” . . . where the pictures for the page atone.”
—Alexander Pope

No contemporary could write promotion copy quite like Henry Luce. His 1936 prospectus for a new magazine featuring photographs, tentatively called The Show-Book of the World, still has few equals:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed. . . . [This] is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication.

Under its more familiar name, Life did transform journalism in America. Prior to its appearance, photographs were still considered to be the vulgar and trivial side of the magazine trade. Luce, however, understood the magic of the still shot, its ability to arouse emotions, to convey immediacy, to tell a story. Employing new innovations in high-speed printing, he introduced the weekly magazine, price 10¢ a copy, that delivered the world in pictures to the American middle class.

With all of human existence as its subject, Life in the early years presented a jumbled melange of news reports, features, shorts, and single photos, material that often blended into the sensationalistic, the mildly erode, and the weird. Yet contrary to the predictions of the experts, the formula worked. For several years, demand for the new magazine exceeded supply. Circulation climbed rapidly, reaching five million by the early 1940’s. During the war, the magazine actually seemed to be transformed into a symbol of America, becoming a national institution as familiar as the baseball diamond.

Yet publishing success did not long satisfy Luce. Restlessly, he sought to turn the magazine into something more. An editorial page was added in 1941. His famed essay of the same year, “The American Century,” hinted at a still broader thrust. The world of the 20th century, he wrote, “if it is to come to life in any nobility of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American Century.” The fundamental trouble was that while America stood as the most powerful and vital nation on the globe, its citizens were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact. The United States could not endure. Luce concluded, unless “there courses strongly through its veins from Maine to California the blood of purpose and enterprise and high resolve.”

Pearl Harbor did provide America, for a time, with a compelling sense of direction; and Life enlisted to defeat the Axis. Yet by 1944, Luce was again fretting about America’s lack of purpose and the need to gird up this land for sustained adventure and influence overseas. “The American scene must have totally new expression after this war,” he confided to his editorial colleagues in an internal memorandum. “If we win the war on the terms we are now fighting, America enters a new era.” This new America, Luce concluded, would not be based on the old urban milieu, composed of ethnic neighborhoods, machine politics, and grimy factories. Rather, it would rise out of an acceleration of the vast movement of peoples into the suburbs. The old cities were emptying, he said, and the “mass movement of the new living after this war is going to give someone a great publishing opportunity.”

Accordingly, Life was repositioned as the magazine of the “New America.” A major 1947-48 publicity blitz described the significance of this phrase: “There are more people—12-1/2 million more than there were before the war. . . . There is more education . . . [a]nd a better educated public means a new widespread desire for the goods and services that go with a higher standard of living.” A multimedia presentation under the same title and shown to hundreds of thousands of politicians, businessmen, and advertising executives described “the New America” as based on “our new found confidence, our awakening to the new and almost limitless opportunities which lie within our power.” New wealth coursed through America, the script said. In 1946, 28 million families exceeded the $2,000 income level, compared to only seven million a decade before. Americans were growing accustomed to the “good things of everyday living,” and there was a “new and wider interest in the products of [a] higher standard of living.”

In short, Life executives labeled the America of the late 1940’s “a completely different world” from that of a mere decade before, a nation enjoying an unprecedented cornucopia of goods and services. On many coffee tables, moreover, lay one special magazine. The 15 million Life-reading families represented 36 percent of all families in the country. As the promotional people concluded. Life was “the greatest advertising force . . . in the New America.”

Luce was not content merely to report on and sell to these suburbanizing Americans, though. As he explained in a 1948 memo to Life‘s managing editor, the magazine’s purpose was “to interpret American life and in interpretation give leadership toward the promotion and defense of what we feel to be good and correction to that which is poor or bad.” As a critical first step, he urged an editorial effort to instruct Life readers on their bonds to Western civilization. The drama of Western culture, Luce maintained, had culminated in the creation of the United States of America and this fact demanded that all Americans take stock of their civilization at the historical moment “when the U.S. has become the heir and chief guardian of the whole body of Western Civilization against the forces of reactionary neo-barbarism.”

The second great task facing American civilization and Life magazine, he said, lay in reconciling universal opulence and material plenty with Christian morality and the Western tradition. Put another way, the inhabitants of the New America needed to be shown how to live the good and moral life. Life‘s “modern living” section. Luce maintained, would serve as the nexus between the magazine’s editorial content and its advertising. It would show that there was “nothing per se immoral or wrong with material goods,” provided that their producers and consumers were “concerned with their use for ‘good’ rather than ‘bad’ ends.”

The result was the Life magazine of the Second Decade, 1946-1955. In almost every issue, serious discussions of Medieval Christian philosophy or the Roman Catholic heritage were juxtaposed with resort fashions, brassiere ads, and photos of Hollywood starlets. Readers were taught that “civilization” wasn’t just a word; as Luce put it, “it’s a something that ‘means you!'” They were also instructed on how to consume within the bonds of this civilizational heritage. Today, the combinations of images found in Life from this era often seem silly, crass, ludicrous. Yet to Luce, his editors, and much of their readership, this linkage of the spiritual to the material had real purpose: to give definition and direction to “a nation destined to lead the world in education, in high standard of living, in commerce, and government and human relations.”

Life: The Second Decade, 1946-1955 is a collection of 200 photographs culled from the 156,000 prints in the Life picture collection. In them, one finds the substance and the contradictions of the postwar American civilization that Luce sought to define and celebrate. One sees the seemingly endless expanses of tract houses on undulating streets in suburban California, the well-dressed audience with 3-D glasses watching Bwana Devil, the patterned components of a Lustron prefabricated house, and the beds, dishes, and food made, washed, and processed by Marjorie McWeeney of Rye, New York, the typical American housewife. One also sees the jarring clash between the different America existing alongside the “new” one: the austere facial lines and flowered hat of an Iowa farm woman presiding at a Presbyterian church supper set against fashion model Lily Carlson walking down Park Avenue; the wholesome winner of the 1949 Pillsbury Bake-Off set against the hard scowl of a woman in a Puerto Rico gambling salon; the blue-collar anger of white youth participating in a Cicero, Illinois, race riot set against the members of Sigma Chi fraternity singing of the girls of their dreams.

Many familiar photos are found in this compilation: Marilyn Monroe’s legs revealed to a leering Tom Ewell; Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile; Hungarian rebels futilely throwing rocks at a Russian tank; a bemused Robert Taft holding a chicken; a high-stepping drum major followed by his youthful admirers; and two sweating. Black gold miners in a Johannesburg, South Africa mine. Also included are several moving photographic essays, an art form pioneered by Life. These include W. Eugene Smith’s extraordinary works, “Country Doctor” and “Maude Collen, Nurse

Midwife.” Found near the end of the volume are the more disturbing icons of the New America: a happy New York family, mother impeccably dressed, in their radiation shelter; and the pitted test mannequins wrenched out of shape by an atomic blast at Yucca Flat, Nevada.

Most of Life‘s photographers—among them Margaret Bourke-White, David Duncan, Philippe Halsman, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Cornell Capa—probably shared little of Henry Luce’s enthusiasm for the New American Civilization that he hoped to help shape through the pages of his magazine. Indeed, in introductory comments to this volume, Capa notes how “we are blessed with hindsight in our assessment of world history” and can now recognize “that the editors of Life had their own conceptions and prejudices in selecting what they considered newsworthy, valid, interesting or trend-setting for a given week.” Yet the photos in this volume transcend the politics and the visions of Luce and his co-workers. Here, we do see life and can take pleasure in the seeing.


[Life: The Second Decade 1946-1955; Photographs selected by Doris C. O’Neil; Little, Brown; Boston]