On the News Stand Variant: Pulp Rivalry

Amazing Stories started this whole thing in 1926.  (I’m ignoring Weird Tales and The Thrill Book because neither was a “science fiction” magazine.)  In 1929 Gernsback lost his publishing empire to bankruptcy and later that same year launched two more science fiction pulps – Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories.  (I’m ignoring Air as it didn’t last a year and was folded into Science.)
Also less than a year later, a rival not connected to Gernsback was introduced – Astounding.

For nearly a decade, those three magazines represented the sole outlets for the new genre.  Until 1939, they were alone on the stands.

This also covers a time when there were only three titles, up until Campbell took over as editor at Astounding.  The changes he wrought would not really take effect until later in 1939, but it represents a good cut-off for a particular era of SF in the magazines.

A hint at rivalry is revealed by the changing cover prices as well.  Amazing had pegged itself at 25 cents a copy from the beginning and never wavered during this time frame, essentially saying “Amazing is worth a quarter a copy, even if the other magazines don’t think they are.”   Gernsback obviously saw no need to play the price game with Wonder, introducing that magazine with a price on par with Amazing.  On the other hand, the new kid on the block comes in at an introductory price a nickel under its two  rival’s.  Interesting, other “Clayton” titles of the era were priced at a quarter.  Either they had no confidence in the “Super-Science” title, or they felt a need to enter the SF market with a loss-leader.  I suspect the latter, because by 1930 it would have been pretty obvious that the readers of such fare were something of a different breed.

While Amazing Stories underwent no title changes, Science Wonder Stories dropped the “Science”, and Air Wonder Stories dropped the “Air” when the two merged to become Wonder Stories.  A few years later when the magazine was sold, “Thrilling” was added to bring the title in line with other magazines from the same publisher.  Astounding Stories of Super-Science alternated with Astounding Stories for a while before settling on Stories.


I did this post as a bit of an exercise.  I’d like readers to place themselves, as best they can, into the mind set of a nascent Science Fiction reader, when “Science Fiction”, as a thing, was not at all well-established.

Imagine what it would have been like to live in a world much “slower” than things are today.  A world where only 4 in 10 had a private telephone.  Regular radio broadcasts from “broadcasting networks” was just celebrating its first decade of operations – and was the ONLY form of electronic mass entertainment.  No TV.  No jet liners.  No space programs.  Penicillin had only been synthesized two years before.  Newspapers (many printing multiple daily editions) were the primary source for information.

Average incomes were under two thousand dollars a year.  Movie tickets were a quarter for a matinee.  A bottle (yes, bottle) of Coca-Cola cost a nickel.  “Separate but equal” was still a thing.  Hubble had just published his paper on the expanding universe the year before.  Goddard tested his liquid fueled rocket for the first time that same year.   People who extrapolated from these developments and imagined traveling to other worlds were considered to be “crazy”.

And, hopefully to give everyone a bit more context:  if you wanted to go see a film with someone:  you needed to get a newspaper to find out where and when that film was playing.  You needed to wait to meet that other person physically, or until they were home to receive a phone call, in order to coordinate schedules.  If you somehow missed that film during its theater run, it is unlikely that you would ever have another chance to ever watch it again.

Science Fiction Clubs had not yet been created.  The ONLY way you could find someone who shared your interest was if you ran into them at a news stand, or wrote to them, based on their address found in the magazine’s letter columns.  There were no conventions.  There were no fanzines.  It was truly an era in which being a fan was a “lonely thing”.

Now, imagine yourself arriving in front of your regular news stand or shop, 25 cents in coinage jingling in your pocket.  Oh, that’s right.  That change would have been made up of wheat pennies, Mercury dimes, Buffalo nickels and Standing Liberty quarters.

There you stand.  Decisions, decisions, decisions.  Which title are you going to buy this month?

Which of these pulp magazines managed to snare your interest and get you to buy a magazine instead of going to a couple of matinees?  Which one has chosen artwork that intrigues you the most?  And why?

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