Constituting the abyss was an invasion of barbaric Huns who had crossed the Atlantic to besiege Manhattan and threaten American womanhood. Among those enthused about an overwrought portrayal fueling debate about pacifism and American entry into the war—foreign policy issues dividing Progressive reformers—was former president Theodore Roosevelt, a bellicose internationalist.

Consistent with a middlebrow mission, MPSM and MPM constructed film as a legitimate art with a social function that advanced the Progressive agenda. Announcing that fifteen million persons attended the movies daily, an editorial touted the benefit of exposure to “travel, enlightenment, instruction and moral lessons, combined with entertainment.” Robert Grau, a frequent contributor until his death a few years later, aptly titled his book Theatre of Science: A Volume of Progress and Achievement in the Motion Picture (1914). Another writer predicted that the unwieldy term “motion picture” would be replaced by the colloquialism “movies.” Censorship was a frequently discussed controversial issue. Reverend William Sheafe Chase asserted that the “moral and psychological” well-being of children required a watchdog. But Frank Dyer, president of General Film Company, countered that manufacturers would make “decent and elevating films” to ensure profit. A monthly department written in a superior tone, “Musings of ‘The Photoplay Philosopher’ ” argued that censorship would prohibit viewing Shakespeare and other classics but later criticized “a mania for unrefined sensationalism.”20 Articles about film production were informative and showed photographs of location shooting at dangerous sites and on battlefields. And reports spotlighted movie studios like Essanay and Lubin and personalities like Thomas H. Ince and “Southern gentleman” D. W. Griffith. Brewster himself wrote articles about Thomas A. Edison and the origin of motion pictures, the evolution of pictorial art leading to the magic lantern, and a series about emotions, facial expressions, and film acting.21 MPSM and MPM, in sum, represented middlebrow discourse grounded in Progressive Era issues, didacticism, and moral values. But “Musings of ‘The Photoplay Philosopher,’ ” surely a custodial voice, was discontinued about a year after the magazine’s moniker was changed, and reports about the industry declined in favor of publicity about the stars for female readers.

Among the most blatant stereotyped expressions of Progressive Era social hierarchy and cultural stewardship were the cartoons depicting class, ethnicity, and race.22 A drawing of an urban neighborhood in September 1912 showed a church, movie theater, school, office, and factory to emphasize the influence of the film industry on local institutions. Another pictured a respectable couple with children entering a theater next to a dingy saloon. The caption read, “A practical solution to the liquor problem.” Drawings illustrating “The Two Signs,” a poem about the saloon and photoplay, juxtaposed crime and jail against family, religion, and patriotism. “A Safe and Sane Fourth of July” was the caption of a cartoon that depicted well-dressed patrons, including a veteran with medals pinned to his chest, watching a filmed parade. And an ad in the February 1913 issue announced that a “Happy Wife” would share a remedy that had curbed her husband’s drinking.23 At the time, class, ethnicity, and religion were conflated in constructing industrial workers, especially the Irish and Italians, as the urban Other. As Roy Rosenzweig argues regarding such class dynamics, the white native-born Protestant upper and middle classes waged temperance campaigns to reform raucous workers expressing their virility in rum shops.24 Working-class wives, on the other hand, seldom enjoyed such leisure.

Aside from characterizing manual workers as degenerate drunks, cartoons also represented race relations. A few perpetuated racist stereotypes of cannibalistic Africans and squinting pigtailed Chinese. Such caricatures were intertextually related to storyizations with subservient or suspicious characters labeled Japs and Chinamen who could not speak grammatical English. Racist characterizations in the movies had, in fact, prompted a contest entrant to suggest that Westerns show fewer “massacres of Indians by superhuman cowboys.”25 A decade later, the social structure privileging whiteness was buttressed by the Immigration Act (1924), which established quota systems based on country of origin and excluded racialized Asians. Divided by race, ethnicity, and religion, the lower classes nevertheless proved resistant to Progressive Era reformers. Although movie theaters eventually displaced saloons and mixed-sex leisure became more common, lower-class reception of middlebrow culture as a model for self-making was unremarkable. Still, the Americanization of masses of spectators, especially females, through stargazing as a site of products and performance was an affirmation of middle-class values.26 Consumption, an essential practice in the formation and social reproduction of an old propertied middle class, became vital for individuals affirming their personal identities and social status in urban America.

Despite a growing fan base that was indifferent to middlebrow taste, MPSM and MPM, unlike Photoplay, held frequent and varied contests to solicit reader input. As opposed to cartoons depicting unequal class, ethnic, and race relations, contests expressed gender identification insofar as working-class females had become vocal starstruck fans.27 Girls and women were enthusiastic in following the players and seizing opportunities to single out their favorites and articulate opinions. As consumers of cheap newspaper serials and dime-novel fiction, they explained their votes for the best storyizations in a series of contests. A Colorado entrant did select the “beautiful story of Esther” as a poetic film that acquainted the reader with “a masterpiece of literature,” but she was an exception. Winning contestants among the top five chose “A Republican Marriage,” a titillating romance by Montanye Perry about a muscular blacksmith who goes to the guillotine with a noblewoman loved from afar. MPSM continued to address literate readers with contests like “The Great Mystery Play” that required them to decode a scenario about a missing diamond and study motives to identify culprits. Among the judges representing the “world’s best thought and action”—a phrase recalling Arnoldian high culture—were Blackton, Brewster, and MPW writer Epes Winthrop Sargent.28 But a “Popular Player Contest” that focused on the stars was conducted with such hoopla that monthly tallies were posted opposite ads on the back pages. Contestants, who were at first fixated on romantic male leads, expressed their appreciation in prose or verse:

There is one to whom I would give first prize,

It is he with such expressive eyes,

Whose every movement is full of grace,

And the pleasant smile upon his face

Holds all spellbound who come to see

The prince of actors, Francis X. B.29

Appearing in the July 1912 issue were the photos of five winning players who had collectively garnered 1.5 million votes: Maurice Costello, E. Delores Cassinelli, Mae Hotely, Francis X. Bushman, and Gilbert M. Anderson.30 Cassinelli was an attractive woman who could be cast in glamorous roles, but Hotely was a middle-aged character actress. All the male winners, on the other hand, were typecast as romantic personalities.

A second “Popular Player Contest” asked readers to vote separately for a male and a female personality. As the contest drew to a close in late 1913, MPSM updated tallies for 250 players and claimed that clerks counting “cart-loads of ballots” would occupy the entire second floor. Seven million votes were cast! Allowing for readers repeatedly sending in coupons worth ten votes, this result was still a whopping number. Significantly, all the winners were actors playing romantic male leads: Romaine Fielding, Earle Williams, J. Warren Kerrigan, Carlyle Blackwell, Francis X. Bushman, G. M. Anderson, and Arthur Johnson. Among the female stars, only Alice Joyce and Muriel Ostriche scored impressive numbers. MPSM reported that many players were at a disadvantage because they were unknown while others benefited from advertising. Some manufacturers were ambivalent about publicity and remained impervious to the economics of an emerging star system. The continuing popularity of male, as opposed to female, personalities was notable. According to MPSM, male actors who portrayed a “heroic lover, or brave soldier, or gallant prince” were more beloved than those cast in “thankless parts” as villains or comics.31 Clearly, women and girls were enthralled with masculine heroics rather than identified with feminine stars embodying a beauty culture—an ambivalent form of bisexuality that would soon be rendered conventional in a consumer culture. Although dime novels signified the powerlessness of women in patriarchal households untouched by gentility, lower-class females also read serialized fiction stressing physicality and violence that, unlike genteel literature, translated into cinematic cliffhangers. Stars like Pearl White, who played daredevil heroines in sex-role reversals, were among the first to win loyal female fans and endorse fetishized goods like diamond jewelry.32 She embodied both masculine aggression and feminized consumption. As strong independent women with agency, lower-class heroines like White became dazzling modern personalities. After the war, the so-called New Woman, whose boyish silhouette dictated a revolution in fashion, would embody a more willful upper-class femininity based on performance and products.

Attempting to offset the voice of female fans in popularity contests with a more thoughtful competition that required brainstorming, MPM launched a challenge titled “What Improvement in Motion Pictures Is Needed Most?” Such a contest did elicit more response from men rather than women, by a margin of two to one. The winning male contestant expressed middlebrow values by advocating “a higher standard of literary and dramatic taste for both the scenario writer and the producer.” Directors in the evolving central producer system were not considered as important as writers in legitimizing film as art. A “Great Artist Contest” was run concurrently with a screenwriting competition so that literate fans could not only vote for their favorites but also write parts for them in a one- or two-reeler. A galaxy of rising stars in feature films, however, was becoming the main attraction. Asked to vote for “distinguished” players “in specific roles,” readers chose Earle Williams in The Christian (1914) over Henry Walthall in The Birth of a Nation (1915). Among the female players, voluptuous soprano Geraldine Farrar in Carmen (1915) polled slightly ahead of petite ingenues Marguerite Clark in Wildflower (1914) and Mary Pickford in the first Tess of the Storm Country (1914). Another “Popular Player Contest” in 1917 was significant because “Little Mary” triumphed over heartthrob Francis X. Bushman when separate votes were no longer cast for a male and a female personality.33 An astonishing success, Pickford signified the ascent of female stars as ingenues in feature films rather than as daredevils in cliffhanger serials. Maurice Costello, who won the first “Popular Player Contest” in 1912, was also adored by female fans clamoring for details about his personal life, but he failed to make the transition from one-reelers to features.34

As shown by their response to numerous contests, starstruck girls and women did influence both the magazine and film industry. The emerging star system, however, was not only a response to their clamorous reception but also the result of distribution and exhibition changes leading to standardized features. According to Eileen Bowser, among the top exchanges, General Film and Mutual distributed 295 one- and two-reelers, compared to Paramount’s twenty feature films and Alliance’s nine, in December 1914. As MPSM announced early in that year, the fans themselves voted in favor of shorts over features by 2,053 to 1,572. Unquestionably, fan magazines were influential in the promotion of film releases by circulating storyized versions. Although MPM published approximately 160 storyizations from 1915 to 1917, only 40 percent were about features. Photoplay’s tally for the same period, however, was significantly higher at 59 percent and presaged the future. The MPPC and its distributor General Film Company, whose products MPSM and MPM initially advertised, were more invested in short programs.35 Debate in the trade papers affirmed that William N. Selig and Carl Laemmle still preferred shorts, but Alex E. Beyfuss of the California Motion Picture Association predicted a trend toward multi-reel films. A most significant merger, therefore, was the formation of Famous Players-Lasky, with Paramount as distributor, in a “$12,500,000 Combine” in 1916.36

As features became more technically advanced in a streamlined industry, the decline of literary narrative as an index of middlebrow culture occurred in proportion to the rise of stars. MPM published only four storyizations, including Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman, a Progressive Era historical pageant with Geraldine Farrar, in December 1916. But the issue included full-page photos of Farrar, Mary Miles Minter, and Valeska Suratt, as well as Chawlie [sic] Chaplin cartoons and a Fay Tincher paper-doll cutout. Myrtle Stedman was shown wearing appropriate fashion on the golf course, and Nona Thomas shared a recipe for cream and maraschino chocolates. Stars like Cleo Madison, Douglas Fairbanks, Olga Grey, Louise Fazenda, Francis X. Bushman, and Anita King were also publicized, while Mabel Normand was shown adding a feminine touch to her new studio.37 Such a complete reversal of the magazine’s middlebrow mission—not to mention Blackton’s departure from Vitagraph in 1917—signified the ascendance of popular culture expressing the taste of female readers. A six-month series titled “Breaking into the Movies in California” began in the next issue to assure adulatory fans that they too could reach for the stars.

Selling Female Stars: Consumption

Any consideration of MPM evolving into a fan magazine that followed trends set by Photoplay, which was initially cheaper, slapdash, and lowbrow, requires a close reading of changes in players’ publicity. At first notices were scant. The first issue of MPSM briefly acknowledged Miss Clara Williams, a horsewoman in “plays of the West”; Lottie Briscoe, an actress known for her “pleasing personality”; and Maurice Costello, a “genius” in Vitagraph’s A Tale of Two Cities (1911).38 The “Gallery of Picture Players” began to include colored inserts of popular stars like Costello in issues for subscribers only. “Answers to Inquiries,” which began as three pages in August 1911, was retitled several times and became the largest department, as inquisitive fans mailed an avalanche of queries. Capitalizing on high volume, the editors alternated a page of answers with a page of ads and thus constructed an intertext promoting consumerism. (Ad stripping, the practice of stacking numerous ads for cheap products on the back pages where stories ended, was not initiated until 1914.) “Chats with the Players” began as portraits of Miss Florence Lawrence and Mr. John E. Halliday at Lubin in December 1911 and was subsequently expanded. Anticipating gossip columns, “Greenroom Jottings: Little Whispers from Everyone in Playerdom” appeared in July 1912 to report that Miss Lottie Pickford was joining the Kalem Company. Publicity was increased in a retitled MPM in October 1914 with “Brief Biographies of Popular Players” and “How I Became a Photoplayer” (later “How I Got In”), as well as lengthier interviews with Alice Joyce and Harold Lockwood. Such notices, however, remained secondary to the storyizations and appeared, like the articles about the industry, in the middle or back of the magazine.

Stars on MPSM and MPM covers that enhanced spectator identification were among the most visible signs of their ascent, but in contrast to Photoplay’s practice, they appeared rather gradually. A few portraits of female players like Alice Joyce and Anna Nilsson began to replace movie still covers even before MPSM became MPM. As Charlie Keil argues, photographs were essential in differentiating stars from their screen roles and establishing them as bankable personalities.39 But cover portraits of players like Mary Pickford and Ruth Stonehouse did not appear regularly until the end of 1914. As a matter of fact, MPM continued to exemplify middlebrow culture by reproducing oil paintings on three successive covers in that year and offered signed copies for twenty-five cents. Art appealing to the middle-class tourist gaze included scenes of a ship on the high seas and a street in exotic Mexico. The clipper on the July cover was part of an intertexual relay that included a poem titled “The Pirates,” storyizations of “Cast Adrift in the South Seas” and “Neptune’s Daughter,” starring swimmer Annette Kellerman, and an ad for a sixty-dollar cruise.40 As part of the social reproduction of the old propertied middle class, travel to sites like Cairo and Pompeii was not only exotic but educational. A painting of a demure French country girl holding a daisy on MPM’s August cover, however, could not compete with Photoplay displaying Florence La Badie wearing a short bathing costume and dipping a shapely leg at the seashore. After promoting middlebrow art, MPM resumed its practice of displaying stars as alluring cover commodities. But unlike Photoplay, which rarely accorded male personalities the limelight, its roster included Charlie Chaplin, Romaine Fielding, William S. Hart, Carlyle Blackwell, Harold Lockwood, and Wallace Reid. As a publication unfettered by middlebrow values, Photoplay was quicker to capitalize on the demographics of female fans identifying with commodified stars and buying fetishized goods. The seductive picture of Florence La Badie at the beach was reproduced on the back cover of its September issue to advertise a pink complexion soap.41

Signifying the ascent of glamorous female personalities and a corresponding decline in middlebrow storyizations were changes in the table of contents. Separate sections with title listings had been identifiably fiction or non-fiction. “Photoplay Stories” or storyizations, as opposed to “Special Articles and Departments” about the industry, remained privileged in the front of the magazine. A few months after MPSM became MPM, however, all the titles in the July 1914 issue were listed under the single heading “Photoplay Stories and Special Articles.” MPM proved more innovative in this respect than Photoplay, which did not construct its entire content as a single promotional intertext until February 1915. But such intertextuality must have confused readers, accustomed to fiction and non-fiction sections, because descriptive lines were added under the titles in subsequent issues. A brief reversion to separate headings occurred in 1916, but not for long. The “Gallery of Photoplayers,” a section that had always appeared first in the table of contents to identify portraits of stars on succeeding pages, was next merged with all the storyizations and articles. Snappy pieces like “Favorite Recipes of Favorite Players” and “Edna Mayor’s Latest Gowns” began to appear in the front–a practice begun by Photoplay. Shorter storyizations, reduced to a half dozen, were now interspersed among publicity stories, articles, monthly departments, ads, and ad stripping. Such intertextuality created an advertising bonanza made possible by the construction of a dream world essential to the marketing of goods. A portal to the stars, MPM provided fans lacking economic and cultural capital with compensatory experience in the form of publicity stories, gossip columns, photographs, drawings, and ads for magical goods.42 Serial heroines like Mary Fuller, Kathlyn Williams, and Marguerite Snow routinely endorsed facial soap for “velvety skin.”43 After the war, a beauty culture based on an identification with stars embodying femininity in their use of cosmetics, fashion, and décor became big business.44

As fan magazines focused on a constellation of female stars, alluring players like Florence La Badie embodied the role of consumption in constructing femininity. Working-class girls had been reared by immigrant mothers resistant to Americanization, but they sought, in a generational shift, to redefine their identities at mixed-sex leisure sites. Although they lacked economic and cultural capital, they still bought affordable goods. During pre-war years beset with a Victorian legacy, stars personified a spectrum of social types that were typically yet ambiguously feminine. As a contrast to petite ingenues, modern women were energetic in displaying their physicality. Ruth Roland, the Kalem Girl, was a comedienne and serial heroine who loved the outdoors and managed to be extremely girlish and boyishly athletic at the same time. Ruth Stonehouse, the “Pavlova of the Movies,” was a classical dancer and “an all-around sportswoman.” Assuming significance in constructing such feminine types, especially in terms of upward social mobility, was a semiotics of fashion. According to Janice Radway, a detailed description of apparel and accessories was coded by genre conventions so that readers could envision their favorites.45 Although MPM did not match Photoplay’s coverage of fashion until 1917, an earlier report about Vitagraph’s designer specified that “the gowns of the leading women must conform to their individuality.” Gladys Hulette, for example, modeled a dress of “black Chantilly lace over black satin” and a wrap of “black chiffon velvet trimmed with Russian sable.” An even earlier piece about “Dame Fashion and the Movies” noted that the “ladies of the Vitagraph, Lubin, Pathé, Mutual, Essanay, and other companies” in society dramas were a big attraction in “wardrobes cost[ing] […] hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.” Another story reported that Margaret Gibson, who modeled a purple and white silk bathing suit in a contest, was studying the tango because “society people” danced at Los Angeles hotels and beach resort pavilions. And Marguerite Clark was represented as a paper doll that could don cut-outs of a flaring coat and a brimmed hat with folding tabs.46 The use of a child’s toy to enhance identification and to promote fashion was clever indeed.

As important as fashion in publicity about the stars, who were themselves commodities, were tours of elegant homes that at first exemplified middlebrow taste. Writing about “What a Home Means to Me,” Ruth Roland celebrated real-estate values. After years spent on the road, she was luxuriating in “a place of friendship, of peace; a place to think in, to express one’s personality in, to be joyous in, to cultivate […] the beautiful and the true.” She enjoyed a large fireplace in a living room with a seaside view; a modern kitchen and a dining room with silver place settings; blue larkspur walls with artwork by Corot and Burne-Jones; a table stacked with books by Dickens, Kipling, and Twain; a piano as well as a Victrola to play Puccini and foxtrots; and a garden with lavender and pink roses.47 Such elegance signified that genteel middle-class refinement required more than a modicum of good taste. And the necessity for costly goods showed how easily middlebrow culture could be co-opted under consumer capitalism. As reported by writers touring palatial estates, many stars flaunted what Thorsten Veblen condemned as conspicuous consumption and leisure among the nouveaux riche.48 A voyeuristic survey of “Country Homes of Illustrious Players: Intimate Peeps at Their Vacation-Retreats” reported that Ralph W. Ince enjoyed summers in a Brightwaters mansion with a billiard room, an adjoining sleeping porch, a tennis court, and dog kennels. And he sailed a yacht. Pearl White rented a Bayswater summer house with three stories and a large garage, where she tinkered in overalls with her new car and enjoyed the morning air and swimming. She embodied in her leisure pursuits the daring cliffhanger heroine whom she played on screen without a stunt double.49

As compulsive shoppers uninhibited by middlebrow restraint, female stars reinforced sex stereotypes, but reports about their response to automobiles, which recalled the popularity of bicycles in a previous era, signaled a redefinition of femininity. Women buying and driving expensive cars were still consumers remaking their personal identities and social relations in the material world. But what could be construed as a form of commodity fetishism was also a sign of changing sex roles. The influence of lowbrow entertainment on high-end consumption, moreover, was not insignificant. Stars were behaving like daredevil heroines in working-class serials and assuming masculine characteristics projected onto shiny gadgets. As Bernarr Macfadden had earlier observed in The Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood, physically vigorous women could develop “muscular strength to an equal degree with man.”50 And unlike elite neurasthenic men outpaced by rapid change, they responded enthusiastically to modern technology. An outdoors woman, Edith Storey, built a bungalow and described her forty-mile commute to the Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn as “a delightful morning constitutional.” Also “fond of motoring,” Helen Holmes owned three cars, including a “low-hung, wicked-looking white racer,” that she repaired herself. Stars were also behind the wheel in Los Angeles, the city with the most “private cars per capitum [sic] in the United States.” Chauffeurs were dismissed because “after the grind and perils of picture work, auto driving … [is] as easy as running a sewing-machine.” Myrtle Gonzalez scoffed at “simply looking pretty at the steering wheel” and wore a “mechanician’s overalls” to work on her car. She was madcap.51 A symbol of modernity, the automobile represented personal autonomy, self-reliance, and freedom. Women were among the first motorists to venture out West, write popular travel literature, and pave the way for a booming tourist industry.52 As future decades unfolded, car ownership became an envied sign of success, stimulated consumption and leisure pursuits on an unprecedented scale, and radically transformed social mores. A serial star like Helen Holmes, who drove a roadster with abandon in the 1910s, signified change—not the least of which was the construction of her own subjectivity. Admittedly a product of consumption denoting a privileged social class, the rebellious New Woman had arrived in fan magazine pages.53

Selling Aspiration: Advertisem*nts

Stars were subject to commodification and reification, but their high exchange and signifying value enabled them to accumulate fashion, real estate, and roadsters. Fans, however, faced more limited options. As David Huyssen argues, the fault lines in the “economic, social and political landscape” of the Progressive Era deepened so that “inequality between rich and poor became more, not less, acute.” And as social historians point out, working-class families with an average income of $800 a year could neither rely on a regular paycheck nor advance into the middle class until 1945. Although most fan magazine readers were working-class, as Kathryn Fuller-Seeley concludes, their numbers still represented a source of revenue at a time when a national system of advertising was emerging.54 After MPSM became MPM, eight pages of ads appeared before the table of contents, and the “Classified Advertisem*nts” section (later “The Opportunity Market”) as well as ad stacking in the back migrated to the front. Advertisers, assured that they could reach “millions attending the photoplay everyday,” began to promote commodities with symbolic value, grooming and health care products, and job opportunities. Women, even those with a scant income, constituted an important demographic group of buyers. Advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink and local newspapers read by white middle-class wives, who were addressed as family purchasing agents, had been promoting a woman’s page in the news. A correlation between increased female subscription and greater advertising revenue was noted in the news business in the 1910s.55 As a magazine with an expanding female, albeit ethnic working-class, fan base, MPM was well positioned to exploit a promising market but slower to do so than rival Photoplay.

A close reading of ads in what Raymond Williams calls a magic system validating goods with personal and social meaning illustrates the power of advertising. Shoppers were persuaded that commodities enabled them to become alluring and socially prominent personalities. Why else were goods desirable? Given that products circulated “in a highly organized and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions,” magic coexisted with technology and mass production. Advertising, “the official art of modern capitalistic society,” sustained consumption as both aspiration and unending practice. The magic system, however, obscured the reality of commodities signifying human desires that ultimately could not be met without structural change.56 Consumers themselves, moreover, were objectified and defined in terms of their cultural capital. Such contradictions may be observed in aspirational class-based advertising in MPSM and MPM. At first MPSM appealed to lower- and middle-class readers who desired respectability. Leisure remained suspect, according to Protestant tenets, but travel was educational so that ads promoted Niagara Falls hotels, cruise lines, and Burton Holmes Travelogues. Also important was a middlebrow library denoting “intelligent discrimination”: Dickens, George Eliot, Balzac, Washington Irving, Eugène Sue, and Walter Scott. Goods symbolizing refinement included Waterman pens, Kodak cameras ($15), gold-tone pocket watches, diamond rings, Edison phonographs ($15–$200), and upright pianos. A number of these products, as well as an ocean voyage, oil paintings, and bound volumes, were awarded in the “Great Cast Contest.” An ambitious reader could even send for the plans of a Gustave Stickley Craftsman’s house and build it for $900. Assuredly a sign of comfort, Travelers’ life insurance costing fifty-one cents a day became a marketable, if expensive, product.57

As evident in the ads, MPSM and MPM, which initially sanctified middlebrow culture, began to address lower-class fans without prospects but anxious to become socially mobile like the stars. At first the magazines capitalized on a fledgling but thriving movie business by encouraging hopeful readers to become screenwriters. The Photoplay Clearing House, a marketing organization affiliated with Vitagraph in Brooklyn, solicited manuscripts “of every description” to revise, type, and sell for a commission. A clever writer like Louella Parsons at Essanay was singled out as a role model for females who, in fact, had few professional options. And a profusion of ads like one titled “Ideas Wanted for Photoplays” boldly claimed, “Your chance to succeed is as good as anybody’s.” Such promotions, however, were manipulative and inflated expectations. Particularly revealing were ads addressed to ordinary males who had few resources but did indeed read fan magazines at the time and coveted well-paying jobs. The International Correspondence Schools urged them to “break away from the ranks of the untrained” and qualify for manual and non-manual positions: plumber and steam fitter, concrete construction worker, surveyor, bookkeeper, advertising man, etc. Self-made men were reassuringly characterized as individuals who could succeed like others “with no more natural ability.” The American Correspondence School of Law claimed that legally trained men could earn $5,000–$20,000 a year. Such salaries were unlikely. The Franklin Institute in Rochester, New York, was more realistic and advertised a postal service job at $800 to $1,800 a year.58 Ads, in sum, assumed that the educational level of gullible readers was as low as their expectations were high.

A sign of anxiety in an urban society with abundant consumer goods but limited mobility, MPSM ads, reinforced by pseudo-science and magic, urged readers to radiate health and well-being. After all, this was an era when Theodore Roosevelt pursued a strenuous life and rebelled against over-civilization and neurasthenia among wealthy repressed men. Anxiety about exhaustion of the physical self as well as financial reserves was a vague but widespread response to rapid technological change. What T. J. Jackson Lears analyzes as a shift from a Protestant to a secular idiom in pursuit of self-renewal among the elite filtered down to the masses in less sophisticated terms.59 Bernarr Macfadden, whose enterprise published True Story and would acquire Photoplay, advertised Physical Culture, headquartered in the Triangle Building, as a primer on male bodybuilding in both MPSM and MPM. Douglas E. (Electricity) Fairbanks preferred California to Broadway because he enjoyed vigorous outdoor life. The Swoboda System of Conscious Evolution promised readers that they would become “thoroughly well, virile, and energetic.” Addressed to married couples, a book titled Sex Force trumpeted “The Vital Power.” Weak, nervous, and thin women could rehabilitate themselves with Dr. James P. Campbell’s complexion wafers. Anticipating a pervasive beauty culture, in which females would become obsessed with their bodies, an ad for a hand massager preached, “To Be Beautiful Is a Woman’s Duty.” Beauty might be the product of artifice, but it had to appear natural. An ad for Pompeian Massage Cream, endorsed by Mary Pickford, labeled make-up as artificial and stressed a natural complexion. As for fashion, the Charles William Stores advertised the latest New York apparel, and Bellas Hess and Company published a mail order catalog.60

At a time when genteel middle-class women emerged in the public sphere to frequent sumptuous department stores with plate glass windows and colorful bazaars, shopping, which had once been a male prerogative, became essential to self-making. Standing opposite privileged white women at the sales counter, however, were ethnic working-class women with less income, education, and taste. Significantly, a change in the nature of female employment was occurring in the 1910s so that sales jobs, as opposed to those in garment and textile factories and domestic households, increased. Salesgirls remained at the bottom of the social ladder, however, and endured harsh working conditions and subservience to middle-class consumers. Clerical work, cashiering, and bookkeeping would become more common white-collar jobs in the next decade. Unsurprisingly, ads promoted typewriters from the latest Royal at $75 to rebuilt machines at $6. The Monarch Light Touch promised that a woman’s work would become “cleaner cut, more accurate, more rapid.” Aimed at grammar and high school graduates with an education, The Girl Who Earns Her Own Living was a manual that offered “practical and ethical” advice. But working-class women were transient workers in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs who could not earn a living wage and were reputed to be immoral. Approximately half the female labor force in New York earned less than eight dollars a week at this time. As for salesgirls, they were subject to various forms of incentive payments tied to selling products. Admittedly, marriage was still an economic option for working-class females, but a correspondence school ad affirmed that a wife’s happiness was a function of her husband’s earning power. A distraught spouse asserts, “You’ve simply got to earn more money—QUICKLY.”61 Divorce rates, especially among middle-class wives, rose with increasing urbanization and consumption. But as the failed companionate marriage movement showed in the following decades, easier access to divorce and contraception—let alone reforming traditional wedded life—provoked widespread resistance.62 Such dismal conditions in the lives of masses of women accounted for the appeal of romantic movies, glamorous stars, and gossipy fan magazines.

Conclusion: MPSM and MPM versus Photoplay

A close examination of MPSM, MPM, and Photoplay as the earliest fan magazines promoting the film industry results in a study in contrasts. Blackton’s entrepreneurial ambition was a sign of the times. The stewardship of middlebrow culture, based on the social uses of art, was a part not only of Progressive class, ethnic, and gender relations but also of monopolistic industry practices. As magazines advertising MPPC films, MPSM and early MPM tutored lower-class fans in the reception of film as a legitimate art with educational value. A perusal of the earliest issues shows page after page of recycled but uplifting narrative. Admittedly, storyizations, which became only slightly less literary over time, were soon eclipsed by trivial stories about the stars in order to attract female readers. Photoplay’s earlier promotion of film personalities, on the other hand, set a template with which we are all too familiar today. A less promising slapdash magazine, it was founded in Chicago in 1911 to advertise the independent exchanges, printed on cheaper paper, and cost only ten cents. It was not nationally circulated for six months and survived near-bankruptcy and a four-month hiatus in 1913 and yet another reorganization in 1915.

Attempting to increase circulation and advertising by becoming respectable, Photoplay adapted MPSM and MPM middlebrow conventions like literary storyizations and captioned stills. At the same time, however, it appealed to lower-class female readers with storyized films as romance fiction and exciting serials featuring glamorous career women. A color-tinted illustration in a series titled “Peggy Roche: Saleslady” showed a well-dressed and coiffed heroine engaging in foreign intrigue while wearing high heels on a submarine deck. Sexual awakenings, wild adventures, and exotic locales were de rigueur in texts that would today be labeled bodice rippers and chick lit.63 As a hybrid publication with varying levels of taste in stories, articles, and departments, Photoplay, especially under James R. Quirk, evolved into a more imaginative magazine for female readers than its staid rival. And it was more savvy about marketing as it reinforced commodity fetishism and constructed an alluring dream world obscuring unequal social relations. Acquiring commodities endowed with magic, however, became an unending ritual. Since the pleasure of indulging in goods was momentary, an endless cycle of “getting and spending” resulted in what Colin Campbell describes as a state of “longing and a permanent unfocused dissatisfaction.”64 As early fan magazines constructing mass consumer psychology, Photoplay and MPM were competitors on trajectories that were at first divergent but then converged to form a celebrity culture as the basis of modern consumption.

Was Photoplay’s scenario of lower-class fans who lacked capital and agency but still bought fetishized goods to identify with stars inevitable in a modern celebrity culture? Was MPM’s more restrained version of such commodification less problematic? What were the prospects, in other words, of sustaining middlebrow culture as a bulwark against celebrities and consumer capitalism in the first half of the twentieth century? A focus on MPSM and early MPM provides a view of such a cultural formation as it responded to what Janice Radway analyzes as issues of massification and standardization in a democracy. Arnoldian high culture, not to mention modernism and the avant-garde, might be inaccessible for the aspiring classes, but middlebrow taste might well be within their reach. As Henry Canby, who moved from the Yale Review and Saturday Review of Literature to the Book-of-the-Month Club, affirmed in the next decade, “false jewels, and rayon, and Books of Etiquette need not necessarily indicate anything more deplorable than an untrained taste.” The uneducated could be taught to pursue “rationality, beauty, and truth.”65 What could be more transformative for a struggling individual than becoming successful while the existing social structure remains intact? Aesthetics as a sign of what Pierre Bourdieu labels distinction need not be a permanent marker denoting social class. But class, ethnicity, and religion were conflated in the Progressive Era to define manual workers as the unassimilable Other. And middlebrow culture, itself commoditized, required economic capital. Advice literature recommended that the middle class, which enjoyed an income of $1,200 to $5,000 a year, acquire a suburban home, apparel, travel experience, and books. Despite inflationary pressures, this self-conscious class was advised to distinguish itself from the ostentatious rich as well as the ethnic immigrant poor. Social reproduction, which defined the old propertied middle class, thus remained a function of class formation and structure. An individual’s taste, as Bourdieu argues in defining habitus, was the product of family upbringing, education, and aesthetics that differentiated hom*ogeneous yet stratified classes.66 But a growing new middle class of managerial employees in governmental bureaucracies and corporations would sustain middlebrow culture until the advent of television. As for working-class families, they would not enjoy higher incomes until the first mass-consumption society was built in sprawling suburbs after World War II. Significantly, the sheer number of working- and lower-middle-class housewives would then influence the aesthetics of mass production design and marketing.67 Such a development was anticipated by the demographics of early fan magazine readership because gender proved to be as significant as class and ethnicity in influencing consumer behavior.

As long as cultural arbiters like Blackton and Brewster sanctioned middlebrow taste for aspiring manual and proletarianized non-manual workers, they had a role to play. Storyizations affirmed the didactic value of narrative in white Protestant middle-class society as an uplifting context for self-making. What these entrepreneurs failed to anticipate in introducing a new yet familiar narrative to the earliest fan magazines, however, was the rapidly growing feminization of movie fandom. Photoplay’s early history showed that ethnic working-class females consuming publicity stories and romance fiction required less mediation. As a matter of fact, the demographics of such consumers ensured that mass merchandising, especially products endorsed by celebrities, appealed to lowbrow taste. And glamorous movie stars embodying conspicuous consumption provided yearning readers with compensatory experience. Such class dynamics were essential to the fantasies exploited by advertisers to sell commodities. Why limit the aspiration of lower-class women to middlebrow taste when consumption required limitless daydreaming? Also diminishing the relevance of cultural stewardship was the sheer number of urban masses rendering its survival, in an interpenetrating and contested space between high and low, problematic. As cultural forms signifying a pre-war world receding into the past, MPSM and early MPM represented a brief period when film was marketed as a middlebrow product. Such a strategy assumed more continuity than change under consumer capitalism. Despite Blackton remaining on the masthead as president of the Motion Picture Publishing Company until June 1918, the magazine had been replicating Photoplay’s practice of defining femininity as consumerism for several years. A story about Pearl White, for example, portrayed her as “an ordinary young girl” who disliked fancy costumes, yet she was photographed wearing a sumptuous full-length coat trimmed with yards of sable.68 Aspiring readers who lacked capital but identified with enviable personalities were emboldened to daydream, become self-indulgent, and purchase cheap goods signifying glamour. As the twentieth century progressed, starstruck fans ensured the dominance of celebrity culture and enshrined consumption as an obsessive ritual in contemporary life.



F. H. Richardson, “A Vitagraph Girl Night,” Moving Picture World (MPW) (December 31, 1910): 1521. A version of this essay was delivered as a keynote at Women and the Silent Screen VIII, University of Pittsburgh, September 2015. A sequel including part of the keynote,

“Adapting Middlebrow Taste to Sell Stars, Romance, and Consumption: Early Photoplay,” appears in Feminist Media Histories 3, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 121–161

. I thank Mark Lynn Anderson for inviting me to WSS VIII and the Cecil B. DeMille Estate for partly funding expenses.


Warren Susman, “ ‘Personality’ ” and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture,”

Culture As History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 274

. See also

Richard deCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 50–117



Unidentified clipping, Florence Turner clip file, Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center (hereafter LMPA); William Basil Courtney, “History of Vitagraph,” Motion Picture News (MPN) (March 28, 1925): 1313, 1317 (serialized history). The term “middlebrow” was coined in 1925.



Sumiko Higashi, “Vitagraph Stardom: Constructing Personalities for ‘New’ Middle-Class Consumption,” in Vicki Callahan, ed., Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2009), 264–288



MPSM (MPSM) and Motion Picture Magazine (MPM) are online, but not all issues are extant, complete, or in chronological order. A run of hard copies with some missing issues is available at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills.


Courtney, “Vitagraph,” MPN (February 14, 1915): 661



Janice Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997

), part 2. See

Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992)

, Introduction.


“A New Belasco,” Blue Book (June 1914): 246–247

, in J. Stuart Blackton clip file, LMPA;

Don Dewey, “Man of a Thousand Faces,” American Film (November 1990): 44–50

, in J. Stuart Blackton clip file, LMPA.


Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 105

. See

William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson, Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1993)



Since MPSM and Photoplay used “storyized by,” I coin the term “storyization” to avoid using “adaptation,” implying a screen version of a literary work.


Editorial, MPSM (October 1911): unnumbered page.


Christopher Wilson, “The Rhetoric of Consumption: Mass-Market Magazines and the Demise of the Gentle Reader, 1850–1920,” in Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 39–64



William Lord Wright, “Literature and Filmland,” MPSM (October 1913): 117

; Ad, MPSM (July 1912): 153;

Henry Albert Phillips, “How I Came to Write for the Motion Pictures,” MPM (May 1915): 95–98



On purple prose, see

Maryan Wherry, “More Than a Love Story: The Complexities of the Popular Romance,” in Christine Berberich, ed., The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 65–66



Louis Reeves Harrison, “The Stepsisters,” MPSM (July 1911): 27–32



Harold Aurelius Heltberg, “Life at Hull House,” MPSM (July 1911): 79–89


Peter Wade, “Wild Animals in Captivity,” MPSM (July 1911): 91–93; “The Cash Prize Contest,” MPSM (July 1911): 129–131



Geraldine Ames, “Saving Immigrant Girls with ‘Movies,’” MPM (December 1914): 92; “What Improvement in Motion Pictures Is Needed Most?” MPM (November 1914): 119



Ad for Supplement, MPM (September 1915): 155; Ad, MPM (June 1915): 166;

“Editorial Announcements,” MPM (November 1915): 2



J. Stuart Blackton, “The Battle Cry of Peace,” MPM (December 1915): 78



Editorial, MPSM (October 1911): unnumbered page;

William Lord Wright, “ ‘Movies’ or Not ‘Movies,’” MPM (April 1915): 119; “The Great Debate: Shall the Plays Be Censored?” MPM (April 1914): 73–74; “Musings of ‘The Photoplay Philosopher,’”

MPSM (March 1912): 137; MPM (April 1914): 117.


Eugene V. Brewster, “Thomas A. Edison,” MPSM (January 1914): 55–63, 146


Eugene V. Brewster, “Moving Picture Toys,” MPM (June 1914): 89–96


Eugene V. Brewster, “Expressions of the Emotions,” MPM (July 1914): 107–114

(first in a series with same title); MPM (August 1914): 101–109; MPM (September 1914): 97–102; MPM (October 1914): 113–119; MPM (December 1914): 111–114.


On defining the middle class in terms of social reproduction as opposed to the working class in terms of relations of production, see

Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

, chap. 1.


Cartoons, MPSM (September 1912): 147, 155; Beatrice Howard, “The Two Signs,” MPM (October 1914): 31; “July 4th,” MPM (August 1915): 100; Ad, MPSM (February 1913): 173.


Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

, chap. 2;

Mark Pittenger, “A World of Difference: Constructing the ‘Underclass’ in Progressive America,” American Quarterly 49 (March 1997): 26–65



Cartoons, MPM (February 1916): 164; MPM (May 1916): 154;

“What Improvement in Motion Pictures Is Needed Most?” MPM (April 1914): 121




Andrew R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 18




Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Motion Picture Culture after the Nickleodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)


Richard Abel, Americanizing the Movies and “Movie Mad” Audiences (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)

, chap. 6;

Diana Anselmo-Sequeira, “Screen Struck: The Invention of the Movie Fan Girl,” Cinema Journal 55, no. 1 (Fall 2015): 1–28



“The Cash Prize Contest,” MPSM (July 1911): 130;

“The Cash Prize Contest,” MPSM (October 1911): 141–142

(listed in September, not October, contents);

“The Great Mystery Play,” MPSM (November 1912): 80; “The Great Mystery Play,” MPSM (April 1913): 80



“Popular Player Contest,” MPSM (May 1912): 135



“Popular Player Contest Winners,” MPSM (July 1912): 34



“Popular Player Contest,” MPSM (October 1913): 109–112



Michael Denning, Mechanic Accent: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (New York: Verso, 1987)

, chap. 10;

Ben Singer, “Female Power in the Serial-Queen Melodrama: The Etiology of An Anomaly,” Camera Obscura 22 (January 1990): 90–112

; Ad for diamonds, MPM (November 1916): 161.


“What Improvement in Motion Pictures Is Needed Most?” MPM (April 1914): 121–122

; MPM (December 1914): 126;

“Great Artist Contest,” MPM (August 1914): 121; “Screen Masterpieces,” MPM (May 1916): 179


“Here Are the Winners of the Great Popular Player Contest,” MPM (February 1917): 126–128



Maurice Costello scrapbook, Robinson Locke Collection, Series II Scrapbooks 1720–1947, v. 85, LMPA; Higashi, “Vitagraph Stardom,” 266–275.


Bowser, Transformation, chap. 12;

“Statistics Report,” MPSM (January 1914): 154


Michael Quinn, “Distribution, the Transient Audience, and the Transition to the Feature Film,” Cinema Journal 40, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 35–56

. A list of storyizations was checked against titles in

American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States Feature Films 1911–1920, ed. Patricia King Hanson and Alan Gevinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

to identify features.


William N. Selig, “Present Day Trend in Film Lengths,” and

Carl Laemmle, “Doom of Long Features Predicted,” MPW (July 11, 1914): 181, 185


“Short Films the Best,” New York Dramatic Mirror (July 28, 1915): 22


“Famous Players and Lasky in $12,500,000 Combine,” MPN (July 15, 1916): 223



Roberta Courtlandt, “A Voiceless Prima Donna,” MPM (December 1916): 97–99


Mosgrove Colwell, “Candy and the Movies,” MPM (December 1916): 94–96



The February 1911 issue was replicated with more material in March.


Charlie Keil, “Studio Girls: Female Stars and the Logic of Brand Names,” in Sofia Bull and Astrid Soderbergh Widding, eds., Not So Silent: Women in Cinema before Sound (Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2010), 280



Covers, MPM (July, August, September 1914); Ad for paintings, MPM (August 1914): 168;

George Wildey, “The Pirates,” MPM (July 1914): 78


Gladys Hall, “Cast Adrift in the South Seas,” MPM (July1914): 51


Walter H. Bernard, “Neptune’s Daughter,” MPM (July 1914): 57

; Ad for cruise, MPM (July 1914): 6


Cover, Photoplay (August 1914); Ad for soap, Photoplay (September 1914): back cover.


On compensatory experience, see

Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997), 105

; Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (1979): 130–148;

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984

), chaps. 3, 4, 5.


Ad for soap, MPM (November 1915): back cover.


On identification, see

Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (New York: Routledge, 1994)


Rachel Moseley, Growing Up with Audrey Hepburn: Text, Audience, Resonance (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002)



Jean Darnell, “Ruth Roland, ‘The Kalem Girl,’” MPM (August 1914): 84–85


Jean Darnell, “Ruth Stonehouse and Dancing,” MPM (December 1914: 88

; Radway, Reading the Romance, 193–195.


Therese Lavoisier, “The Latest Fashion in Moving Pictures,” MPM (July 1915): 117–120


William Lord Wright, “Dame Fashion and the Movies,” MPM (September 1914): 108–110

; Grace Lavender, “Margaret Gibson Wins First Prize for Having Prettiest Bathing Suit,” MPM (September 1914): 128;

J. Argens, “Paper Cut-Outs of Popular Players,” MPM (November 1916): 135



Ruth Roland, “What a Home Means to Me,” MPM (November 1915): 91–93



Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: 1899; repr. Viking, 1967), chaps. 3, 4



Robert F. Moore, “Where They Live,” MPM (November 1916): 35–41


Lillian May, “Country Homes of Illustrious Players,” MPM (June 1917): 45–49



Bernarr Macfadden, The Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood (New York: Physical Culture Publishing Co., 1901), quoted in John Higham, Writing American History (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1970), 83.


Peter Wade, “Their Homes on Wheels,” MPM (April 1916): 89–95


Roberta Courtlandt, “Feminine Fads and Fancies,” MPM (January 1917): 39



Peter J. Blodgett, ed., Motoring West: Automobile Pioneers 1900–1909, vol. 1 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), 49



On the New Woman not being so new, see

Sumiko Higashi, “The New Woman and Consumer Culture: Cecil B. DeMille’s Sex Comedies,” in Jennifer Bean and Diane Negra, eds., A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 298–300



David Huyssen, Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 2, 6


Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusem*nts: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 1986), 12


Susan Porter Benson, Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007)

, Introduction;

Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1996), 166

. Fuller-Seeley traces the development of MPM and Photoplay, especially its female readership, in separate chapters in a chronological survey ending in the 1920s.


“Facts of Interest to the Advertiser,” MPM (March 1914): unnumbered page;

Julie A. Golia, “Courting Women, Courting Advertisers: The Woman’s Page and the Transformation of the American Newspaper, 1895–1935,” Journal of American History 103 (December 2016): 606–628



Raymond Williams, “Advertising the Magic System,” Problems in Materialism and Culture (New York: Verso, 1980), 170–195



Ads for hotel, travelogue, books, pen, MPSM (March 1911): 121–136; Ad for cruise, MPSM (August 1912): 153; Ad for cameras, MPSM (August 1911): back cover; Ad for watches, MPSM (January 1914): back cover; Ad for diamonds, MPM (December 1916): 155; Ad for phonograph, MPSM (March 1912): back cover; Ad for piano, MPM (April 1914): 145; “Great Cast Contest,” MPM (November 1915): 123; Ad for Craftsman’s, MPSM (October 1911): 150; Ad for insurance, MPSM (October 1911): 151.


Photoplay Clearing House, MPSM (August 1913): unnumbered page;

Edwin M. La Roche, “A New Profession for Women,” MPM (May 1914): 84; “Ideas Wanted for Photoplays,” MPM (February 1916): 165

; Ads for correspondence school, MPSM (May 1911): 135; MPM (April 1915): 155; MPM (December 1915): 145; Ad for law, MPSM (February 1914): unnumbered page; Ad for postmen, MPM (December 1914): 177. In February 1916, actress Rose Tapley began writing “The Answer Lady” with Agony Aunt advice and more detailed, but fewer, answers to queries about stars.


T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1860–1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981)

, Preface. See also

Anna Katharina Schaffner, Exhaustion: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)



Ad for Physical Culture, MPSM (July 1913): 163; Carl W. Seitz, “Douglas E. (Electricity) Fairbanks,” MPM (December 1916): 67; Ad for Swoboda, MPM (March 1915): 2–3; Ad for book, MPM (May 1915): 160; Ad for wafers, MPSM (December 1912): 163; Ad for massage, MPSM (February 1914): 153; Ad for Pompeian, MPSM (January 1912): 168; Ad for fashion, MPM (October 1914): 8; Ad for catalog, MPM (March 1915): 155. On the female body, see

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997), xvii–xx



Ad for typewriters, MPSM (March 1912): 165; MPM (April 1914): 173; Ad for Monarch, MPSM (August 1911): 159; Ad for book, MPSM (April 1913): 151; Ad about wife, MPM (November 1914): 161.


Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores 1890–1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988)

, chap. 4; Peiss, Cheap Amusem*nts, 52;

Rebecca L. Davis, “Not Marriage at All but Simple Harlotry: The Companionate Marriage Controversy,” Journal of American History 94, no. 4 (March 2008): 1137–1163



Victor Rousseau,

“Peggy Roche,” Photoplay (May 1917): 61



Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (London: Blackwell, 1987), 47



Cited in Radway, A Feeling for Books, 241–242.


Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 187–1949 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985)

, chaps. 6, 7;

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984)

, parts 2, 3. Janice Radway interprets Bourdieu’s distinction between the grande landed and petite shopkeeping bourgeoisie as “class fracture” that, in the US, is culturally expressed as highbrow versus middlebrow art; see Radway, A Feeling for Books.



Sumiko Higashi, Stars, Fans, and Consumption in the 1950s: Reading Photoplay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)



Arthur Pollock, “The Pastimes of a Motion Picture Actress,” MPM (February 1916):138

. As of this writing, Meghan Markle has become the latest royal celebrity whose clothes and accessories are publicized to empty inventories. See

Vanessa Friedman, “The Greatest Influencer of All,” New York Times, April 16, 2018, D1, 4


Download all slides


Total Views 4

4 Pageviews

0 PDF Downloads

Since 2/1/2024

Month: Total Views:
February 2024 1
May 2024 3


Powered by Dimensions



More from Oxford Academic

Arts and Humanities



Media Studies



The Decline of Middlebrow Taste in Celebrity Culture: The First Fan Magazines (2024)


What were the movie magazines in the 1920s? ›

Photoplay was introduced in 1912, and by the early 1920s, more than a dozen such magazines crowded the newsstands, with names like Cinema Art, Film Fun, Motion Picture Journal, Movie Weekly, Picture Play and Screenland.

What was the first movie fan magazine? ›

Photoplay. Photoplay was one of the first American film fan magazines. Founded in Chicago in 1911 by Macfadden Publications, Photoplay was founded the same year as Stuart Blackton's Motion Picture Story, a similar publication.

What were the most popular magazines in the 1920s? ›

ASSIGNMENT: Many large circulation magazines started publication in the 1920's. Some of the most popular magazines included Vogue, Life, New Yorker, and Time. These magazines printed illustrations to depict the changes in culture and lifestyle that were sweeping across America.

What were movie theaters called in the 1920s? ›

A movie palace (or picture palace in the United Kingdom) is a large, elaborately decorated movie theater built from the 1910s to the 1940s. The late 1920s saw the peak of the movie palace, with hundreds opening every year between 1925 and 1930.

What were the movie trends in the 1920s? ›

The classic Hollywood film style was perfected and significant film genres were established: the melodrama, western, historical epic, and romantic comedy, along with slapstick, science fiction, and fantasy.

What were the film companies in the 1920s? ›

  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. established in 1924, by merger of Loew's, Inc. ...
  • Paramount Picture Corp. ...
  • Fox Film Corporation/20th Century Fox. ...
  • Warner Brothers established in 1924 by Harry, Jack and Albert Warner. ...
  • RKO Radio Pictures Incorporated.

How did people watch movies in the 1920s? ›

Cinema in the 1920s

As the popularity of “moving pictures” grew in the early part of the decade, movie "palaces" capable of seating thousands sprang up in major cities. A ticket for a double feature and a live show cost 25 cents.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated:

Views: 6022

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.