Life magazine was founded January 4, 1883 by John Ames Mitchell and Andrew Miller in a New York artist's studio. Miller served as secretary-treasurer and managed the business side. Mitchell, an illustrator, served as its publisher. He invested in a revolutionary new printing process using zinc-coated plates which improved the reproduction of illustrations and artwork. This helped give Life an edge over its completion from the successful, established humor magazines, Judge and Puck. They hired Edward Sandford Martin, founder of the Harvard Lampoon, as the first literary editor.
Their introductory issue had the motto: “While there’s Life, there's hope.” They let the readers know that while they would address issues of politics, fashion, society, religion, literature, etc., they would do so with “casual cheerfulness,” speaking fairly, truthfully, and decently. They also wanted to have fun.
By 1893, Life magazine decided to construct its own building. It included studio space and apartments for the artists, to create home within Life’s home. The firm of John Mervyn Carrere and Thomas Hastings created a Beaux Arts building and contracted Philip Martiny to create a sculpture for the entrance of the building. He created Winged Life, the cherub that became the symbol of Life magazine throughout its existence. The building now serves as the Herald Square Hotel.
Many famous illustrators and authors were contributors to Life. One of the most important was Charles Dana Gibson who sold his first contribution, an illustration of a dog outside his kennel howling at the moon, to Life for $4. Robert Ripley published his first cartoon in Life in 1908 and Norman Rockwell’s first cover for Life was published in 1917.
Charles Dana Gibson’s most celebrated figure, the Gibson Girl, had her early appearances in Life in the 1890s. She soon became the nation’s feminine ideal and earned a place in history. When John Ames Mitchell died in 1918, Gibson bought the magazine for $1 million. By then, the publishing world had changed, encompassing a cruder and more cynical outlook. Life’s clean fun format caused it to struggle to compete. Even though Gibson managed to hire the most talented authors, artists, and editorial staff, the magazine continued to lose popularity. The New Yorker, publishing its first issue in 1925, copied much of the best of Life’s style and format, and wooed away much of its editorial and art staff.
Gibson retired, turning Life over to publisher, Clair Maxwell, and treasurer, Henry Richter. By that time, the magazine had gone from a weekly to a monthly. The two worked hard to revamp it to keep current. Though some readers were gained, Life fought to make a profit in the 1930s. Henry Luce purchased Life in 1936 for its name only.
Edward Sandford Martin was called from retirement to write the obituary for Life’s final issue. He wrote, “That Life should be passing into the hands of new owners and directors is of the liveliest interest to the sole survivor of the little group that saw it born in January 1883... As for me, I wish it all good fortune; grace, mercy and peace and usefulness to a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next. A wonderful time for a new voice to make a noise that needs to be heard!”