Modern Journals

The Success of The Smart Set

Despite The Smart Set’s interesting publication, editorial, and content history, one of the most intriguing details about this little magazine is its ability to be successful. This was accomplished mainly through the magazine’s understanding of who their audience was. It is, quite literally, in the name: Merriam-Webster’s defines ‘smart set’ as “ultrafashionable society.” Established in 1900 as a counterpoint to the owner’s other cultural magazine, Town Topics, The Smart Set was able to quickly launch a large readership. In fact, its readership was largest during this early period of the magazine’s publication. With its large subscription base, an established publication format, and a sense of cultural elitism, the cornerstone of the magazine had been set for future editors.

To target the elite members of New York City society, The Smart Set employed several tactics that worked to attract this audience, that later editors would continue to employ despite their changing views on the contents of the magazine. Willard Huntington Wright, for instance, attempted to bring in avant-garde literature, which almost bankrupted the magazine, but he still continued to utilize similar advertising methods in order to capture the bourgeois audience. These tactics included specific repeated designs on the covers of the magazine, as well as advertisements contained within the magazine that targeted high society. The covers of The Smart Set were creative in that they allowed artists to riff on the same image over and over. The covers often featured a man and a woman performing high class leisure activities such as stolling a boardwalk, playing polo, walking through a garden, and wearing fancy evening-wear. Though artists would alter the image’s style, the positions of the man and woman almost always stay the same. In some ways, the covers are predictable, exactly what someone looking for the magazine among others at a newsstand would expect to see. Unlike modern magazine covers, which tend to change format every issue, this magazine’s cover was standardized, and did the job of attracting the eyes of NYC’s “smart set.” Another major factor of The Smart Set’s success was its ability to secure advertisements that would be attractive to this posh group of NYC residents. It contained advertisements for everything from Egyptian cigarettes to decaf coffee, but the real value of these advertisements rested in the large brand-names that contributed advertisements to its pages. Tiffany & Co., the Ritz-Carlton Restaurant, the Hotel Marie Antoinette, Vogue, and a variety of cruises were all featured in the pages of The Smart Set. It even advertised rising personal luxuries such as the telephone through ads by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, as well as the personal camera in early advertisements for Kodak. The magazine’s clever use of well-targeted advertisements contributed to The Smart Set’s financial stability.

These and other sales strategies, such as the reproduction of old issues of the magazine under different titles, aided The Smart Set’s early and continued success. Thanks to an early emphasis on attracting a rich audience, later editors of the magazine were allowed more freedom in the content they published. Though Wright’s attempts to bring in avant garde writers nearly bankrupted the magazine, the magazine was able to endure thanks to its well-established audience. Mencken and Nathan, for their part, maintained the literary merit of the magazine during their tenure, helping to establish the magazine as a publisher of literary, dramatic, and cultural criticism, as well as a home for the creative work of new and undiscovered writers.

Works Consulted

“Definition of smart set.”  Merriam-Webster. accessed May 2019.

“H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan: A Legendary Ten-Year Literary Partnership.” Reader’s Almanac Blog, The Library of America, 10 Sep 2010. accessed May 2019.

“The Modernist Journals Project.” Brown University and The University of Tulsa. “‘The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleveness.’” accessed May 2019.

“The Smart Set.” Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University. accessed May 2019.