Maclean’s: The First 100 Years

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Maclean’s owes its origins to Toronto journalist-entrepreneur Lt.-Col. John Bayne Maclean. In 1905, the 43-year-old trade-magazine publisher purchased an advertising agency’s in-house business journal—along with its 5,000-strong subscription base. The Business Magazine, launched in October of that year, was a pocket-sized digest of articles gathered from Canadian, American and British periodicals. It sold 6,000 copies. Inside its bright blue cover, the fledgling monthly anointed itself, “the Cream of the World’s magazines reproduced for Busy People.” Its aim, Maclean wrote a year later, was not “merely to entertain but also to inspire its readers.”

But inspiration was clearly a two-way street. On the advice of a letter to the editor that opined, “Business Magazine is a trifle suggestive of the dry and technical, whereas your splendid monthly is anything but that,” Maclean changed the title to The Busy Man’s Magazine in time for the December issue. His audience reacted enthusiastically, and he quickly realized the potential of his brainchild: to provide a vehicle for national unity.

Canada at the time was deluged with American publications featuring American writers representing an American point of view. Maclean saw in his magazine an opportunity to provide writers in this country with a medium of their own through which they could forward a uniquely Canadian perspective. He made the bold decision to shift from a digest format to a national magazine. Already, the November issue had featured its first commissioned article and, in February 1906, the colonel ran his first homegrown cover story. That same month, he appealed, “Let us work together, publisher, advertiser and reader, and it will soon appear that the land can turn out magazines as good as the rest.” The national character of the magazine continued to mature, with more and more original articles and fiction by Canadian writers. In April 1907, the editors used the pages of the magazine to solicit manuscripts “telling the life stories of great Canadians, in business, in the Dominion.” At the same time, exploring such topics as imperial defence and the highly controversial question of immigration, The Busy Man’s Magazine found its voice on important political topics of the time.

After years of running at a deficit, the magazine finally turned a profit in 1910. The following year, it ran more original articles and fiction than reprints, and Maclean thought the time ripe for yet another name change. The masthead now simply read Maclean’s (the style varied in subsequent issues, with the uppercase L being definitively dropped in 1931). The colonel explained: “People have thought that Busy Man’s meant ‘Business Man’s.’ We felt that the new name would be more in keeping with the general nature of the magazine.” The final Busy Man’s Magazine (February 1911) offered articles on the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, penal reform and—a development that was becoming increasingly prominent in urban Canada—the skyscraper.

But in an economy rocked by the prospect of war, advertising and subscription revenues soon began to plummet. Cost-cutting measures included increasing the magazine’s dimensions—a move that allowed Maclean’s to share some print expenses with another of the colonel’s publications, a trade journal called Farmer’s. Maclean then hired editor Thomas B. Costain to see Maclean’s through the lean years. Described by British author Beverley Baxter as “a dreamy-eyed fellow with a soft voice and a whim of iron,” Costain initially oversaw three trade magazines, as well, but, by mid-1917, he had dropped his other responsibilities to become Maclean’s first full-time editor. During Costain’s tenure, the magazine’s war coverage shifted from relatively detached observations, presented largely through the eyes of other magazines in its Review section, to more engaged, critical appraisals of Canada’s role. Along with moving, first-person accounts of life at the front, Costain made room for his boss’s often controversial views. In August 1917, Maclean began a series of articles lambasting politicians for the way they were running the war. Because censorship regulations disallowed negative views of the war effort, Costain was forced to excise one of Maclean’s articles from the May 1918 issue. Citing a mandate to suppress “all printed matter which questions the policy adopted by the Allied Governments in connection with the prosecution of the War,” the chief press censor, Ernest Chambers, returned the article in question with the equivalent of three of its 10 1/2 columns excised. “I regret having to treat any matter written by you so harshly,” Chambers wrote in an explanatory letter to Maclean. “But there is need all right for it.”

Offending passages included a reference to “the tremendous handicaps of a bungling, clumsy British embassy,” as well as a lament that Canada’s military leaders had been refused “the support and opportunity [of] our damnable politicians.” Also cut were key points in Maclean’s criticism of censorship policy and his argument that, by revealing the harsh realities of the war, a more transparent press would go a long way toward quelling communist anti-war agitation. “The strongest evidence,” Maclean wrote, and Chambers nixed, “that actual facts, however bad, are what we need, is the latest experience in England. A large section of the labour classes kept in a fool’s paradise by the suppression of bad news were organizing against working on munitions and ships or enlisting; and they were passing resolutions demanding an immediate cessation of war. But when the realities of the situation were brought to them by success of the German drive, they voluntarily went in thousands to enlist. They had not been to blame, the responsibility is upon the politicians who were hiding facts to save their own skins—or their comfort and pockets.”

Costain is perhaps best remembered, however, for his support of the Canadian literary and arts scene, opening up Maclean’s pages to many now-familiar names. Contributions ranged from fiction by Robert Service, Lucy Maud Montgomery and O. Henry to commentary by Stephen Leacock and illustrations by C. W. Jefferys, F.S. Coburn and several Group of Seven members, including A.J. Casson, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald.

By 1919, the economy had improved. With a print run of 70,000 copies per issue and an even larger format (14.4 by 11 inches), the magazine prepared itself for a bright future. “The aim is to develop Maclean’s into a Canadian national weekly. If the progress that has been made for the past two years can be maintained, it will not be long before this high ambition will have been attained,” boasted an announcement in the October issue. By the following February, a new bi-monthly Maclean’s hit the stands. In keeping with the provocative tone set by the colonel’s wartime articles, this issue included the first of a four-part exposé of the illegal drug trade written by Emily Murphy, a regular contributor who later became one of the Famous 5 who helped to secure the vote for Canadian women. Murphy shocked readers with her investigation of how imports of cocaine and morphine had jumped astronomically in the preceding decade and were widely available on the streets of Canada’s big cities. It was not until 56 years later, however, that Costain’s high hopes to go weekly were finally realized.

Costain resigned the editorship that fall and, eventually, went on to write, among other novels, the international bestsellers For My Great Folly and The Black Rose. Under the new editor, J. Vernon Mackenzie, Maclean’s circulation and advertising revenue increased. The financial boon allowed the publisher to hold the magazine’s price down and—in the face of stiffer competition from U.S. periodicals—reduce the price in 1926 from $3 to $2 for a year’s subscription of 24 issues. Maclean’s attained a national prestige and reader loyalty that were to sustain it through the lean years ahead. It had proven, wrote Mackenzie before resigning in 1926, “that a Canadian magazine staffed by Canadian editors, and featuring predominantly the work of Canadian writers and artists, could merit the support of a discriminating Canadian public.”

Later that year, newspaperman H. Napier Moore assumed editorial control. Moore made clear from the beginning that, despite his British upbringing, Canadianism was to be “the foundation on which Maclean’s rests.” The magazine’s objectives, he claimed, were “to seek out, stimulate and develop Canadians who are striving for expression and who have talent. To smash down the inferiority complex which (due largely to the nation’s proximity to a larger and more assiduously advertised neighbour) has temporarily dimmed Canada’s faith in her heritage and her potentialities.”

In full rhetorical flight, Moore continued to describe the magazine’s mandate: “To show . . . that Canada already has a record of prodigious achievement, a record of which we are not sufficiently proud. To awaken a consciousness of what we possess. To reveal, without prejudice or bias . . . those things deleterious to the welfare of the nation.”

With the help of W. Arthur Irwin as managing editor, Moore not only increased the number of feature articles, but published covers and illustrations with a distinctly Canadian flavour. Stories about bootlegging, the defence of immigrants, and sports (a new department) filled the magazine’s pages. Maclean’s also held annual short-story competitions for Canadian writers with national themes, and once invited reader nominations for the greatest living Canadian. (They settled on insulin co-discoverer Frederick Banting.)

With the onset of the Depression, Maclean lowered the issue price from 20 cents to five cents, where it remained until 1943, when it doubled to 10 cents. Revenue losses were dramatic and sustained for most of the decade. A much slimmer magazine (of 40 pages per issue, down from its pre-Depression length of 100 pages) was devoted to first-hand accounts of people’s struggles to survive, analyses of the “national problem” of insanity, inflation, working women and Canada’s ability—or not—to defend itself. Maclean’s also struck a lighthearted note, doling out advice on how to spend the leisure time created by a work week reduced to 5 1/2 days: Why not take up Latin dancing? As well, a popular feature, “Parade,” contained a potpourri of humorous slices of life from across the country.

As the decade wore on, another looming war provided creative fodder for journalists. Lt.-Col. George A. Drew (later premier of Ontario and national Conservative party leader) wrote an outspoken series of articles denouncing armament makers as “salesmen of death,” and noting that, although the world’s great nations declared their opposition to the war, every one of them was piling up vast armaments. Drew also revealed inside information about government patronage with a defence contract for Bren Guns. His story rocked the country, leading to a series of high-level changes: The Bren Gun deal was renegotiated, then-prime minister Mackenzie King reshuffled his cabinet and Parliament established a completely new system of war purchases.

The Second World War brought about more change. Maclean’s produced an overseas edition, at its own expense, to meet the Forces’ hunger for news from home. The edition, known as the “bantam” because it carried no advertisements and was half the size of a regular issue, proved immensely popular. By February 1946, its final edition, the department of National Defence had distributed an estimated 800,000 copies. Wartime coverage included provocative photos by the celebrated Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, and stories by legendary Canadian war correspondents such as John Clare and Lionel Shapiro. An able crew of editors, vetting more than 3,000 submissions a year, may have been overzealous at times: After receiving a third request for revisions of a Christmas story Maclean’s had solicited, bestselling author Pearl Buck politely withdrew her story, citing her inability to meet the magazine’s high standards.

Under the auspices of W. Arthur Irwin (promoted from managing editor to editor in 1945), the magazine featured serious treatments of subjects of wide interest that were carefully documented and often beautifully crafted. Irwin’s objective was to offer “feature treatment of news,” and to cover subjects “of immediate personal concern” to readers. To do so well, he believed, required a team of dynamic writers and editors, which he set about establishing. Scott Young, Blair Fraser, Pierre Berton, W.O. Mitchell and Ralph Allen all joined Maclean’s in the postwar period.

In 1950—the era of the Cold War, the atom bomb and flying-saucer sightings—Irwin accepted a diplomatic posting with External Affairs and Ralph Allen moved into the editor’s chair. Under Allen, Maclean’s featured boldly illustrated articles on the rivers, prairies, small towns and cities of Canada. One highlight of this new nationalism was an essay on Canada’s North by Pierre Berton, by now the magazine’s managing editor. But there was still time to revere our roots, as shown by a book-length series on the royal family.

Regular features carried the bylines of a future literary Canadian Who’s Who: Robert Fulford, McKenzie Porter, Ian Sclanders, Peter C. Newman, Christina McCall, Barbara Moon, Eric Hutton, Peter Gzowski, Trent Frayne, June Callwood and Fred Bodsworth. Sidney Katz wrote provocative articles, challenging the criminal sentencing system, investigating artificial insemination and other topical issues. For one, “My 12 hours as a madman,” he volunteered to take LSD as part of a 1953 Saskatchewan study aiming to replicate the experience of schizophrenia. Recuperating from being in the grip of terrifying illusions, Katz was unable to write about the trauma until two weeks later. “We should insist,” he concluded, “that our best doctors, technicians and laboratories be immediately sent to rescue the schizophrenic from his endless hell. No goal can be more urgent or more humane. I know.”

The 1957 federal election was the setting for one of the magazine’s more embarrassing moments. Written before the results were in, Allen’s editorial on June 22, 1957, solemnly asserted, “We have given that [Liberal] government an almost unexampled vote of confidence, considering the length of its term in office.” Those words hit the newsstands the day after Canadians had given John Diefenbaker’s Conservative party a resounding mandate. The following issue’s retraction, “We were dead wrong on your vote,” called the gaffe an “unexampled case of editorial fatheadedness,” and went on to remark that the previous Maclean’s was “worthy of a place in our trade’s chamber of horrors.”

The 1960s were a time of turmoil. Canadians witnessed the maturation of Québécois nationalism, the flag debate, Canada’s centenary and Trudeaumania at home; abroad, they followed such developments as the Cuban missile crisis, anti-colonial struggles and Kennedy’s assassination. With five changes in editorship during the decade, Maclean’s, too, experienced turmoil—including a 1964 mass resignation over what then-editor Ken Lefolii considered undue editorial interference from the publisher. Still, its staff managed to produce quality fare. Among the most popular features were “Parade,” “Wit and Wisdom,” Mordecai Richler’s sardonic columns and James Simpkin’s “Jasper” the bear cartoons. To keep pace with international events, Maclean’s sent writers to different parts of the world: Blair Fraser reported from Israel, India and China, and Ralph Allen from Cuba, the Congo, and wartorn Cyprus. Covering domestic concerns, articles such as Lefolii’s “Is air travel obsolete?” and Berton’s “It’s time we stopped hoaxing our kids about sex” probed timely issues. And a 1964 piece by Gzowski, “The Maple Leaf’s money machine” is an example of somewhat lighter fare that also caused a stir. In it, Gzowski questions a claim by the Schick razor company that the entire hockey team had shaved with one blade, thereby igniting the ire of the advertising gods.

By the mid-1960s, Maclean’s was losing money for the first time since the end of the Depression and reverted to a monthly publishing schedule in January 1967. Two years later, it reduced its dimensions and raised its cover price from 25 to 35 cents. The revolving door to the editor’s office finally slowed in 1971 with the appointment of Peter C. Newman to the top post. Newman brought in work by such luminaries as poets Irving Layton and Alden Nowlen, and feature writers Michael Enright and Barbara Frum. His most enduring achievement was to shift the magazine’s tone and style to that of a newsmagazine.

On Oct. 6, 1975, Maclean’s resumed publishing every two weeks, and Canada’s first indigenous newsmagazine—with bureaus in Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Halifax, Washington and London—was born. The intention, spelled out in an editorial earlier that year, was to work “toward a weekly publication, as soon as the special conditions of the Canadian magazine industry make that a practical option.”

Those conditions, thanks to federal legislation limiting advertising tax write-offs to ads in magazines that were primarily Canadian in content and staffing, came three years later. On Sept. 18, 1978, Maclean’s issued its first newsweekly. The magazine would attempt, Newman wrote in that inaugural weekly, “to make sense out of the barrage of news that avalanches into most Canadian living rooms on a daily, almost hourly basis.” Publishing the country’s premier weekly newsmagazine means “offering our readers for the first time an interpretation and a response to world events that is entirely Canadian.”

Twenty-three years later, and 96 years after Lt.-Col. John Bayne Maclean launched The Business Magazine, Peter C. Newman’s words in the first weekly issue of Maclean’s hold true. The magazine remains timely, topical, relevant and Canadian.

One hundred years after the ink has dried on its first issue, Maclean’s remains committed to providing Canadians with a distinct and intelligent voice on the topics they care about most deeply.