Frank Munsey

George Britt Forty Years—Forty Millions: The Career of Frank A. Munsey (1935)

Britt’s book is the earliest biography of Frank Munsey, a man difficult to sum up in a few words. Modern references to Munsey refer to him as a grocer, a magazine publisher, and corporate raider. However, rich with first hand accounts, Britt takes a different angle on Munsey:

Mr. Munsey like to think that his greatest work, his newspapers, represented the same giant activity that Commodore Vanderbilt had performed among the railroads, by a process of mergers building up stronger lines, buying rivals wholesale, scrapping, consolidating, eliminating duplication, feeding the strong upon the resources of the weak or the weak upon the strong, killing, whenever it became necessary, ignoring sentimentality, inducing a new point of view. Mr. Munsey’s vision had recognized newspapers as just so many miles of rusty track. His romance was in the bold unification of a system and likewise of junking it again. He had made a contribution in his application of industrial principles; he had sped the day of efficient business overlordship into the newspaper shop. (3)

The story of Munsey’s rise begins in Maine. At twenty-three, he moved to Augusta, Maine, as a local manager for Western Union Telegraph Company. According to Britt, Augusta was the pulp-publishing capital of the United States in the late nineteenth century. He describes the output of the publishers there as “trash unmitigated, pulp-paper fiction, Nice Nelly tabloids, thick with blurry woodcut illustrations, sold on the incentive of premium chromos and serving principally as advertising catalogs” (43-44). The originator of this industry was Edward Charles Allen, who amassed a great fortune and died at 42. Munsey’s dream was to be a entrepreneur, and this early experience cemented his idea that there was money to be made in publishing.

Deciding that the place to conquer publishing was New York, he moved there with the idea of founding a magazine for boys with only forty dollars in his pocket and a few promises from Maine publishers of support. Munsey arrived in New York on September 23, 1882 and ten weeks later the first issue of Golden Argosy appeared. Munsey struggled for two years, writing stories himself and trying to keep the magazine published on a regular basis. However, with scarce capital, he was not making a dent in the competitive New York market. His big break came in 1884, when James Blaine, disgusted with Harper’s Weekly, agreed to promote Munsey in a new venture—Munsey’s Illustrated Weekly.

With sponsorship from the Republican Party came new credit lines which helped keep Golden Argosy afloat. Though the weekly was not technically a party organ, the extra credit granted to Munsey due to the illusion of party sponsorship gave Munsey a chance to hang on. By 1886, he was $5,000 in debt. However, by 1887, Golden Argosy actually began to show a profit. Munsey’s credit lines began to steadily increase. Then, the panic of 1893 put new stress on the publishing industry.

Munsey answered by slashing the price of Munsey’s Illustrated Weekly (now called Munsey’s Magazine) to ten cents. It was a gamble that paid off. The price wars that ensued also caused a great battle of content which included the puritanical Munsey’s publication of artistic nudes to increase circulation. By 1906, the circulation of his family of magazines topped two million. The added capital allowed Munsey to spread out into other businesses, including a chain of grocery stores and the purchase of the Boston Journal newspaper in 1902.

From his beginnings in magazine publishing, it was Munsey’s hope to build a chain of newspapers. With the funding of his successful magazine and grocery empires, as well as some great luck in stock and real estate speculation, he purchased, merged, and shut down dozens of newspapers in an attempt to create a sort of monopoly in the news industry. He purchased competitors, bankrupted them, and changed his papers incessantly throughout his career. His industrial, trust-like approach in all his business practices inevitably netted him a fortune in excess of forty million.

Overall, though, the story of Frank Munsey is a sad one. He never married, and did not achieve the level of success he really desired. He wanted to be mentioned in the same breath with Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and J.P. Morgan. His incessant changing and rearranging of his fortunes didn’t always turn out for the best. The best anecdote in the book regarding Munsey’s mental state was the story of a Greek “temple of love” on a property he purchased when he was sixty-six. After moving it to every possible location on the property, he wasn’t satisfied with it. Finally, a visitor arrived and noticed that it was no longer there. Munsey proclaimed that he had it blown-up. It was cheaper to dynamite it than to keep moving it. His publishing empire was managed in much the same way.