1920s life magazine covers

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Few people know that the true FIRST “Life Magazine“ was a weekly humor publication created by the Life Publishing Company of Manhattan, New York City. It was known for its cartoons, art, amusement, news, personalities, sport, theater reviews, and more. The magazine seems like a predecessor of The New Yorker, with similar use of cartoons, poetry, jokes, cover art, and insights into culture, politics, and high society. These Life magazines measure around 11″ x 9″.

The descriptions below represent a SMALL sample of the content of each issue – there is MUCH, MUCH more than I have listed.

Much of the content consists of brief opinions, quips, social commentary, notes on subjects that have appeared in other publications of the time, cartoons,and other short pieces, thus cannot be easily described. The issue title, e.g. “Air Ship Number” always reflects the subject of some of the art and other content inside. You can expect that every issue has wonderful art and ads inside and much more. A (?) means that the artist signature was nearly readable, but not quite. I do my absolute best to correctly identify major contributors.

Please note : These magazines may be framed (of course) but are generally not pristine enough to be what I grade as “framable.”. Covers typically have light soil and rubbing and often have a central crease – some must have been folded when mailed. Because they are so rare, I may list damaged copies for sale so that a usually-expensive issue is available at a much lower price to those who simply wish to read it.


The first Life magazine was founded in 1883 by John Ames Mitchell, who ran the magazine until he turned it over to Charles Dana Gibson, the famous illustrator, in 1918. The magazine was published until the early 1930’s, when the financial difficulties of the Great Depression caused it to fail.

Publisher John Ames Mitchell was a man with strong opinions and the perfect forum for voicing them. He was not shy about using his magazine to campaign on different social issues, with the result that he and his magazine were frequently cited in lawsuits. He was an habitual winner of the suits and this only increased his popularity and that of his magazine. In publishing the first Life magazine, Mitchell introduced the first humor magazine to find acceptance in respectable homes. It is possible to stay in the Original Life Publishing building, which is now the Herold Square Hotel – much of the Original Life magazine cover art is framed on their walls.

Mitchell brought together and often helped to introduce many of the artists and writers who later became well known American favorites. For example, Norman Rockwell’s first cover for Life, Tain’t You, was published May 10, 1917. Rockwell’s paintings were featured on Life’s cover 28 times between 1917 and 1924. Robert Ripley published his first cartoon in Life in 1908, later becoming the first publisher of Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame. Charles Dana Gibson sold his first professional pen-and-ink drawing to Mitchell in 1886, later creating some of the famous Gibson girls for their first appearance in print … in Life magazine. The very popular John Held, Jr. contributed cover art with jazz musicians and flappers. Among many famous names between the covers, we find Dorothy Parker (poetry and prose), Franklin Pierce Adams (poetry), Robert E. Sherwood (silent film critic), and Robert Benchley (drama editor).

The name “LIFE Magazine” was purchased by Henry Luce, who used it for an entirely different kind of magazine published by Time, Inc. starting in 1936. We all are familiar with Time’s popular photojournalism magazine, characterized by the ubiquitous Red and White logo. This SECOND LIFE magazine, which makes up the bulk of our website, was published continuously from November of 1936 until December of 1972, and intermittently after that. For more information on these Life Magazines.

The most recent Modern Graphic History Library exhibit, Jazz Age Illustration, features several illustrations from Life magazine. The publication had its heyday in during the 1920s before eventually being overcome by the Great Depression. Before Life was bought by Time, Inc. the publication fostered the career of many famous illustrators, some of which include Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, F.X. Leyendecker, Rea Irvin, and others.

Below are some highlights of Life magazine from the Jazz Age. During this era, Life catered to the more risqué themes of the era and began publishing jokes, cartoons and even all-burlesque issues. Life also published the humorous writings of Frank Sullivan, Dorothy Parker, and John Held Jr. to compete with rivals Puck and Judge. The result of such a frivolous time in American culture results in some of the most striking and interesting cover illustrations of the publication’s history. Modern Graphic History Library has numerous examples of Life magazine in the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Rea Irvin

Rea Irvin (1881-1972) was born in San Francisco and began his career working as a cartoonist. After moving to the East Coast in 1906, he created cover illustrations for publications such as Red Book and Cosmopolitan. Most notably, Irvin served as the first art editor of the New Yorker and was responsible for creating the typeface and the first cover illustration.

Garrett Price

Garrett Price (1896-1979) was born in Kansas and studied at the University of Wyoming and the Art Institute of Chicago. Price was known as a cartoonist and worked for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker throughout his career. In the 1930s, he created a Sunday comic strip titled “White Boy” about the adventures of a young boy who learns to live peacefully with a tribe of Native Americans.


Penrhyn Stanlaws

Penryhn Stanlaws (1877-1957) was born in Scotland as Stanley Adamson. Stanlaws would eventually move to New York where he built hte Hotel des Artistes before he moved to Hollywood to direct serveral films. Stanlaws was well-known for his illustrations that depicted beautiful women on publication like the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Life, and others.

Percy Crosby

Percy Leo Crosby (1891-1964) was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. During high school, Corsby left to work for in the art department of The Delineator. He was shortly promoted to an artist but would only stay with the publication for one issue. At the age of 17, he sold a drawing to Life and eventually found work as a cartoonist. Crosby was best known for his comic strip Skippy, which was an inspiration for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

Oliver Herford

Oliver Herford (1863-1935) was born in Britain and was well known for his poems and quotes in addition to his illustrations. Herford was an American writer, artist and illustrator and contributed to The Mentor, Life and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Vintage Magazine Covers with a “Wow Factor”

Back in the day, it was considered to be very prestigious to have your artwork or photograph featured on a magazine cover, and some of the greatest artists of our time designed magazine covers.

While we have by no means even begun to scratch the surface of what is available with this collection, you will see the work of Jean Cocteau, Dr. Seuss, and various international contemporary artists displayed in a collection that spans from the beginning of the twentieth century to the eighties.

Some were chosen for their vintage value, some for their artistic excellence, and some because of their humour.

Here are over 40 great examples of vintage magazine covers with a ‘wow’ factor.

Life Magazine, October 9, 1913

Artist: R.M. Crosby
This semi-nude figure was extremely risque for the time.

Vogue, Feb 15, 1917

Artist: Unknown
This whimsical illustration begins to evoke an early modern style seen more widely in the 1920’s.

McCall’s August 1917

Artist: Dugald Walker
Walker was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement and Impressionism.

Dada Magazine, December 1918

Artist: M. Janco
M. Janco did cover art for a few of the editions of this seminal magazine of Dadaism.

Life Magazine, February 2, 1922

Artist: “The Flapper” by Frank X. Leyendecker
Leyendecker was known for his stained glass as well as his advertising illustration work. This cover is his most famous.

Vogue, 1926

Artist: Eduardo Garcia Benito
Benito did a number of Art Deco style covers for Vogue in the 1920’s.

People’s Home Journal, February 1924

Artist: Walter Maya
This beautifully symmetrical illustration was done by a lesser-known illustrator that did a few more covers for the People’s Home Journal.

Life Magazine, February 18, 1926

Artist: John Held, Jr.
Held sold his first drawing to Life at age fifteen and illustrated for many magazines throughout the flapper age. People would send him blank cheques and beg for original drawings.

Vogue, November 1927

Artist: George Lepape
After studying at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Lepape produced innumerable Art Deco illustrations.

Life Magazine, September 28, 1928.

Artist: Russell Patterson
This comic artist studied at the Chicago Institute of Art and under Claude Monet in Paris from 1920-1925.

Gran Bazaar, February/March 1930

Artist: Lucio Venna
Venna was an Italian contemporary artist.

Illustracao, September 1930

Artist: Antonio Fino
This Portugese design magazine featured some outstanding graphic designs.

Vanity Fair, 1930

Artist: Jean Carlu
While this Cubist-influenced designer was known for his posters, he did a number of illustrations for Vanity Fair.

Judge, March 19, 1932

Artist: Vernon Grant
Vernon Grant is best known for creating the Snap, Crackle and Pop characters for Rice Krispies cereal. He was also a prolific illustrator of many magazine covers.

Natura, 1933

Artist: Paolo Garretto
Garretto was a giant in the advertising world in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but fell out of favour both during and after the war due to his political alignments with Mussolini.

Popular Science, June 1933

Artist: Edgar Franklin Wittmack
Wittmack was best known for his Popular Science covers produced during the Depression.

Popular Science, April 1933

Artist: Edgar Franklin Wittmack

Life, May 1934

Artist: Dr. Seuss
Theodor Geisel began his career as a prolific illustrator under his own name, but began adopting his more well-known name “Dr. Seuss” as he wanted to start marketing himself as a children’s book illustrator.

Story March 1940

Artist: Unknown
This women’s fashion magazine from Japan featured beautiful illustrations on its covers.

Saturday Evening Post, October 6, 1945

Artist: Alajalor
This lesser-known illustrator also did covers for the New Yorker and further covers for the Post.

Gourmet, January 1947

Artist: Henry Stahlhut
This artist illustrated a few covers for Gourmet, which announced that it was folding in 2009.

Fortune, November 1951

Artist: Jerome Snyder
Leo Lionni, a Dutch-Born artist was the Art Director for Fortune and the co-editor of Print Magazine. He oversaw the production of Fortune covers for a few years in the 1950’s. The artist, Jerome Snyder, was the first Art Director of Sports Illustrated.

“Gebrauchsgraphik – International Advertising Art”, January 1952

Artist: Unknown
Gebrauchsgraphik was an important forerunner of the design and graphics magazines that we have today.

“Gebrauchsgraphik – International Advertising Art”, February 1952

Artist: Unknown

“Gebrauchsgraphik – International Advertising Art”, December 1952

Artist: Jean Cocteau
Artist, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was one of the more influential artists of the 20th century.

“Gebrauchsgraphik – International Advertising Art”, August 1952

Artist: Breker

People, July 29, 1953

Photographer: Unknown
This was just one of the many magazine covers featuring the famous actress, Marilyn Monroe. Note that it was taken before the age of Photoshop and she still looks awesome.

Fortune, April 1953

Artist: N. Foujita
Another remarkable Lionni cover for Fortune, drawn by N. Foujita.

Print Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1955

Artist: Unknown
This popular magazine for graphic designers and artists in the magazine and advertising industries got its start in 1940.

Glamour Photography, Summer 1957

Artist: Unknown
This is a great example of the “girlie magazine” covers of the 1950’s. Other titles that feature similar covers are “Wink” and “Titter”. In order to get around morality laws of the time, publishers had to present the magazine as art-based.

Better Homes & Gardens, September 1958

Artist: Jan Balet
Balet studied at the Arts and Crafts school in Munich and left in protest after Hitler took over Germany. His prolific work appeared in many fashion magazines and in advertising. He passed away in 2009.

Esquire, January 1958

Artist: Unknown
Esquire frequently featured covers with outstanding design.

The Journal of Commercial Art, October, 1959

Artist: Unknown
This cover appeared in the first year of the Journal, now known as Communication Arts magazine.

Journal of Commercial Art, August 1961

Artist: Lowell Herrero
Herrero’s career as an illustrator and fine artist has spanned the Depression, WWII, and the rise of Silicon Valley. He now devotes most of his time to his paintings.

Design, June 1961

Artist: Unknown
This cover was conceived under the eye of Design’s Art Director, Ken Garland.

Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1961

Artist: Unknown
This cover takes Sports Illustrated back to its roots in the 1930’s, when it was known as “American Golfer”.

Design, February 1968

Artist: Unknown
This cover refers to the fading influence of the “Mod” culture of Carnaby Street in London. Note Batman.

Which?, July 1968

Artist: Unknown
This UK magazine is still published today as the British equivalent of Consumer Reports.

November 1968, Design

Artist: Unknown

Life, August 21, 1970

Photographer: Unknown
This cover marks the transition from “swinging 60’s” fashion to the more dowdy early 70’s.

Car, November 1973

Photographer: Unknown
The 1970’s were responsible for some of the worst “lemon cars” in history. This cover confirms it.

Viva Magazine, August 1974

Photographer: Unknown
This cover speaks for itself.

Compute, July 1984

Artist: Harry Blair
While we could have included any number of corny 80’s computer magazines in this collection, this cover is notable for its coverage of the new Apple IIc and the promise of creating graphics “the easy way” with Atari Artist.

Print Magazine, March/April 1988

Artist: Unknown
Print continues to be a go-to source for those in the design industries and fans of popular culture.

Do you have a favourite magazine cover from back in the day? Please post it in our comments section.