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Amazing Pulp Magazine Collection Exhibit: Full Text of This Exhibit

Exhibit showcasing the Library's extensive pulp magazine collection and provides historical context for this wildly popular - and influential - form of entertainment from the early 20th century.

Note on Full Text

For purposes of presenting the Amazing Pulp Magazine Exhibit in full text - and because not all 22 posters are represented visually at this time - we have elected to distribute the text from the posters throughout this Guide, rather than on a single page devoted to Full Text.

Thus, Full Text for this exhibit can be found under all six (6) tabs at the top of the page:

  • Home
  • Full Text for This Exhibit (which you are on);
  • Pulp Authors - Full Text;
  • Pulp Illustrators - Full Text;
  • Pulp Editors & Publishers - Full Text
  • The Pulp Collection at CSUEB

Negative Stereotypes in the Pulps

When we think of the old pulp covers, what often comes to mind are scantily clad, helpless women waiting to be rescued by a weapon-toting male. While the pulps did, indeed, have their fair share of this sort of artwork, some scholars of the pulps argue that pulp stories often did have strong female characters – sometimes more than one. They even cite cover art that reverses the expected stereotype – in other words, women rescuing men from evil monsters!

While the Damsel in Distress stereotype did exist, there appears to have been some effort to showcase women as strong characters in pulp stories. This can be seen as part of the changing social perceptions of the times: in 1920, women finally won the right to vote, and the Flapper Age of the 20s and Hollywood scandal magazines all demonstrated that women’s roles were changing.

But, perhaps the most disturbing stereotype of the pulps – both in its artwork and story lines – was the negative depiction of Asians and Blacks. Racial notions about these groups had been around for years, and white culture saw no reason to change them if they helped advance their various plot lines.

A quick glance at the covers in the CSUEB Pulp Collection, for example, shows a frequent use of the Fu Manchu – or “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. As with blacks still struggling with institutional racism in America at this time, Asians found it difficult to complain about this stereotyping when they were more immediately concerned in dealing with the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other political measures that defined them as unequal in the American system.

Between the First and Second World Wars (the heyday of the pulps), mainstream American society’s perception of Asians and Asian cultures was limited and ambivalent:  On the one hand, there had been a popular craze for things Japanese early in the 1920s (think the popular tune from the 1920s, “Japanese Sandman”); on the other hand, no one bothered to question the notion of a “Yellow Peril” – threatening hordes of Asians (Chinese or Japanese, it didn’t seem to matter), that had been promoted since at least the 1890s in popular newspapers and literature, that might somehow threaten our way of life. (In 1910, even Jack London had written a fictional story about a future scenario – in the 1970s and 80s – when an expanding China would threaten its neighbors with colonization and conquest – the Western nations responding with biological warfare!)

Thus the pulps, like so many other forms of media between the wars, unwittingly reinforced a negative view of the peoples and cultures that Americans of the time found it inconvenient to understand. This, in turn, helped pave the way for the objectification of its own citizens on racial grounds when 110,000 Japanese-Americans were summarily sent to “Evacuation Centers” in early 1942, after the outbreak of World War II.

The Rise and Decline of the "Pulps"

Although part of the long tradition of inexpensive “popular” literature which includes both “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels,” pulp magazines are arguably more of a direct offshoot of the “slick” magazines of the 1880s and 1890s — publications such as The Century, McClure’s and Munsey’s Magazine. These titles were printed on heavy, slick (and relatively expensive) paper, were about 7×10 inches in size, and featured stories and art from some of the best writers and illustrators of the period. However, because of the prices such prestigious authors and artists could command, and the costs of production, the “slicks” were priced out of the reach of many readers.

As a result, several publishers looked for ways to produce a more affordable magazine. The answer they came up with was to (a) use cheap paper made from wood pulp, and (b) rely on less popular or new artists and writers. The October 1896 issue of Frank Munsey’s Argosy, is considered by many to be the first true pulp magazine in format and content. Its success led Munsey and other publishers - such as Street & Smith - to add numerous new titles to the market.

While the pulps continued to concentrate on publishing stories from little-known authors, not all these authors would remain obscure. Probably the most well-known writer who emerged from the first two decades of pulp publishing was Edgar Rice Burroughs, who introduced John Carter in “Under the Moons of Mars,” serialized in the pages of Munsey’s All Story in the first half of 1912. The latter half of that year saw the debut — again in the pages of All Story — of Burroughs’s most famous creation: Tarzan of the Apes. With this, Burroughs helped to usher in what is considered to be the Golden Age of pulp magazines.

At their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue. Among the most popular of the titles being published during this period: Argosy, Adventure, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales and Western Story Magazine. Although broad-based “action/adventure” pulps tended to lead the way in terms of sales, many of the most successful pulps of the era focused on a single story-telling genre per title: mystery/detective; science fiction and fantasy; westerns; aviation; war. All these genres supported one or more long-running magazines in the heyday of the pulps. So too did several individual characters: The Shadow; Doc Savage; The Spider; Captain Future; the Phantom Detective; Operator No. 5; and the Avenger, among them.

World War II brought with it paper shortages and the re-direction of resources (including writer/artist manpower) to the war effort. This, and a related increase in production costs — along with increasing competition for the entertainment dollar from comic books, radio, mass market paperbacks, and, eventually, television - helped bring about the decline of the pulp magazine format.

Beginning with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1941, some pulp magazines began to switch to digest size — a smaller, thicker magazine format. Some publishers moved on to other things, but the 1957 failure of magazine distributor American News Company, then the primary distributor of pulp magazines, can be seen as the final nail in the coffin of the pulp magazine format. By that time, however, most of the best-remembered pulps had already ceased publication — artifacts of a bygone era of popular literature.

Some Pulp Links

While we do not necessarily endorse the material or views in the following sites, these links may be helpful in your Pulp research:

There is a growing number of websites that deal with all aspects of the pulp magazine historical phenomenon. We’ll try to keep this list current, but would encourage you to let us know if you find errors, dead links, or, more especially, NEW sites not included here.

Recommended Links:

Additional sites:

A. E. van Vogt Cover Art Gallery
Japanese fan site for stories of Canadian pulp writer van Vogt. Includes cover art for most entries. Site is dated 2003, so it is uncertain whether it is being updated. Good source for cover art from mid-20th century.

Black Mask: Pulps, Noir, and News of Same
Blog site with numerous posts on pulps, including large images of cover art.

Fantastic Collectibles
Another pulp sales site that includes useful indices, cover art for sale on DVD and CD-ROM, posters, and other formats.

Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists (Recommended)
Fascinating, in-depth look at many, many pulp artists by David Saunders – by implication, here, the son of Norman Saunders, a prolific pulp artist. This site appears to be a labor of love by someone who observed the workings of the pulp illustration world and has been anxious to document its every detail and nuance.

Galactic Central (Recommended)
An awesome compilation of pulp and science fiction indices by a self-confessed bibliography fanatic. Almost a one-stop shop for information on pulp titles, authors, and genres, complete with illustrated checklists. Maintained by Phil Stephensen-Payne, Galactic Central Publications.

Galaxy Press – Stories from the Golden Age
Sales site for pulp-like reprints of many short fiction stories of L. Ron Hubbard. Reprints feature retro cover art.

Grand Comics Database
The outfit that runs this site bills themselves as “…a nonprofit, Internet-based organization of international volunteers dedicated to building a database covering all printed comics throughout the world….” Heavy on more current comic book issues, but deeper research may uncover pulp material as well.

Luminist Bookstore – Pulp Magazines
Non-profit organization that provides a very useful index to numerous pulp titles; includes much cover art.

Rise and Decline of the "Pulps"