They are among the most influential forms of publication of the 20th century and smell of nostalgia and old paper: pulp magazines. On their colourful covers, heroes are fighting monsters, cowboys are getting ready to duel and sweet yet lightly dressed ladies are waiting to be rescued, while showing just the right amount of cleavage to attract potential heroes.
"Pulp" magazines date back as far as 1896. Mostly circulating on the US market, they were in high demand when popping up at newsstands all over the country. Besides their special 7x10 inch format, their colourful cover art featuring attractive motifs gathered much attention.
The cheap wood pulp that was used to produce the paper also provided the name for this new form of publication. Just like the early comic books, the first pulp issues went for 10 cents each. The first pulp series, "Argosy Magazine", hardly offered any illustrations - but this was to change soon. Following the tradition of the 19th century "penny dreadfuls" and "dime novels", pulps were created to target the working classes. They had to be affordable and of course, eyecatching. As their production was low-budget, many magazines were able to go without advertisements, being re-financed through sales only. According to The Pulp Magazines Project, eight popular series circulated on the US market in 1915, with a combined monthly circulation of plus 2.7 copies. Guesses go as far as to estimate 15% of the American population were reading pulps back then.
Many famous writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Talbot Mundy and Abraham Merritt contributed to pulps or provided rights for a serial reprinting of their work. Yet today these magazines are more famous for their fascinating cover art, especially when featuring a colorfully painted blonde or brunette "damsel in distress" showing the right amount of cleavage.
Once the new genre "pulps" was born, amazing and exciting stories popped up: detective, romance, horror, crime, prison, western, aerial adventures or scienece fiction stories were designed to please a broadest possible audience. And soon another development set in, as "hero pulps" became the forerunners of modern comic book superheroes. The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Phantom Detective, Buck Rogers, Captain Future, Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Zorro and many more famous characters celebrated their first appearance in a pulp magazine. In the 1930s stories started to lean towards the fantastic. "Amazing Stories", "Weird Tales" and the "10 Dime Detective Magazine" circulated besides a number of war and prison tales.
The hype lasted until the 1950s and fantastic pulp adventures were in high demand. In the end the magazines were ousted by other mass media – like comics, film and television. But although they seemed doomed to disappear completely, pulp magazines have been celebrating a comeback among collectors lately. And of course, Quentin Tarrantino helped, when he created a nice memento with his 1994 film "Pulp Fiction".
Today you will find many great infos on pulp magazines at various web projects like: http://www.pulpmags.org where a number of historians and countless enthusiast have gathered with a missions to build up an extensive archive featuring pulp magazines.
Wanna see, what a pulp magazine looked like in the late 19th century? Check out Argosy Magazine Vol. 6 #1, April 1888