Vintage Pulp Fiction Magazine Ads
A curated visual archive of print advertisements from 1894–1977
Lost Books has spent the past several weeks scouring through old collections of pulp fiction magazines. There are several sizeable archives of these classic era publications, but the one we’ve been exploring is the Luminist archive.
We didn’t find any comprehensive visual archive focused on ads from these vintage magazines, so we created one ourselves for fun. Not sure if it is “comprehensive” but we hope that it’s at least a decent start, and will inspire others to catalogue old advertisements and printed publications from other eras. We present our collection of pulp fiction magazine ads here for educational and historical purposes.
There is a lot to say here, but we will attempt to keep our remarks fairly brief, in the interest of letting these incredible images speak for themselves.
We used a Firefox plugin called DownThemAll to download PDFs from Luminist in the main pulp page, and on the sci-fi specialty page as well. This totaled a little over 2,300 documents.
We then hopped around in various decades and titles, and pulled out screenshots of examples of ad types which we saw repeating again and again, and began grouping those into loose categories.
We didn’t review every document in the set, because there were just too many, and over time they become very repetitive, so we selected for a broad range of genres, and decades, beginning with around 1894 (the earliest we found), and ending arbitrarily in 1977. The majority of the ads come from before 1955, as the Golden Age of pulps ended somewhere before then.
It occurred to us somewhere along the way, that creating a curated collection like this ultimately is a data science project. While we’re not data scientists, we hope to inspire others with more skills in these areas to undertake similar broad spectrum surveys of old and archival materials in order to bring to light the fascinating information locked and forgotten about in them. We did not use an overly scientific method ourselves, so much as an artistic eye. We included what leapt out at us. We attempted to not add in too many variations of the same theme, unless they were interesting somehow in themselves. As a result, some categories are only lightly fleshed out, and some are much more extensive.
Our screenshots attempt to capture legible examples wherever possible. They are often cropped, sincedue to size constraints on our monitor we often had to compromise between legibility and putting forward the best focal point to convey the sense of the ad. You can usually click on an included image on Medium to enlarge it, if text appears too small to read. In some cases we included full pages for context, or (rarely) groups of ads near one another to show placement on a page.
We chose not to include the magazine titles or publishers these came from, though we recognize that a more careful and methodical approach would have been maybe more satisfying in the end. That would have taken a lot longer though, so we chose to optimize for efficiency and creating an interesting, thought-provoking collection rapidly. Years ads came from are usually included as captions underneath each image, though sometimes these got clipped due to autosaves on Medium. Ads are presented in thematic groups without regard to chronology. Some groups have many members, and some only a few. The vast majority are American ads (as were the vast majority of pulps themselves), with a handful from British sources.
First and foremost, pulp fiction magazines are an incredible historical reference. After reviewing hundreds of these manually, we have completely re-framed our understanding of the time periods when they were published and consumed by readers. We would even go so far as to say it re-wired our brains in a positive way, to manually analyze a large data set from another time period like this, and for purely and educational creative reasons. We found the process of looking through them a welcome antidote to too much time spent in the salt mines of today’s social media.
These ads reflect the hopes, fears, and beliefs of Americans (some real, some perhaps invented by advertisers) as their lives were shifted into ever-increasing levels of industrialization and commercialization. What grips us the most about these ads is seeing that it is only a little over a hundred years ago— perhaps three or four generations — that most of modern American society as we know it was formed. In some cases, more like the last seventy years. While a great deal has indeed changed, at the same time, all the basic forms are recognizable that we see writ large on social media.
Furthermore, with only such a brief span of time having wrought such profound change, it is evident that we live still on but a fragile pinnacle of so-called cultural and technological sophistication. One which perhaps might be easily washed away by catastrophe, or even mere forgetfulness of where we have come from, and how we got here.
Many of the ads you see included below are bizarre or even offensive by today’s standards. All the more reason to try to understand the context of the times, and learn a better way forward. Many contain questionable medical advice (along with what feels like arcane, out of date terminology) that shows we as a culture have struggled with the same problems of misinformation, etc. that we still struggle with on today’s internet.
Where possible, we will leave specific notes about related information which we uncovered in the course of our research. But, by and large, will let the voices contained in this collection speak for themselves.
One final bit of food for thought, given that in some of the decades covered that radio and television were not yet widely available, we wonder whether an American public which regularly read long mostly text-based magazines may not have been rather more literate than today’s generation that just scrolls social media feeds, clicks a heart under a meme, and occasionally skims an article or two (something which we do too, of course). But that might just be us being grumpy!
Advertising Rates (Reference)
Included below is one of the very few examples we found of advertising rates for a pulp fiction magazine, from 1933. The ad collection itself begins immediately following.
Weight Loss, Reducing Garments
Quit Drinking, Quit Smoking
Some ads in this category seem to advocate women secretly putting substances into the alcoholic beverages of their husbands which would cause them to taste unpalatable. Pretty amazing.
Sometimes the language of these ads requires a modern reader to read between the lines. Many in this category reference “unnatural delays” experienced by women, which appear to reference menstruation (one of the drugs is called “Menstrua”). It’s not entirely clear whether products referenced in those ads were understood to be abortifacients by the women who purchased them (one of them — not included here by accident — references pennyroyal, for example), or were merely thought to be emmenogogues (i.e., stimulating menstruation). It is social context of the time that would be helpful to understand.
Some euphemisms in this section refer to “hygienic” or “sanitary” products for men, which we suppose must have been condoms, though others appear to reference topical treatments, presumably to help prevent sexually-transmitted diseases (one of them mentions “Navy prophylactics”).
In this category, as well as the more overtly sexual ads in a subsequent group, we found that the most overt ads tended to appear in the more over-the-top so-called “girlie pulps.” Many of the pulps in that category include photos and/or drawings of nude or scantily clad women.
Prostate and gland health (especially for men over 40) appears to have been a major concern for decades, along with “vim,” “vigor,” and “vitality” (which we explore a bit more in another category later). Look for the ads pitching home prostate massagers.
Muscles, Vigor, Nerves, Massage
Muscle ads are a staple of these magazines, featuring fairly well known still today celebrity body-builders and exercise advocates like Charles Atlas, and some other figures who are not so well — known today, like Lionel Strongfort.
Look for the not exactly overt vibrator ads hidden in this category.
Hair Growth, Removal, Coloring
Listerine as a potential treatment for dandruff is our biggest revelation here…
We puzzled for some time over what “rupture” means, and settled on abdominal hernia as being the most common likely meaning (though other types appear to be mixed in, based on included diagrams). Rupture ads are oddly one of the most prevalent groups over decades, which is why they’re broken out into their own category here.
Medical Issues, Assorted
So many interesting items in this category! One of the things that we noted here were throwback terms and concepts related to “nerves,” liver, kidneys, etc. that we hardly use anymore in modern parlance. Also using tar to cure a cough is new to us, along with some others. Makes us wonder which of our contemporary terms and concepts will likewise seem ridiculous and out of date in a few decades…
Trench mouth is so gross sounding that we had to look it up!
Wow, Wikipedia claims that violet rays were invented by Nikola Tesla in their most basic form, and were used in what’s called electrotherapy. The story behind violet ray devices in general appears to be pretty fascinating. From a website called KookScience:
“Most manufacturers of violet ray instruments in the early twentieth century made grandiose claims regarding the medical applications of their devices, presenting them as positive cure-alls for all manner of physical ailments. Consequently, in the United States, such devices became the object of routine seizures by the Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) for misleading claims under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFD&C) of 1938, and violet ray instruments gradually ceased to be manufactured in the country over the following decades.”
Here are more ads for the Vi-Rex Violet Ray, depicted above.
- * This article discusses pandiculation in more detail for the curious.
Sales Agents Wanted
One of the most fascinating categories is what we call “sales agents wanted.” We feel it clearly depicts the steady march of industrialization and commercialization into every region of the United States, by tapping local area men (and women) as “agents” of the new order of salesmen…
Special highlights: tear gas fountain pens. Here’s a video of one being demoed. Handy!
There a lot more types of typewriter ads in this time period than are really represented here. They just didn’t jump out at us as much as some of the other categories!
Electrical, Radio, Telegraphy & Television Technician
Ads in this category are one of the most common of all across many decades, as the nation ramped up technologically to keep apace with industrialization.
The way deafness is discussed here feels very alien compared to how disability is talked about today. Also interesting to watch hearing aids come on the scene to resolve some people’s hearing issues.
Detective Training, Accessories
Detective training ads are one of the most common categories as well. Even though a great many pulp magazines were dedicated to detective fiction, these ads tend to appear across almost all the genres surveyed.
Like ads in all categories, it would be incredibly interesting to put together a more comprehensive research project to track down and document the history of these advertisers, and what kinds of operations they were running based on other public documents from the times.
Taxidermy, Hunting, Fishing, Outdoor Jobs
For some reason, taxidermy ads were huge in these magazines.
Sex, Love & Eugenics
This category is also one of the most well-represented across all types of magazines. Again, the most overt examples found in this set often tend to come from the “girlie” pulps, though you might be surprised how many of them could be found in more mainstream publications as well.
One extremely, shockingly, shamefully well-represented sub-category here is books about eugenics, which evidently bombarded Americans for decades in almost all genres of pulp magazines. It is really mind-blowing & we cannot emphasize enough how prevalent they were.
There is an interesting type example of one of these eugenics sex manuals captured on Flickr here, with some commentary. This Encyclopedia.com entry about one of the most popular titles below has some absolutely excellent analysis. Some excerpts included here for posterity:
“Winfield Scott Pugh’s introduction to Eugenics and Sex Harmony introduced readers to an unfamiliar aspect of the eugenics movement — open discussion of and enlightened attitudes about sex…
Many prominent Americans were eugenicists, and their views had broad support in public policy. Their goal was to insulate the American gene pool from “contamination.” Unfortunately, their advocacy led to the forced sterilization of the mentally ill; antimiscegenation laws, which forbade marriages between people of different races; and immigration restrictions…
Despite these disturbing objectives, eugenics was sold to the public as a method of family management. […] Eugenics was even presented as a mainstream science by most high school biology textbooks, and chairs for eugenics were established at prominent American universities.”
Surprisingly, some of these eugenics titles you can still buy on Amazon today!
Other items of note in this category include references to “French” or “France” which almost always seems to refer to something sexual, as far as we can tell. There’s also a sub-genre of erotic literature of the time we uncovered here related to sexual slavery & humiliation, which was a surprise to us to find represented.
- * Cheese cake photos were, according to Wikipedia, a more socially acceptable euphemism for pin-up photos.
False teeth and adhesives for them are an extremely strongly represented category of ads across decades! Presumably owing to lower levels of dental care than we see today in the developed world.
Cash for Coins, Cash Loans
Cash for gold or coins, and speedy loans schemes still prevail today among sketchy ads. So it’s nice to see they go back a good many decades!
Correspondence courses are again one of the top advertisers across all genres of pulp mags, in all decades studied. They routinely play on fears of losing jobs, missing out on promotions, or being unable for a man to support a family. It’s interesting how technical so many of them are in this group, and other similar categories (such as radio/tv/electrical technician courses listed above).
Occult, Mystic, Esoteric Knowledge
Of the occult, etc. category, the most well-represented of all is most definitely the Rosicrucians, who must have had a huge budget to run all these ads across almost all genres over the course of many decades.
Learn to Draw, Art for Money
Ads to teach you how to become an artist, and/or make art for money are a well-represented category in magazines from this era.
Poems, Songs for Money
There were a huge amount of ads during the period studied for songs and poems set to music. We suppose this is because the emerging music industry was a hungry monster needing to be fueled constantly with new material.
Writing for Money
Probably there are more in this make money writing category, but we forgot to include them.
In the era before radio and television really had a strangle-hold over modern culture and people still gathered in their homes to make music, ads to learn music at home appeared across all genres of pulp fiction magazine over decades.
These are really weird and silly. Definitely not a scam!
Ads for inventors, patents, etc. are another very well represented group across all categories and decades studied. The maw of industrialization & commercialization are always hungry for new products!
Another very common category are government job ads (usually for training courses). The heyday of these seems to have been during the Depression, up through World War II, but we’ve seen them represented in other decades prominently as well. We saw one that we failed to capture here that specifically called out the New Deal.
A big category is insurance. The most interesting part to us, like in many of these ads, is the pricing. The value of a dollar certainly has changed a lot!
Eveready had tons of advertisements, and they usually told some kind of exciting story of their own. One we found but which we failed to include featured a man draped over the fender of a car holding a flashlight with an Eveready battery because there was an emergency and his headlight was out. Big if true!
Food, Drink & Tobacco
Some fun stuff in this category. Watch for the Postum ads which villified coffee, that you can learn a bit more about here. Amazing how many of these brands are still around today.
There’s also a peculiar ad in this set from the early 1900s that proudly claims their brand of lard is “Good for the race.” Yikes!
Gadgets, Novelty Items, Toys
Tons of amazing finds in the gadgets, toys & novelties category. One of the most fun items here, with a long history, is the Johnson Smith company which usually had full-page ads of many different novelties.
Another curious discovery here is that apparently many Americans were still struggling to have hot water in their home as late as the early 1950s. That’s not very long ago!
Cosmetics, Clothing, Fashion
Here are a few random items that stood out to us, but which didn’t fit neatly in other categories.
We went down a major rabbit hole trying to resolve what the device likely was advertised above, and have settled on the Kelsey Excelsior, a type of platen press as being the most likely candidate. We’re actually looking at purchasing one ourselves possibly in the near future, because tabletop vintage printing presses are so amazing. We only wish we could get them for the prices they charged 100+ years ago! They don’t even make such machines like these new anymore, so far as we can tell.
Ending the collection with some bad old-fashioned WWII racist propaganda by Dr. Seuss seems like as good a way to finish as any (see also this BBC story for further context). We hope it may serve as a gentle reminder that vilifying the enemy of today may look shitty and stupid tomorrow. Unless, you know, it’s actually Hitler. Cause that guy sucked!
Thanks for reading!
We hope you enjoyed our survey of pulp fiction magazine ads. We only wish we had more time to do an even more comprehensive historical study, but hopefully this will empower and inspire others to take the work even further on their own.
Learn more about pulp fiction magazines
With that in mind, here are some interesting articles and resources we found in the course of our research that are worth checking out:
- Luminist Archive: Pulp Magazine section (many other excellent sections apart from pulps, like their dissident & paranormal periodicals sections)
- AV Club: The Lurid History of Pulp Magazines essay
- Wikipedia pulp magazines article (worth a read)
- Internet Archive has about 11K pulp magazines available
- Good article with some historical context about pulp magazines
- Black and white historical photos of pulp magazine news stands
- Birth of the girlie pulps essay (example magazines)
- Decent article about what makes pulp magazine writing unique
- Great New Yorker piece about the rise of mass media paperbacks from the ashes of pulp magazine industry
If you know of other good pulp fiction magazine and especially ad references, please include them in comments below. Thanks!
Note: images included here are used under Fair Use for educational and historical purposes. If you’re a copyright holder, and would like to request removal of an item, we’re happy to do so.