Harpers Weekly, A Journal of
Civilization began publication in 1857 as a venture of the New York
publishing firm of Harper and Brothers. The Weekly was among
a group of new magazines that benefited from lower postal rates and
provisions that publishers instead of subscribers paid the postage.
It was soon popular thanks to its use of illustrations, the relatively
high quality of its printing, and its editorial content. By the end
of 1861, the magazine had a circulation of 120,000 and stood, in terms
of readership, among the leading magazines of the Civil War period.
Most magazines suffered circulation losses
when the southern states seceded. The popularity of Harpers
Weekly, however, grew because of its coverage of the Civil War.
It was widely read by the soldiers of the Union Army, and the magazine
hired artists, including Thomas Nast, to follow the army in its campaign.
Although editorially the magazine supported
the Lincoln administration and the Union cause, it was less strident
in tone than Nasts work. Compromise
with the South, described by many as Nasts first great
political cartoon, was published in the September 3, 1864 issue. The
Republicans distributed reprints of this cartoon widely in campaigning
for Lincolns reelection.
In 1863 George William Curtis became editor
of Harpers Weekly and under him the magazines influence
grew. Curtis and Nast worked well together for a time. During the 1870s
Nasts cartoons attacking William Tweed and his political cronies
in New York City gained national attention, and boosted the magazines
circulation. It especially received favorable notice from Republicans.
Both Curtis and Nast, although they had their disagreements, were important
Republicans, although the magazine was ostensibly non-partisan. The
magazines influence was greatest during the 1870s.
Harpers Weekly began to lose
favor in 1884 as a result of Curtis and Nasts opposition
to the Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine. Curtis and
the magazines publisher consciously spoke out against Blaine knowing
that it would cost circulation. What they did not count on was the widespread
and vitriolic attacks on the magazine, especially those directed towards
Nast, leveled by Republican publications. Harpers Weekly
never recovered fully from this episode. Nast left the magazine in 1887
as the result of on-going conflicts with its editor and publisher. Harpers
Weekly ceased publishing in 1916.
For additional information see Frank Luther Mott, A History
of American Magazines, Vol. II, 1850-1865 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1938): 469-87.