Luce Founds Magazine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fortune magazine provided the elite in the 1930’s with a chronicle of American business and keen insights about the close connections among business, society, and government.

Summary of Event

The first issue of Fortune came out in February, 1930, seven years after the founding of the increasingly successful Time magazine, Time (magazine) owned by the same corporation. The first issue was impressive, with a black-and-bronze cover depicting a wheel of fortune. Fortune was conceived and designed by Henry R. Luce, cofounder of Time, who reportedly thought of the name while on a New York City subway. Luce believed that Time and other general newsmagazines devoted less space to business information than its importance warranted. The leading business magazines of the period—Dun’s Review, Barron’s, and Forbes—all concentrated on corporate finance and investment securities, and none was either stylish or well written. Luce considered the other, more broadly based, business magazines to be banal or worse, full of blatant puffery of individual businesspeople and corporations. [kw]Luce Founds Fortune Magazine (Feb., 1930) [kw]Fortune Magazine, Luce Founds (Feb., 1930) [kw]Magazine, Luce Founds Fortune (Feb., 1930) Magazines;Fortune Fortune (magazine) Business;periodicals [g]United States;Feb., 1930: Luce Founds Fortune Magazine[07540] [c]Publishing and journalism;Feb., 1930: Luce Founds Fortune Magazine[07540] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb., 1930: Luce Founds Fortune Magazine[07540] Luce, Henry R. Macdonald, Dwight MacLeish, Archibald Hodgins, Eric

Luce believed that the exciting panorama of American business in the late 1920’s offered more than enough promising material for a well-written and lavishly produced monthly. The prepublication advertising prospectus for Fortune stated that no other magazine “succeeds in conveying a sustained sense of the challenging personalities, significant trends and high excitements of this vastly stirring Civilization of Business.” The prospectus promised that Fortune would do this, a commitment that Luce kept.

The first issue, in February, 1930, included about a dozen articles on such disparate but business-related subjects as freezing foods, glass in manufacturing, commercial orchid growing, hog farming, the Rothschilds, and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The RCA article was an early example of the “corporation story,” a distinct Fortune innovation in business journalism. Such stories included detailed analysis of the policies, problems, structure, finances, and key people of a single corporation. Later, similar articles would become a feature of such business magazines as Forbes and BusinessWeek. Although the articles during Fortune’s first two years were confined largely to business, by the mid-1930’s Fortune included thoughtful examinations of government and social issues in general, with an eye to their effect on business.

The July, 1935, issue of Fortune contained, for example, seven feature articles. Only two could be described as corporate stories, one a richly illustrated feature on Anheuser-Busch and the other on U.S. Smelting and Refining. Fortune pointed out that each of these companies had been helped by policies of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration: Anheuser-Busch by the end of Prohibition, and U.S. Smelting and Refining by the June, 1934, Purchase of Silver Act. The remaining five articles included a piece on cotton that heavily emphasized the effect of Henry A. Wallace’s government-funded crop-reduction program; a fifteen-thousand-word portrait of Harry Hopkins, a close adviser to Roosevelt and administrator of the controversial Federal Emergency Relief Act; a lengthy article, including a number of specially commissioned paintings by a noted artist, on the restoration of colonial Williamsburg; and the first of a groundbreaking series of three articles on “women of business” that discussed in detail what was described as the “feminization of the American office.” This account of the women’s movement was remarkably prescient, reading much like something that could have been written decades later.

It was also in the July, 1935, issue that Fortune introduced what is generally credited as being the first published public opinion poll. Public opinion polls Fortune’s managing editor, Eric Hodgins, decided that the use of surveys to discover consumer preferences could be extended to help illuminate public opinion on political, social, and general economic matters. The first publication of Elmo Roper’s Roper, Elmo Fortune Survey was touted as a “journalistic service” to business. The first survey issue examined public opinion concerning Senator Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” program, various kinds of cigarette and automobile preferences, and beliefs about proposed new utility taxes.

When Luce and his associates planned Fortune in 1928, they could not know that the economy would soon be sliding into a deep depression. Otherwise, Briton Hadden, Hadden, Briton Luce’s chief partner in Time Inc., Time Inc.;Fortune may not have agreed to put up $160,000 in seed money from Time Inc.’s treasury. By the summer of 1929, a dummy copy had been prepared. It was used, along with a money-back guarantee, to entice quality advertisers for the first issue. Fortune was not inexpensive for advertisers or subscribers. Its newsstand price was one dollar, compared with five or ten cents for typical magazines of the 1930’s. Its advertising space rate was also high. A dollar’s worth of advertising in Fortune reached about 90 readers, fewer than the 140 reached with a dollar of advertising in The New Yorker or more than 280 for advertisements in Time.

Nevertheless, selling advertising space in Fortune proved to be relatively easy in spite of the Depression. Some 779 pages of advertising were sold during 1930, with this figure rising to 1,253 pages by 1934. The exceptional composition of Fortune’s readership accounted for its commercial success. As a 1934 advertising sales brochure pointed out, Fortune’s ninety thousand subscribers included more than half of the Americans with family incomes above $25,000. The combined income of its subscribers was said to surpass the total for all the income earned by taxpayers in thirty-three of the forty-eight states.

Because Fortune reached the nation’s business elite, it attracted two types of advertising. Its primary subscribers represented a key industrial market for machinery, advertising agencies, and office equipment. Business leaders also took the beautiful magazine issues home, as indicated by one estimate that each issue was read by ten people. The families of Fortune subscribers provided a top market for luxurious consumer goods and services. Ads for fine jewelry, Packard and Pierce-Arrow automobiles, expensive liquors, and yachts filled each issue.

Fortune’s artistic magnificence as a periodical was unparalleled and obviously appealed to America’s elite. Striking photographs, portraits, maps, and drawings richly illustrated the text. Its cover, printed on boldly textured paper stock, was so heavy that the first issue weighed almost two pounds. Among the famous artists commissioned to provide paintings and etchings for Fortune’s covers and inside pages were Rockwell Kent, Edward Wilson, and Diego Rivera, who illustrated a feature story in the October, 1938, issue on the ongoing Mexican revolution. Fortune also became famous for its innovative photography. Margaret Bourke-White, Bourke-White, Margaret a well-known industrial photographer, and Erich Solomon, Solomon, Erich who coined the phrase “candid camera,” provided action-oriented pictures of industrial enterprise, from assembly lines to boardrooms. Photography;Fortune (magazine)

Fortune also achieved its promise of high literary standards. In assembling the writing staff of Fortune, Luce decided to hire, as at Time, young writers fresh from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Luce believed that broadly educated and talented writers made better business journalists than did those trained in commerce. The senior writing and editorial staff of the 1930’s included such literary luminaries as Archibald MacLeish, Dwight Macdonald, James Gould Cozzens, James Agee, and poet Russell Davenport. Fortune also broke ground by hiring top women’s college graduates for its staff research positions.

This extraordinary publication enjoyed great success, with both its circulation and its advertising revenues rising during the 1930’s. During its first year of publication, Fortune averaged 34,000 subscribers and had ad revenue of $354,000. It was operating at a profit by the end of 1930. By 1937, the average circulation was 143,000, with more than $1,726,000 in ad revenue. Moreover, with profits from Time going into the development of the new mass-circulation Life, the earnings from Fortune in the late 1930’s probably saved Luce’s empire from going into the red.


Fortune represented, in many ways, an entirely new kind of business periodical. In depicting what it called the “business civilization” of the United States, Fortune pioneered the “corporation story,” which provided a story, illustrations, and in-depth analysis of an individual corporation, with emphasis on the human drama inevitably involved. Sometimes such stories resulted in much more being publicly revealed than management wanted to be known about corporate matters. Fortune generally kept its prepublication promise not to flatter important individuals or defend business in all matters.

Luce believed that the public interest was invested in large corporations. As a result, Fortune’s editorial policies successfully challenged the business journalistic tradition that a public corporation’s internal workings were private. Even when subjecting its corporate subjects to a critical eye, Fortune was relatively sympathetic to the purposes of American business. Castigated by some corporate chiefs as well as by certain radical spokesmen, Fortune managed to occupy a middle ground between the banal business puffery of much business journalism and the radical publications whose antibusiness voices were increasingly shrill.

In marked contrast to most business journalism during the difficult Depression years, Fortune adjusted well to the changing times and the New Deal. Articles during Fortune’s first two years were confined largely to business operations and products and to individual corporations, businesspeople, and prominent families. Fortune’s contents after 1932 shifted to a much heavier emphasis on social and political movements and to the New Deal. Most issues in the middle and late 1930’s included stories on the personalities of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” and the new agencies, public works projects, and other features of the New Deal. Given the well-documented liberal or even radical bias of many of Fortune’s writers, such features were often pro-New Deal. Luce was, at best, lukewarm to Roosevelt, but he gave his writers latitude in expressing their own opinions.

An important and enduring symbol of Fortune’s recognition of the increasingly close relationships among business, society, and government is the Fortune Survey. The first Fortune surveys of public opinion in 1935 indicated general public support for the New Deal socioeconomic changes taking place. A large majority of respondents, for example, believed that the government should guarantee that every man who wanted to work had a job. President Roosevelt became a regular follower of the Roper Fortune Survey and always tried to obtain the results in advance of their publication.

Fortune not only claimed to understand the new impacts of government on business but also, in some cases, welcomed it. In a notable 1938 series about the struggle between business and government, the consistent theme was “reconciliation, an end to the sterile and unnecessary warfare between American business and the New Deal.” These editorials were widely reprinted and commented on nationwide. Some corporate leaders, such as Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., chairman of General Motors, found much to commend in the series.

The highly influential Fortune generally supported rapprochement between the Roosevelt administration and big business in the late 1930’s. Perhaps the most valuable legacy of its influence would be the cooperation that took place between government and business during World War II. As a senior Fortune staffer wrote, the business and government series did much to pave the way for the collaboration soon to be required by the war effort. During World War II, Fortune did its part by scaling back on its lavish graphics and increasing its coverage of military-related industries beginning in 1940.

Fortune in the 1930’s not only was beautiful and profitable but also became increasingly influential in the highest levels of American society and government. It was, as Archibald MacLeish wrote in a book of recollections of Fortune staffers published in 1980, “a paradox from the start. Its first issue appeared in the worst depression of modern history, and the magazine was saved from disaster only by altering its fundamental assumption about the world.” John A. Davenport, another Fortune writer from the period, also recalled in the 1980 book that “Henry Luce’s boldest assumption in founding Fortune was that American business was more fascinating than stock and bond quotations and carloading statistics, the stock in trade of most previous financial journalism.” Magazines;Fortune Fortune (magazine) Business;periodicals

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Augspurger, Michael. An Economy of Abundant Beauty: “Fortune” Magazine and Depression America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Discusses the philosophy behind Fortune in its early years and the magazine’s influence on American culture. Includes endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baughman, James L. Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media. 1987. Reprint. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Provides an excellent review and analysis of the unique roles of Time, Fortune, and later Life within American society and Luce’s marked influence on these publications. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elson, Robert T. Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise. 3 vols. New York: Atheneum, 1968-1986. Outstanding institutional history of Time Inc. In volume 1, chapter 12 presents a perceptive view of the founding and first years of Fortune.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lubar, Robert, et al. Writing for “Fortune”: Nineteen Authors Remember Life on the Staff of a Remarkable Magazine. New York: Time Inc., 1980. Collection of brief essays by former Fortune staff researchers, writers, and editors addresses subjects ranging from concern about political ideology to typography and the staff’s penchant for Scotch. Provides a nostalgic view of Fortune’s first decade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macdonald, Dwight. “Fortune Magazine.” The Nation 144 (May 8, 1937): 528-532. After his widely publicized resignation in 1936 as a senior writer for Fortune, Macdonald wrote a three-part series in The Nation about Time Inc. In this article he concludes that despite its apparent objectivity, Fortune was dominated by capitalist ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Okren, Daniel, ed.“Fortune”: The Art of Covering Business. New York: Gibbs Smith, 1999. Presents reproductions of every Fortune cover from the first issue in February, 1930, to December, 1950, when the magazine changed its approach to cover art. Includes a brief introductory essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitfield, Stephen J. A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984. Fascinating account of Macdonald’s political changeability. In Archibald MacLeish’s opinion, Macdonald was Fortune’s most valuable writer, but Luce began to doubt Macdonald’s value as the writer tried to record his increasing radicalism in the pages of Fortune. Excellent description of the complicated interaction between Luce and his writers.

Lippmann Helps to Establish The New Republic

Forbes Magazine Is Founded

Reader’s Digest Is Founded

Luce Founds Time Magazine

Ross Founds The New Yorker

Luce Launches LIFE Magazine

Categories: History