By Llewellyn Hedgbeth
MoToR, (and, no, the switch from upper to lower case was not accidental but rather the actual title design) was the National Magazine of Motoring, one begun by William Randolph Hearst. One of its long-time hallmarks was a brightly-colored, thematic cover illustration designed and drawn by numerous artists of the day. Although a full run of its issues may be an elusive dream, numerous editions have survived, enabling us to explore the inviting covers as well as the detailed automotive information inside. In that regard, for those of you making travel plans, the library at the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pennsylvania has a good many MoToR issues and is a great place to visit. Many of the illustrations in this article are courtesy of that collection.
So, how did the magazine get its start? In 1903, noted newspaper publisher, business magnate, and art collector Hearst married chorine Millicent Wilson in New York City and drove across Europe for their honeymoon. Besides his lovely bride, another item that caught his eye was an English publication, The Car. That would prove the model for his first entry into the magazine world (with MoToR's inaugural issue in October 1903), followed by his acquisition of Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, Popular Mechanics, Redbook, and others.
There were about twelve thousand cars on the road in the U.S. at the time, and most of the drivers were either skinned-knuckle mechanics or among the wealthy elite. Motoring was largely a man's sport, and early articles highlighted the allure of racing, the challenge of crossing the country by road or trail, and ways to master and enjoy the benefits of new-fangled motor cars. By 1915, travel across the country was made available to more motorists, via the newly-opened Lincoln Highway, and MoToR offered a silver Tiffany medal to motorists who made the trip (and could prove it) as well as a gold medal for the best story about how the trip had progressed.
By 1924, motoring had changed even further. Ford had produced ten million cars; women had joined the ranks of drivers; roads were designated by numbers rather than names; and homemade directional signs painted on rocks, trees, barns, etc. were being replaced by standardized geometrical signs. That year, MoToR devised a new audience approach, as well, pitching more technical articles to those at the heart of the motorcar business — mechanics, salesmen, and dealers. The new approach brought with it additional advertising revenue from car manufacturers and after-market sales and service providers. Articles were more technical than ever. Coverage was given to labor issues, and there were tips on setting up service centers, improving sales, and keeping motorists up-to-date. A highlight every year was the "Annual Show Number" with information on the New York and Chicago Auto Shows. And one of the things MoToR did best was to publish detailed tables of manufacturer specifications.
Whether because MoToR was his inaugural magazine, he was interested in fine arts, or he understood that illustrations meant effective competition, Hearst developed the magazine with an eye towards wooing customers with attractive cover art. While very early covers featured photographs of a wood relief carving or a bonnet-wearing woman at the wheel, before long, most covers featured eye-catching designs in full color.
Although MoToR is still in publication, this look at past cover illustrations begins in the 1900s and goes just to the 1960s. In most cases, we are working with an image of the cover rather than the magazine itself. So, sadly, when an artist's style is clear but his or her signature is not, that artist's work could not be included in this cavalcade of covers. That's also true for illustrators who used initials rather than full names or for times no signature made it into the illustration. There's the added complication that some of these artists are very well-known and have lengthy biographies where others are lesser known or, worse yet, largely forgotten.
When MoToR hit newsstands, there was little entertainment available. Radio and film wouldn't become popular until the twenties, television in the 50s and 60s. And forget about the internet. Before the nineteenth century, art was largely about showing off wealth and power — of the church and wealthy patrons. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though, the publishing industry took root and provided artists with much of their income.
Illustration particularly came about primarily as a result of the industrial revolution. There was a working class with some education and sufficient disposable income to buy an inexpensive book, or a newspaper or magazine that provided readers with near-current information. Reading books and magazines and viewing photographs through stereo viewers became popular pastimes. When people gathered, they were as apt to discuss what they'd just read as they had been in earlier days to recount what the minister had preached about.
As the love of reading grew, the popularity of illustrators grew as well. There were hundreds of thousands of pictures in circulation each week. Even though photographs were taken during the Civil War, for instance, it was largely woodcuts made from drawings or photographs which were reproduced in papers like Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper or Harper's Weekly. Only in later years would daguerreotypes and more sophisticated photographic processes take hold in the press.
The Golden Age of Illustration, one that saw the rise of great talents like Howard Pyle, Dean Cornwell, and N.C. Wyeth as well as editorial cartoonists like Thomas Nast, came between 1865 and 1917. The images produced then circulated widely and helped inform popular opinion about a variety of issues. As American industry grew, so, too, did the publishing industry. Both looked at producing goods as cheaply as possible and getting those goods to the widest audience of consumers possible.
Following the Civil War, there was a wider recognition of the importance of public education, and as literacy increased, more books and magazines were printed to keep up with consumer demand. Even if a family couldn't afford books for the kids, there were more and more public lending libraries available. (Many of today's adults still remember heading home with an armload of books even before they'd learned to read. Just looking at the pictures was magic enough. ) The time of twelve-hour work days and child labor was receding, too, and families had more leisure time to devote to reading.