Time magazine was the child of two ambitious Yalies who grew up in a time and of a class that cultivated self-assurance and initiative.
The first issue hot off the press in March 1923 appeared when the two men behind it were only 24 and 25. They were Henry Robinson Luce, born in China on a Protestant mission, and Briton Hadden of Brooklyn, the son of a stockbroker, grandson of the president of the Brooklyn Savings Bank.
Both boys, born in 1898, reached the Hotchkiss School in 1913 and Yale three years later. Both overcame stiff competition to work on the Yale Daily News and Hadden was readily chosen as chairman. When he graduated, the class correctly voted him “most likely to succeed” and “hardest worker,” while Luce received “honors of the first rank.”
Even before graduation, the seed was planted for a collaborative enterprise down the road. In 1918 the two sophomores were stationed in a desolate military post in South Carolina. Recalled Luce at a dinner on Time’s 20th anniversary:
There’s a picture in my mind of an army camp in the last war; of two underaged second lieutenants, Brit Hadden and Harry Luce, two shavetails, two second looies doing training duty down in Camp Jackson, South Carolina. One night Brit and I were walking back to our barracks through the vast, sprawling camp. At each step, our feet sank ankle-deep into the sand. But we ploughed on for hours, and talked and talked. We were talking about “that paper”, about something we would do, cross our hearts, some day I think it was in that walk that Time began. Why do I say that Time was born during that long walk, of which I cannot remember a single phrase or sentence? On that night there was formed an organization. Two boys decided to work together. Actually that had probably been decided long before then. But that night seemed to settle it.
On graduating from Yale, however, the two went their separate ways: Luce to Oxford, England, then to Chicago as a reporter for the Daily News; Hadden to New York to report for the World. Fate soon brought them together on the Baltimore News, where they worked for three months, tasted the publishing world, gleaned something of the business side, and took off for New York to launch their dream in February 1922.
Initially this dream was a paper called Facts, intended, as the young men’s prospectus stated, “to serve the modern necessity of keeping people informed.” The title was abandoned when Luce, tired after a hard day, was struck by a subway ad, it was either TIME TO RETIRE or TIME FOR A CHANGE, and Hadden readily took to the new idea. The unique angle that would set Time apart from the masses of other newsprint was Luce and Hadden’s insistence that “people are uninformed BECAUSE NO PUBLICATION HAS ADAPTED ITSELF TO THE TIME WHICH BUSY MEN ARE ABLE TO SPEND ON SIMPLY KEEPING INFORMED.”
As Robert Elson points out in his comprehensive history of Time Inc., South Carolina might seem an unlikely spot for this idea to germinate, yet the degree to which people there were uninformed must have made a marked impression on the young men. Two or three talks a week were arranged just to tell the soldiers what the war was about. At the time, only one child in seven finished high school and far fewer, of course, went on to college.
“Time is interested,” wrote Hadden and Luce, “not in how much it includes between its covers, but in How MUCH IT GETS OFF ITS PAGES INTO THE MINDS OF ITS READERS.”
“It differs from other weeklies in that it deals briefly with EVERY HAPPENING OF IMPORTANCE and presents these happenings as NEWS (fact) rather than as ‘comment.'”
The first eight months in New York were arduous ones, devoted to writing the prospectus, raising money, learning about selling subscriptions, and devising a new writing style. Fortunately, friends proved generous with time and money: by October 1922, over $86,000 had been pledged; of the original 70 shareholders, 46 were Yale men, 14 were classmates, 14 belonged to the elitist club Skull and Bones. The surprise star behind the venture proved to be Mrs. William L. Harkness, mother of a Yale classmate, who came forth with $20,000 without blinking an eye. At the end of November a judge also by the name of Luce (a distant cousin) aided in incorporating the company, free of charge.
All was not rosy, though. The young men and their small staff worked steadily without a day off in their dreary office space, first on East 17th Street, then at 461 8th Avenue., and finally at 9 East 40th Street, where, despite the respectable location, they got no heat on weekends.
After two trial issues, the first issue of Time, “the Weekly Newsmagazine,” was published. A slim magazine of 32 pages, including covers, it was designed to be read in an hour, and sold for the then-high price of 15 cents. The cover sported not a movie actress but 86-year-old Joseph G. Cannon, then retiring from Congress. Inside were 22 departments, including “National Affairs,” “Foreign News,” “Books,” “The Theater,” “Law,” “Religion” (written by Luce), and others still featured today, as well as “Imaginary Interviews” with celebrities and commentaries called “Point with Pride,” and “View with Alarm,” which directed the reader to look, perhaps with a different viewpoint, at another page in the magazine. Editors Luce and Hadden had four staff writers and various contributors, including Archibald MacLeish.
Luce was pleased with the first issue, and hopes were high to meet the projected sales of 25,000, the entire printing. Actual sales fell far short, however: 9,000, with newsstand returns numbering 2,500 out of 5,000.
Needless to say, the editors persisted. (Hadden, however, died in 1929 at 31.) There were upheavals, fights, and fiascoes, but the original idea ultimately proved a winner.
Today, Time magazine sells over 4 million copies weekly, bringing in annual advertising revenues of over $250 million, and the Time Inc. empire provides work for some 25,000 people