What's Nostalgia Got To Do With It? —
Mementoes From The Trash Bin Of History
Vol. I, Issue I - April 2010

The Cosmopolitan
Edited by John Brisben Walker
May 1905
10 cents

Some 90 years from now, cultural historians will ask “Who, exactly, was reading Cosmo at the dawn of the century?” And Cosmo will answer them, for there on the cover the magazine announces itself as appropriate for “fun, fearless females.” Cosmo, they will conclude, was a magazine for girls who loved alliteration, orgasms, and enumerated lists, as in “5 Signs Your Boss is Hitting on You” and “9 Secret Spots to Meet Single Men.” If they have the fortune to come upon the November 2009 issue, they will find even more historical specificity, for this was the widely anticipated “Bad Girl Issue,” meant exclusively for “Sexy Bitches.”

This task is somewhat harder for present day Cosmo scholars looking backward. Cosmopolitan is not a magazine particularly concerned with what editors call “institutional memory,” but before any girl knew what to call her G-spot, the magazine was publishing Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, George Bernard Shaw, and the entirety of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in serial form. For whom they were publishing this range of material is hard to gauge, as the May 1905 edition of Cosmo uncooperatively fails to announce its desired demographic on the cover. Judging by the magazine’s contents, though, they were going for a naturalist philosopher with an interest in Jujitsu (Japanese, not Brazilian), a penchant for pop fiction, and some serious investments in the coal industry.

All of which is to say that the name “Cosmopolitan” was once rather more apposite than it is today. This was a literary rag for everyone and no one. From the plot-driven fiction to the quack-driven ads, editor John Brisben Walker put together a glorious mess of a magazine that puzzles as an object yet makes some sense of the insecure and optimistic time in which he held its reins. The year 1905 was a time of relative prosperity. William McKinley had been offed a few years back, but now Americans had the young, vigorous Theodore Roosevelt to lead them Westward. Wars were waged in far off, probably imaginary places like Russia and Japan. Einstein formulated the theory of special relativity. Las Vegas was founded.

A magazine aimed at everyone might as well ask the big questions, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that we begin with a discourse on what has driven man from his animal primitivity to his present state of civilization. (Answer, six pages later: his “desires.”) “The Philosophy of Staying in Harness” is no less than a reassurance that modern man has reason to live, undertaken with appropriate gravitas by the author, one James H. Canfield. “To get to the bottom of this question, it is necessary to go back to the origin of human activity,” Canfield announces a few sentences in, and you know you’re in for a long ride. It’s a plodding, anxious little piece that perhaps fits our stereotype of the time; a country sensitive about its relationship to Europe, striving to stake some claim on solemnity and sophistication.

After resolving the central question of modernity within the space of the first essay, the editors see fit to loosen up. The old-school Cosmo could be genuinely funny, as with an illustrated dialogue called “American Wrestling vs. Jujitsu.” In one corner we have H.F. Leonard, forthrightly explaining the benefits of good old American wrestling. His co-discussant, K. Higashi, is a smack-talking Jujitsu instructor. “I have met a number of western wrestlers,” Higashi reports, “and they are helpless as babes against the art of jujitsu.” Oh, Snap. Higashi readily admits that a regular wrestler could take down a regular practitioner of jujitsu, but advanced jujitsu artists are privy to ten “secret” tricks that might very well kill a wrestler. Leonard asks repeatedly to see them. “That would be impossible without incurring danger,” says Higashi, “which I am unwilling to do.” That’s why they’re called “secret tricks,” Leonard! After much back and forth in this vein and even some mid-dialogue tussling, the piece ends thusly:

Mr. Leonard—“I have yet to see anything that you can show me that we could not match here in America, and could in some ways improve upon.”

Mr. Higashi—“But I cannot show you our serious tricks.”

Mr. Leonard—“Ah!”

Nor is the fiction over-serious; on the contrary, Cosmo reminds us that short stories were once recruited to provide the same level of entertainment as modern serial television drama. We get to meet a precocious orphan, an amnesia-struck traveler, and a single woman in want of a husband. None of the writers here are angling for permanence, but they do what they seek to do brilliantly. I for one was crushed to come upon the “to be continued” at the close of Herbert Quick’s tale of a man who realizes, with the help of a beautiful hypnotist, that he has spent the past five years in some kind of trance. What will become of his new fiancé now that he is back to normal? Also, he seems to be falling in love with the hypnotist, who encourages him to fondle her when he is in his trance-state. Which brings me to Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Cosmo says you’re fat,” the great philosopher Sir Mix-a-Lot informed us in 1992, “well I’m not down with that.” Mix-a-Lot was, of course, talking about the modern Cosmo, with its infinite supply of new ways to lose five or 10 or 20 pounds. The rap artists would undoubtedly prefer the 1905 Cosmo, in which the text for an ad reads:

There is no excuse for a thinness of non-development. There is no excuse for narrow hips, bony neck, flat bust, or an undeveloped figure; nor do you need a gymnasium or massage, with their tedious exercises. To prove that Dr. Whitney’s Nerve and Flesh Builder will positively accomplish results, we will send you a trial treatment.

There are many such promises made in the thick advertising section of Cosmo, and they’re not all so winsome. A mustachioed doctor promises to cure cross eyes, and a sanitarium advertises itself as “the only place in the world where cancers are permanently killed.” There is a compress for men who “aspire to a state of physical perfection” and a baldness-curing hat. In these ads we have a clue to at least one quality shared by Cosmo’s turn-of-the-century readership; they were thought be credulous. The doctors are appealing to a kind of grasping instinct for instant self-improvement, and while that may not seem so different from modern-day-Cosmo’s promises of weight loss and frizz-less hair, the effect is considerably more sad.

Ideally, I’d like to effect a rip in the space-time continuum so that the two magazines on my desk might commune with one another. At a time when the magazine business is imploding and former Gourmet editors are trading food stamps, the November 2009 Cosmo is brassy, slick, and confident. Cover girl Kim Kardashian looks like she could easily kill a man. The aspirational, sex-soaked world Helen Gurley Brown created coheres in a way the old Cosmo couldn’t possibly grok, but the Cosmo of yore boasted a slanted sense of humor and an openness to oddity completely absent from the modern magazine. Herewith I offer, in a language the editors are sure to understand, Three Ways The New Cosmo Should Return to Its Roots: Lose the horoscopes, solicit some doggerel, and most importantly, bring back the trashy fiction. Even sexy bitches like a good story.

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