Get a LIFE: Collecting America’s best magazine.

30 LIFE magazines I’ve collected so far, including the first Nov. 23, 1936, issue.

I’ve collected a lot of things during my lifetime.

My parents started a stamp collection for me when I was little, snipping colorful stamps off envelopes of flowers, places and famous people; that’s how I first learned who Grace Kelly was.

Then in high school I started writing to living film stars and collecting their autographs. To date, I have 30 signed photographs from stars like Deanna Durbin, Paul Newman and Joan Fontaine.

But most recently, I’ve decided to mix my love of history, American culture and film by collecting the best American magazine ever published: LIFE.

Jean Harlow 1937

Published weekly starting in November 1936 to December 1972, over 1,800 issues of LIFE magazine was printed. It may be crazy that I want to collect the majority of these magazines, but let me explain how LIFE is special compared to other gossip rags.

From its first issue in November 23, 1936, there is an emphasis on film and entertainment with a four page feature on film and stage actress Helen Hayes. But outside of the footlight parade world are photographs of a mangled car that was hit by a train in Wisconsin, a man hit on the head with a blackjack in Philadelphia and a Louisiana couple holding a baby a bulldog carried to their doorstep.

LIFE didn’t just focus on celebrity like People or ridiculous ways to catch a man like Cosmopolitan. The focus of the magazine was much more broad and encompassing of all topics.

Prior to 1936, LIFE was a humorous magazine until Henry Luce obtained the name rights and turned LIFE into a photojournalism magazine. The magazine showed Americans what life was like around the world outside of what they were used to: a Wyoming winter, Metropolitan Opera ballet dancers or Greek soldiers.

Gene Tierney 1941

Some of the most famous film stars originated in LIFE such as Rita Hayworth picnicking on the beach, Marilyn Monroe jumping and looking backwards and old Clark Gable’s portrait during his last film in 1961.

But other than stars, LIFE wasn’t afraid to show horrors and realism such as a dead soldier on the beach of Normandy or somebody injured after a car accident; photos that today would be considered too sensitive.

Each decade went through different transitions:

-Pre-War: Featured several movie stars but also focus on life around the world with pictures of Wyoming winters and Greek soldiers.  During this time period the United States was suffering from economic struggles in the Great Depressions and the magazine offered escapism.

-World War II era: The magazine changed again with the start of World War II featuring soldiers, airplanes, factory workers, and General MacArthur on the cover of the magazines- evoking patriotism as well as a look at what was going on in the European and Pacific theaters.

-1950s to early-1960s: Covers focused on glamour, sophistication, and fun.  Fashion, the English royal family, Marilyn Monroe and UCLA homecomings were some of the covers-all typical of happy-go-lucky consumerism post-war America.

-Mid-1960s to 1972: Covers interpret rapid world changes and the anger during Vietnam era. The covers feature political figures, threatened orangutans in the Rain Forest and Apollo 11 footprints on the moon.

From reading about the making of “Gone with the Wind” to a German shepherd dog nursing tiger cubs, LIFE had it all. No magazine will ever again give American readers the variety that LIFE offered.

To date I have 30 LIFE magazines, so I have a ways to go. But it will be an interesting journey through our past, regardless of how long it takes.

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7 thoughts on “Get a LIFE: Collecting America’s best magazine.

  1. What a terrific thing to collect! As in the case of movies, they sure don’t make magazines like they used to.

    My parents loved LIFE, and it was definitely a part of the fabric of my growing-up years. A couple of issues they even saved through the years (and probably still have)….the cover of one had that infamous picture of the young JFK saluting his father’s casket. The other issue was one which featured President Lyndon Johnson on the cover. I remember these being in the magazine rack all through my growing-up years. While other issues came into the house, were read, then eventually thrown away, those 2 issues were held onto like collectors’ items.

    Good luck on your quest to collect a majority of the magazines. I will keep you in mind when I go antique-ing. I sometimes see them and would be more than happy to help add to your collection as I am able.

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  2. What a wonderful thing to collect! It’s amazing how different our world is today and to be able to literally “look” back is priceless. I’ve seen some issues online but I’m sure it doesn’t compare to the real thing! Have you tried looking at Yardseller? I’ve seen LIFE mags pop up for sale there. Good luck!

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  3. Nice collection. I bought a batch of Lifes several years ago, including the first 6 issues, but was disappointed to learn that the entire run had been digitised by Google Books and was freely available to browse online. It takes some of the thrill away from magazine-hunting, though nothing compares to turning the pages of the issues by hand and seeing the photos in clear definition.

    Where do you keep your magazines? I find that Lifes are among the most cumbersome of vintage mags to read and store, though not as bad as some that were published in the UK from the same period.

    Life magazines can always be depended on to provide some nourishment for classic film fans. I have the Gene Tierney edition which you pictured in the article and scanned a couple of images from it, including the wedding of Rosalind Russell and Frederick Brisson, with Cary Grant as best man:

    http://culturalclippings.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/life-november-10-1941.html

    Life also published an International edition, which I don’t believe has been archived online. Those are well worth collecting, too, so you may be in for a longer journey than you anticipated…

    Good luck with your quest!

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  4. Keep us posted on your collection. Looking through old magazine is one of my favorite things to do. You glean so much from where society was at any given time through the sorts of articles, the adverts and the art work. Keep us posted on what you find!

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    • I will! I need to sit down and read through several of them, I haven’t had much of a chance to, honestly. I hope to get some great posts from them.

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  5. I was given a life collection by my father in law who passed away and told me to sell them to Someone who would appreciate them. He knew witch ones to save and I’m in a bind and can use cash. I put them all together by their dates and looked up everyone and he’s right there are some of value. The value on the light side is unreal. Is like to talk to someone who could take them off my hands. Or if you know anyone who might want to purchase the whole lot of them for a good price. Please help. Thanks in advance .

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    • I certainly would be interested in discussing some prices with you for a few of the magazines and taking some off your hands. I will e-mail you!
      Thank you very much to commenting!

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