Under the counter pulp magazines



All levels of smut have been available since the first photographic cameras became operational. The original core of the smut business was mail order. By the time of the American Civil War an industry in shipping things in plain brown wrappers was well established. Like any sales business, the industry required a point of contact—a way of reaching its potential customers. This is where the “under the counter” pulps came in.


They were actually second in on this business and, for most of their disreputable lives, under the counter pulps were something of an add on, an upsale item. The business was dominated by male oriented scandal newspaper tabloids, many of which had some permutation of ‘Midnight’, ‘Evening’ or ‘Moon’ in their title.


These silly newspapers had gotten their starts somewhere in the 1840s(*1). The permutations of ‘Moon’ or ‘Midnight’ are a play on a trend in newspaper publishing. Up until recently, newspapers were issued in several editions  at different times of the day. A common perception amongst newspaper readers of the time was that the most verifiable news showed up in the morning, and that the paper became increasingly more desperate for relevant material as the day progressed. The intimation is that after midnight--or after the moon is up--all bets are off. It was also a play on being considered outhouse reading or outhouse material of some kind (*2).


Most of these tabloids were not evening editions of any legitimate newspaper, but rather stand alone novelty items. They were deliberately disreputable and commonly NOT sold on newsstands or general stores. Instead, they were intended for an adults only market and were typically found in pool halls and taverns. They were considered something of a draw, a form of exclusive to the venue entertainment. It was something to read when there wasn’t a game to play or anyone to talk to. From pool halls and taverns, they spread to barbershops and bowling alleys. They were fairly common until the 1950s.

These publications weren’t far removed from today’s supermarket tabloids. Several of them eventually left the bowling alleys for the drug store magazine rack during the 1950s. During their under the counter heyday these scandal rags were male slanting, often featuring a heady mix of sex scandals, accounts of atrocities, stories of the occult or unexplained, sports coverage and a smattering of semi smutty pictures. How outrageous they were was more a matter of local standards than anything else. None of them are what we would think of today as hard core or even soft core smut. As a social convention it was acceptable to read this sort of stuff while you were getting your hair cut, or while you were at your men’s club, or at the no dancing allowed tavern or the pool hall.


You certainly aren’t going to bring it home.


These Slingers, as I will call them, were actually a very variable segment. Many of them used the mails as their method of distribution, which greatly restricted their smut content. Others just showed up on the pool hall’s doorstep. The paper was just as likely to feature fishing tips or news about the latest cars as it was sports or smut or scandal. Smut advertising was fairly category wide, as were biz op scams and training school promotions. The featured element--fishing or whatever it was--was generally a match for the paper’s display advertising. All types of mail order specialty merchants were hot on Slingers, from fishing and hunting supplies, to guns, to novelties, to the latest electronic thingy. Pre-fab greenhouses, of all things, were another category wide advertiser. As with all publications of the time, they were loaded with patent medicine ads.


As originally construed, Slingers were advertising vehicles designed to draw the attention of free range male eyes. They were sent free to the pool hall or wherever. Much like radio, they provided entertainment to the bar in return for advertising access. The problem with Slingers is that they had a tendency to get ripped up. They were designed to be destroyed, chock full of advertisements replete with dotted line boxes. After a few molestations, the thing is a mess. To encourage the tavern keeper or pool hall operator to keep more than one copy of the Slinger on hand, many of them had a nominal price tag attached. The price is 100% profit to the venue: payment for the bother of stocking the item.


Most of what you see on this page are what I will call Zingers, which are the next step up. Magazines as we now know them start to appear right after the Civil War, when the photo-accepting print process became a standard. Even with advertising, magazines at the time were very expensive. We only start to see smut appearing in magazine form long after the pulp format became established, in 1880 or so. I haven’t been able to find a Zinger which dates much earlier than 1917.


By the time the Zingers show up, the under the counter market had long been established. I can’t tell you if other stand alone items were also being peddled through this distribution chain at the time or not. The Zingers seem to start to trickle in during the teens and are well established by the Jazz Age.


There’s only so much you can charge for a Slinger. And most of your venues are not in the magazine sales business as their primary operation. But if you hand them a product with a 500% mark-up, they will be in whatever business you like. Especially the pool halls. That is the point behind a Zinger. It’s a nice side racket for a barber shop or pool hall.


Besides, why should the mail order people make all the money?


Zingers are the same type of draw that the Slingers are, especially for barber shops. Bars, pool halls and any other type of business wherein the customer is encouraged to linger is also good for these magazines. Like the Slingers, Zingers are filled with advertisements. The actual ratio of pictures to advertisements or other features is frankly quite low. Unlike the Slingers, smut is the only sustained genre and hard core smut mail order are the only advertisers.


The Zingers are seldom hard core smut. They are fairly much pulp magazines: standard magazine size with a slick cover, saddle stapled, perfect glued cover with slick photographic center sheets padded between twin layers of newsprint stock. Mechanically, the only typical difference between them and a standard pulp, is four to twelve sheets of slick stock in the middle. They are almost universally fiction magazines of the typical pulp length. (Which is why I include them on a website dedicated to pulp history.) Cover prices are a little high on most, but there’s not as much disparity as one might think.


There are only few other generalities about Zingers that I can make. What I am showing on this page is in no way a representative sample of the trend. At least half of the magazines have nudity on the cover, usually in black and white photographic form with spot color borders and logo. 

This is actually a later Canadian Pulp, but the general lay out is what the nude pictorial covers typically used.


All of the Zingers I have seen are printed off a rotogravure press throughout, including the pulp stock (*3). As for the pulp stock, it’s not the untrimmed stuff, but usually standard newsprint or the stock used for crossword puzzles. They are professionally laid out and typeset. Other than the photos at the center and images imbedded in advertisements, they are usually rather light on illustrations. (Unlike the later magazines in this genre, there are no spot cartoons.) The overall presentation of the fiction is the double column style, first established by the Story Papers and carried over to the Dime Novels and Pulps. As for the fiction, it’s almost uniformly humor. No four letter words. No more sex on the brain than any other pulp. Unlike a typical general anthology pulp, there are no violent themes either in the pictorial or the editorial.


If it wasn’t for the naked girls, it would be College Humor or Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang or Film Fun or Judge. None of these magazines are taking themselves too seriously.


Despite the titles, none of these magazines had anything to do with France, the French or Paris. The titles are a reference to ‘french postcards’, pulp code for nudity.  


Other than all coming out of New York and all probably being the products of pulp press batteries, there is very little else uniform about them. When it comes to what parts of the anatomy are portrayed or in what way it is presented, that appears to be a product of whim. There is no style manual here. They’re tame compared to XXX video tapes. After that, they’re all over the board. All of them are hawking the Real Thingers hard core stuff in their ads, if that’s what you are interested in.


As for the Real Thingers, they don’t show for a very long time. What is seen in the average adult bookstore is a relatively new event. In this period, that sort of thing is still in loose photograph form—generally peddled via mail order or by “gypsy movie” exhibitors.


Zingers existed in a different economic universe than Slingers or other pulp magazines. In pulps, the magazines were printed in increments of 100,000 and then offered on spec to newspapers for distribution. You broke even at 40% sales and then the printer and the publisher waited on their money. In Zingers, it’s all cash up front at every stage of the process. To start in an arbitrary place, the printer gets paid once the job wraps (*4). The publisher gets paid at the time he makes his delivery to the distributor. The distributor collects up front from the retailer. Because it’s contraband.


It seems like a lot of work for contraband. Weirdly, in terms of printing production quality, most Zingers were a step above the average over the counter pulp (*5). They weren’t doing this out of any sense of professional pride. It was a very competitive market from the 1920s on.


Although I am sure that no one involved in this business was a boy scout, we have no record of people shooting at each other over warehouses full of magazines. Rather, this was a way to make some fast money off of unused press capacity, idle warehouse space and partially empty delivery trucks. One would think that Zingers might be a nice one off business for a regular pulp house to get into, but history says just the opposite was true. What we see instead is a steady progression of publishers who started in the under the counter market matriculating into regular pulp publishing (6*).


There is a lot of conjecture that the under the counter market was prone to disruption. We have woman’s suffrage coming in. There are citations about the impact of flappers showing up at barber shops to get their hair cut. Christian Temperance and Prohibition move in. People were thrown in jail for obscenity, however these clean up campaigns were so entirely random that the materials involved seem inconsequential to the events. In short, we have no evidence that the market ever did go into decline. If anything, it seems to have peaked during Prohibition. What we have instead is evidence of convergence with the normal over the counter market.


Zingers, Spicys and Flapper Fiction.


As a whole, Zingers are more of a subset of humor magazine than they are of the men’s magazine category. There is a slight difference between burlesque and vaudeville. Most of the successful Zingers straddled this line. Attempting to be humorous remained a part of the presentation for a very long time.


The Spicy line is often cited as a classic example of an under the counter pulp. It is under the counter, however it is very atypical. It is also a single publisher trend.


This publisher did start in the under the counter market. Culture Publications’ line of smut pulps were similar to the offerings of other publishers. As opposed to smut, in its Spicy line Culture was peddling ultra violence. They’re actually dual use magazines, issued both to the under the counter and normal pulp market.


Culture had a two track system, wherein the same magazine with different interior illustrations were run off. Spicy titles with stars on the covers are for the normal market and have tamed down interior illustrations.


It was the covers, however, which were most influential. Culture started the ultra violence trend that swept the entire industry. They did not really have much impact on the under the counter Zingers. (The scandal rags already had a tendency to feature similar themes, so it’s unclear who is influencing who.) Smut pulps stayed basically in humor. It’s the over the counter pulps that went violent.


The Spicy line was extremely successful. Violent themes aside, part of its success can be attributed to improvements made in the physical quality of their line. Nobody had a better cover process. Their interiors are all rotogravure, featuring well executed line art. They are printed on quality paper, with top line binding. Even their typography is a step above the rest.


Culture started experimenting with comic art within their pages early on. They had several sections which went on for entire pages. This publisher eventually got in trouble with censorship authorities. Later this same group founded DC Comics (Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman), where they brought their quality production techniques to a new medium. Having seemingly learned from its mistakes in pulps, the DC Comic line eschewed overly violent depictions (*7).


‘Spicy’ as a code word for sexual content had started in the regular pulp world and was originally affiliated with the Flapper Fiction trend of the 1920s. Flapper Fiction is very liberated and frank about sexual issues. It was, however, a women’s oriented literary movement and not necessarily related to smut.


Drawing  such a fine line may be overstating the case. Once Flapper Fiction became established, its code words ‘Peppy’, ‘Breezy’, ‘Saucy’ and the like took flight over all the genres, including the Zingers.


Zingers can’t be sorted into the same eras as normal pulp magazines. Their market doesn’t change that much. These magazines have three eras: Prohibition, Post-Prohibition and Post Playboy. Post prohibition more all slick pictorial magazines start being introduced. Most of these new slicks feature spot cartoons and are light on fiction or any kind of long form reading material. They are still mostly humor magazines, however they are starting to become liquor store impulse items.


The under the counter market starts to disappear from the end of Prohibition on. Scandal rags stay behind, but the Zingers leave. More tobacco and liquor distributors are offering them on spec to retailers and thus the whole need for an under the counter mechanism begins to evaporate.


Playboy’s introduction in 1952 puts the final nail in what was left of the under the counter market mechanism. The Slingers start to de-smut and migrate to the drug store market. Most of the smut switches from humor to a ‘life style’ focus. (Whatever the hell that means.) An under the counter market would again manifest with head shops and adult bookstores later, but there is no direct connection. Eventually many of the continuing smut titles would again feature fiction, but again there is no relationship in time, place, companies or writers. Once the mostly humor fiction Zingers started to die out in the late 1930s, they left very little in their wake. Only their oddball convention of the center spread moved forward.  

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The terms Slingers, Zingers and others are my invention. For various reasons, we have little idea what the trade referred to these magazines as.


(*1) Sources conflict on the dates. If we include the almanacs, such as ‘Poor Richards’, we could go back to the 1600s. My date is the general start time for all Story Papers.


(*2)What I have given are alternative explanations for the ‘Moon’ and ‘Midnight’ titles. Neither might be true. Publishers just use the same terms over and over to identify items in the same segment.


(*3) This is excluding the many Canadian publications in this trend, many of which like Women In Crime, were simply upgraded Slingers. Canadian publishers occupied the lowest rung of this market—and stayed in it for the longest time.


(*4)The features were provisioned in a non uniform way. For the most part, the fiction features are first run and not reprints. As for the photographs, none of the sources seems convincing. The whole pre-production process is something of a mystery.


(*5) Again, I am excluding the Canadian pulps, which often comically cut corners. Some of the quality of these publications may have been inadvertent. Lacing your pulp pages in with slick helps make the product much less flimsy. Unlike standard pulps, these magazines often had to travel quite a distance even while still in production. They also had a much longer shelf life. Finally, our view may be slanted since it is based on the pulps magazines which are physically still around today. We have almost no examples of the Slingers.


(*6)The printers loved these guys. Over time, the proven performers were granted credit by their printers and were allowed to expand into the regular pulp market.


(*7) The connection between the Spicy Line and DC is very direct, however as companies the two firms are not related. Culture Publications (Trojan Magazines, Arrow Publications, Speed Publications and whatever else it was called) did not found DC Comics. Rather, DC was founded by Culture’s owner as a separate entity.

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