Fifty-five years ago, sex went mainstream. Since debuting in December 1953 with a snapshot of Marilyn Monroe gracing its cover, Hugh Hefner's Playboy helped thaw America's once-frigid attitude toward human sexuality. Playboy remains the genre's big kahuna, and its stew of titillating photo spreads, risqué party jokes and, yes, interesting articles was the original recipe for success in the pornographic magazine business. But the strange, seamy history of smut on paper neither began nor ended with Hef's brainchild.
Soon after the art of photography emerged in the mid-19th century, photographing naked women became one of the first orders of business. The French ruled the early days of pornography publishing, distributing programs for Parisian cabarets adorned with topless dancers as early as the 1870s. While some Americans attempted to import racy material from Europe, the industry was blunted in the U.S. by the Comstock Act, an 1873 federal statute that restricted the transport of obscene literature through the mail. (Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was perhaps the anti-Hefner, a Puritanical zealot who is said to have bragged of the number of "libertines" he drove to suicide by prosecuting their sins.)
Enterprising publishers quickly found ways to circumvent the Comstock Act and similar strictures. At the beginning of the 20th century, the magazine Vanity Fair—no relation to today's glossy—depicted women of loose morals wearing men's trousers, and in the process earned a reputation as "the raciest thing around," according to Dian Hanson's The History of Men's Magazines, Vol. 1. As Hanson notes, the 1920s also marked the debut of Dawn magazine, a publication concerned with the erotic intersection of "eugenics, nudism and figure studies." By the end of that decade and into the 1930s, the nascent comic book industry was a leading purveyor of porn. Folios known as "Tijuana Bibles" — 2-by-4-in., eight-page booklets named after their alleged place of publication — portrayed popular cartoon characters and movie stars (from Popeye to Al Capone) engaged in various immoral acts.
Compared to these early efforts, the magazine Hefner hammered out in the living room of his Chicago apartment was a paragon of high culture. Nudity aside, Hef conceived of Playboy as an aspirational publication — one which rightly framed sex as an all-American pursuit and sexual conquest as a badge of honor. The first issue of the magazine — which would have been called Stag Party but for threats of copyright infringement — sold about 54,000 copies, cementing the allure of Hef's smoking-jacket sensibility. By the swinging 1970s, the magazine's circulation surpassed seven million.
Unsurprisingly, publishers tried to piggyback on Playboy's winning formula. Penthouse magazine, an upstart competitor formed by Bob Guccione in 1965, closely mirrored Playboy in format, with a lascivious mix of interviews, fiction features, cartoons and narrative pieces surrounding the buxom centerfolds. But in its choice of images, Penthouse lacked Playboy's sexual subtlety. (Professional competition aside, Hef and Guccione actively disliked each other; while Guccione promoted the rumor that Hef was a "closet queen," the Playboy publisher, noting Guccione's cultivation of a similarly decadent lifestyle, remarked that "If I were he, I'd want to be me, too.") Larry Flynt's Hustler, founded in 1974, swung the pendulum even farther, gleefully relinquishing any claims to good taste.
Hef and his competitors aimed to stoke readers' prurient desires, and in winning the battle, they ended up transforming American culture. By marketing sex as a normal, healthy pursuit, Playboy prodded the country to dispense with "old-fashioned moral strictures on one of the most powerful of human urges," according to Hefner biographer Steven Watts. But their efforts may ultimately have been too successful for their own good. A nation receptive to porn and wired for the Web has been a dangerous combination for print magazines. With pornography comprising 25% of all Internet searches, according to GOOD magazine's estimate, magazines have seen their readership dwindle. Many, battered by declining ad revenues and shrinking circulation, have closed up shop. Last month, after serving for 35 years as the rejoinder to Hef's iconic creation, Playgirl magazine went to press for the last time.