The typeface. The diereses. The profile of Eustace Tilley. All are characteristics of a magazine so iconic and tied to metropolitan chic that it had to be titled The New Yorker. But when founder and editor Harold Ross conceived of the publication in the mid-1920s, things were up in the air both creatively and financially. He had to secure the talent and the money to make his magazine a success. For the first, he turned to his close friends and fellow seat-mates at the historic Algonquin Round Table: Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and other wits who every morning would, to paraphrase Parker, brush their teeth and sharpen their tongues.
But money Ross had in shorter supply. He and wife Jane Grant (not Jane Ross, mind you — Grant was an active member of the feminist Lucy Stone League) had some funds between them, but they needed to raise more. They turned to poker buddy Raoul Fleischmann — you may be more familiar with his family business from your grocery store baking aisle — who expanded his gambling to the publishing world and put down an additional $25,000. Ross then authored this prospectus, which set out to capture the voice and sophistication of his nascent weekly. “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque,” it announced, immediately hitting the tone of arch snootiness that would define The New Yorker for 100 years.
From this image of the prospectus, you can see the lettering for The New Yorker already in place, accompanied by a border of peacocks reflecting the art deco style of its Jazz Age era. The misalignment of the decoration, visible in the border’s lower quadrant, suggests this was a test printing for Ross’ own review. The penultimate page lists its advisory editors, a murderer’s row of Algonquin regulars. However, their role at the magazine was sketchy at best — more a personal favor for appearances and investor reassurance than any sort of official position. Ross called the move “the only dishonest thing I ever did.”
From its first installment on February 21st, 1925, through the following November, The New Yorker was on shaky ground. Early issues did not sell well, Woollcott and Ferber pulled out as advisory editors, and Fleischmann grew increasingly nervous about his investment. Big-name contributors often wrote under pseudonyms — Dorothy Parker as Constant Reader and Last Night, for example — signaling a lack of confidence in the magazine, as well as Ross’ early preference of anonymous authorship to better develop a recognizable house style. But any hint of trepidation is absent from this prospectus, which envisions and embodies the confidence (dare we say swagger?) of its ultimate success, when it was a shout and a murmur on every New York tongue.
The New Yorker prospectus represents the birth of an influential and quintessentially New York publication, a treasure of journalistic history. That’s why it is one of the over 250 items that will be on display as part of the Library’s permanent Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, opening Friday, September 24th, 2021. The exhibition includes objects spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections. Free timed tickets are now available here.
This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures. We'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.