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The Gentleman’s Magazine

The Gentleman’s Magazine was originally founded in London, England, by Edward Cave Junior in 1731. Cave was born in 1691 in Warwickshire, England. His boyhood was somewhat turbulent as he was continually getting himself into trouble. Though the exact date is not known, the first such incident was when, at an early age, Cave was accused of stealing a rooster. Nothing came of the charge, but young Cave was labeled as a troublemaker—a label that would stay with him for quite some time.

His next brush with authority came when he was away at school in Rugby. Young Cave was apparently a fairly good student and saw an opportunity of making financial gain from it. In the true fashion of an entrepreneur, young Cave was caught selling completed lessons to his classmates or, as Johnson put it, “supplying exercises to idlers.”

Cave’s first employment was as a tax collector, followed by a brief career in the timber industry. Cave’s big break came when he was bound as an apprentice printer to a Mr. Collins. Printing was considered a “trade for which men were formerly qualified by a literary education,” and young Cave soon excelled at his new profession. Having proved his skills to his employer, Cave was sent to open a second print house in Norwich, where he published a weekly newspaper. Unfortunately, Cave’s master died before the term of his apprenticeship expired, and as he did not get along at all well with Mrs. Collins, he married a young widow in order to obtain separate lodgings.

Edward Cave’s next job was as a journeyman printer working for a Mr. Barber. He later took a position in the post office, but continued to be involved in the printing trade as a side profession, acting as a writer and proofreader for local publishers.

But trouble was right behind and found Mr. Cave yet again! Some of the wealthy London nobles, who took a dislike to the young postmaster, accused him of opening their mail and after a brief scandal he was ejected from his office. Cave was a big man, both large in “height and in bulk” (Fig. A). Though he founded what is perhaps the most successful literary magazine of all time, Cave did not possess a keen wit nor remarkable intelligence. Doctor Samuel Johnson wrote of him:

“His mental faculties were slow. He saw little at a time, but that little he saw with great exactness. He was long in finding the right, but seldom failed to find it at last.”

In his Life of Johnson James Boswell wrote of Cave “[he] was certainly a man of estimable qualities, and was eminently diligent and successful in his own business, which doubtless entitled him to respect.”

Fortunately for the literary world, Edward Cave eventually purchased a small print house and shortly after began The Gentleman’s Magazine (Fig. B). The first issue appeared in January of 1731. Cave quickly became a highly respected publisher and businessman, and “a multitude of magazines arose” all over the world. The magazine was soon the most well-known and highly respected publication in the English language.

It is widely believed that Mr. Cave was the first person ever to use the term “magazine” to describe a monthly publication of this type, and in fact, in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Dr. Samuel Johnson even mentions The Gentleman’s Magazine as part of his definition for the word:

Magazine. n.f. [magazine, French, from the Arabick machsan, a treasure] 2. Of late this word has signified a miscellaneous pamphlet, from a periodical miscellany named The Gentleman’s Magazine, by Edward Cave (Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language).

Mr. Cave published his magazine under the name Sylvanus Urban—an anagram of the Latin words Urbanus for city and Sylva for forest or woodland. As many gentlemen of the period read and even spoke Latin, we can assume that most readers picked up on this pen name, but remarkably, the long succession of editors that followed Cave maintained the tradition of using this same pseudonym up into the late 19th century.

Over the years The Gentleman’s Magazine featured various subtitles, including “The Monthly Intelligencer” and “Historical Review,” and off and on between the 1750s and 1770s a small title above the table of contents proclaimed “More in Quantity and greater Variety than any Book of the Kind and Price.” (You will notice that this same line has been “borrowed” for this publication). Cave had originally created the magazine with the intention that it be “A Collection of all Matters of Information and Amusement.” In fact, The Gentleman’s Magazine did indeed offer a great variety of reading material for its six-pence per issue cover price. Regular features included a section of Poetical Essays (a favorite of Cave’s), mathematical theories and problems, maps, short stories (often in a serialized form), songs complete with musical notation, and detailed descriptions of the latest explorations, inventions and curiosities—which were often accompanied by elaborate engravings. In advertising his new publication, Cave proudly claimed that the magazine’s contents would include:

“Publick Affairs, Foreign and Domestick, Births, Marriages, and Deaths of Eminent Persons, Preferments, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Prices of Goods, Grain and Stocks. Bankrupts declar’d and Books Published. Pieces of Humour and Poetry. Disputes in Politicks and Learning. Remarkable Advertisements and Occurrences. Lists of the Civil and Military Establishment. And whatever is worth quoting from the Numerous Papers of News and Entertainment, British and Foreign; or shall be Communicated proper for Publication. With instructions in gardening, and the Fairs for February.”

The Gentleman’s Magazine mostly featured reprints of various articles of interest from other journals and news-sheets of the day, all of which were listed in the side margins of the magazine’s masthead. A few of the more popular London newspapers included The London Gazette, The Daily Advertiser, The Public Ledger Gazetteer, The London Chronicle and St. James’ Chronicle. Material was also collected from other newspapers of such major cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bath, Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, and Nottingham. Collecting, editing and re-publishing articles from other periodicals was not an entirely new concept, but Cave showed a real knack for finding interesting material and the popularity of his magazine soared.

Cave also soon began acquiring his own material for The Gentleman’s Magazine. Each issue included a Historical Register, which was a recap of newsworthy events from around Great Britain and the world, plus current prices for various commodities, stock prices, births, deaths, promotions and preferments, and “A Meteorological Diary of the Weather.”

Cave also made a great effort to assume a politically neutral position in his magazine, something almost unheard of in the day and certainly still uncommon even in modern times. For example, each month the magazine featured largely unbiased, detailed reports on the proceedings and debates of Parliament. The British government had strictly forbidden the publication of its proceedings for many years, and in 1738 went so far as to directly order Cave to cease his reports. Cave was threatened with imprisonment, but cleverly got around the new decree by instead reporting the “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput”— borrowing from the very popular fictitious land created by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in his 1726 book Gulliver’s Travels.

Edward Cave also helped launch the literary career of his close friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Johnson first began writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1738, and Cave assigned Johnson the task of writing the controversial Lilliput reports from 1741 to 1743 (Boswell, Life of Johnson… vol. I, introduction). The law prohibiting reporting on Parliamentary proceedings was eventually retracted, and the magazine continued to offer the monthly reports without the “Lilliput” designation. Johnson also began work on his famous Dictionary (published in 1755) during his years working for Cave and he later went on to create his own short-lived publication, The Rambler (1750-1752). Their friendship continued for many years—Cave even printed some of Johnson’s works for him—and Johnson wrote a biography, “The Life of Edward Cave,” for The Gentleman’s Magazine after the founder’s death in 1754.

For most of it’s early history, The Gentleman’s Magazine was printed at St. John’s Gate, which was prominently featured in a woodcut on the magazine’s front cover (Fig. C). Though the masthead was re-cut and the details changed over the years, it almost always featured a cut of the old stone gate—one of the early entrance portals into the city of London. In 1775 Samuel Curwen, a Loyalist refugee living in London, took a walk to locate the familiar landmark :

Wednesday, September 20, 1775: “…I went to St. John’s Gate, the frontispiece of the Gentleman’s Magazine which we thought a just view. On enquiry we found one part [of the building] used as a store, the other is employed as the printing press or office of the late Mr. Cave and is still used in the same way and carried on by a Mr. Bond under the widow. We entered and saw people at work printing off last month’s Gentleman’s Magazine which has been supported uninterruptedly for more than 40 years, the monthly numbers struck off we were told amount to more than 6,000 [copies]. (Curwen, Vol. I, p 71)

Originally built in the 16th century, St. John’s Gate still stands today and is almost unchanged from its 18th-century appearance (Fig. D). The building housed a fire station for a brief period during the 19th century and it is currently occupied by a small medical museum and the private offices of St. John’s Ambulance—a modern, religious-based healthcare organization with members in over 40 countries worldwide.

Note that Samuel Curwen indicates the magazine was published at the end of each month, not the beginning as is common with most publications today. A quick glance through the magazine—especially the “Historical Chronicle” section—supports Curwen’s observation. The articles for the January issue were collected during that month, but it was typeset and published during the month of February to offer readers a detailed recap of the news of the former month.

In addition to its regular circulation, The Gentleman’s Magazine offered leather-bound annual editions that included an introductory page, the twelve monthly issues, and several extensive indexes listing the page numbers for many people and place names, topics, poem and song titles, and important events. The Newberry Library in Downtown Chicago holds an extensive collection many of these complete, bound volumes, and browsing through these old magazines is an entertaining, informative and very rewarding way to spend an afternoon! (We will be borrowing articles and insights from these original magazines on a regular basis, so that the words of our ancestors might continue to inspire and inform us today).

Despite Samuel Curwen’s claim that the magazine was being run by the “widow” in 1775, Edward Cave’s wife died in 1751. Though Cave seemed unaffected by his loss at first, within a few weeks he fell into a deep depression. Unable to break his melancholy mood, Cave fell into a pattern of chronic ill health that would plague him over the next few years. Edward Cave finally died on January 10th, 1754.

To continue his father’s tradition, Richard Cave took over publication of the magazine. David Henry helped out the younger Cave and by the early 1760s became the sole publisher of the magazine. James Boswell was a regular contributor through the 1760s and 1770s and the magazine offered excellent battle reports and political essays on the American Revolution throughout this period. In the early 1780s Mr. Henry took on a new publishing partner, John Nichols, who assumed the editorship in the 1790s and carried The Gentleman’s Magazine forward into the 19th century. Under Nichols’ leadership the magazine flourished and gained even greater worldwide recognition.

John Nichols’ descendants continued to publish the magazine up to around 1860, when other parties finally took it over. After almost 300 years of continuous publication, The Gentleman’s Magazine finally folded in the early 20th century.

Sources differ on the actual date of the last edition. Some accounts claim The Gentleman’s Magazine ceased publication as early as 1870, while others say the final issue was published in 1907. Still others suggest 1914 as the date of the last edition, and one source claims the magazine was still being published as late as 1919! Whatever the true dates are, The Gentleman’s Magazine enjoyed a very long and successful life—quite probably the longest run of any periodical to date. One thing is certain, The Gentleman’s Magazine is, alas, no more.

However, about 270 years after the original magazine first appeared, The Society of 18th-Century Gentlemen’s Magazine has been created in hopes of filling this literary void in some small way. Though we certainly do not flatter ourselves to fill Mr. Edward Cave’s shoes to any degree, it is our hope that the publication you now hold in your hands will offer many satisfying hours of reading for the 18th-century enthusiast. Just as the original Gentleman’s Magazine still offers us excellent primary source information on the politics, culture and daily life of the 18th century, it is the intent of this publication to offer the latest research, information and entertainment of a similar nature.

We sincerely hope that you find this magazine useful and enjoyable reading.

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Select Bibliography:

Most of the biographical information on Edward Cave was taken from: The Gentleman’s Magazine, David Henry and R. Cave editors, Vol. 24 (February, 1754) pp. 55-58. “An Account of the Life of the late Mr Edward Cave,” by Samuel Johnson. Various other issues and articles from The Gentleman’s Magazine, were also consulted in preparing this article.

Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York: The Heritage Press) 1963

Curwen, Samuel, The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, Two Volumes, Andrew Oliver, Editor (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) 1972

Johnson, Dr. Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), facsimile edition (London: Times Books, 1979).


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