Report by Angie Brasher
Founded by Dutch immigrant Piet Vlag in 1911, The Masses’ original purpose was to “educate the working people of America about art, literature, and socialist theory” through its illustrated monthly magazine (Britannica). In many ways, it was a propagandist journal. However, eighteen months after the magazine was founded, Piet Vlag and the editor quit. The magazine began to run in a more “radical socialist” fashion (Britannica). In its first few years it “was soon sponsoring a heady blend of radical politics and modernist aesthetics that earned it the popular sobriquet ‘the most dangerous magazine in America’” (The Masses). There was a balance between “free expression and propaganda” in the magazine (“Art for the Masses”). One of the highlights of The Masses was the huge number of illustrations, including full-page ones. These illustrations varied from crazy, eye-catching magazine covers, to life-like sketches of real events including courtroom cases and popular events of the day. Even though the magazine’s contributors were unpaid (as was its staff), the edgy stance of the magazine attracted enough attention for many leading graphic artists to want to contribute work.
The end of The Masses was brought about by the magazine’s anti-war stance, taken during World War I. Publication ceased in 1917 after a trial involving the Espionage Act, newly passed into law that same year, ruled that the magazine could no longer be distributed. Although The Masses was often embroiled in legal issues over the span of its publication, this was the one that sunk them. At its zenith, The Masses had a circulation of about 25,000 (“The Art for the Masses”), distributed monthly. It was succeeded almost immediately by The Liberator in 1917, a magazine also edited by Max Thomas, and later in 1926 by The New Masses, a magazine founded directly by the communist party.
The magazine had three editors during its first two years: Thomas Seltzer, Horatio Winslow, and Piet Vlag, the magazine's founder. Following those three, The Masses was edited by Max Eastman. Since it was a communist magazine, the goal was to have the magazine controlled not by one single editor, but to have it run jointly by multiple staff members, with one “main editor” (“Art for the Masses”). The magazine published progressive positions on issues like unionization, freedom of speech, racial equality, birth control, and women’s suffrage, and even connected people with local organizations working towards those causes to enable their readers to do more than just read on a topic. Some of the topics in The Masses were similar to those of The Freewoman, a magazine published between November 1911 and October 1912 by Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe that was focused on issues like women’s suffrage and birth control. There were many types of writing and presentation found in The Masses. These included investigative reporting and war dispatches against sweatshop labor at home as well as militarism and the war abroad. The illustrations ranged from heavily political cartoons to eccentric, bright covers and life-like drawings. The Masses was not just a compilation of writings, but rather a journal that offered a blend of both the visual and literary arts.
Although The Masses’ original purpose was to “educate the working people of America about art, literature, and socialist theory,” Eastman as editor changed the motto to "To do as it Pleases and Conciliate Nobody, not even its Readers" (The Masses). It was not surprising that a magazine with such radical ideas and devil-may-care attitudes found itself wrapped up the in many legal disputes and political situations which eventually brought about its demise.
“Art for the Masses 1911-1917: a Radical Magazine and Its Graphics.” Internet Archive, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985, archive.org/stream/artformasses191101unse/artformasses191101unse_djvu.txt accessed May 2019.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “The Masses.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Dec. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/The-Masses accessed May 2019.
“The Masses.” Modernist Journals Project, Brown University & The University of Tulsa, modjourn.org/render.php?view=mjp_object&id=MassesCollection accessed May 2019.