Friday, November 8, 2019

Curiosities: Sunset Magazine

Santa Cruz County may have been a relatively minor cog in the Southern Pacific Company's massive railroad empire, but its appeal as a tourist destination meant that it had increased visibility among the parts of the machine. In its inaugural May 1898 issue, Sunset magazine featured a seven-page illustrated section promoting Summer Holidays Among the Hills: Santa Cruz Mountains and Shasta Resorts. It was not the last time that the merits of Santa Cruz County would be highlighted.

Cover of a c. 1905 issue of Sunset. Caption reads: "A mother walks her baby boy
up off the beach; in the background, happy bathers cavort in the surf. The boy is
carrying a nice stalk of dead kelp." Art by Maynard Dixon.
By 1898, the Southern Pacific Railroad had embedded itself as a facet of everyday life in the American Southwest. For thirty years, the company had built railroad lines, purchased and developed properties, and invested in massive resort and industrial projects. But the age of the subscription magazine had finally reached the West Coast and Southern Pacific realized its potential as a way to promote itself and its services.

The cover of the first issue of Sunset, May 1898. The view is from Oakland
looking West through the Golden Gate. This cover was reused for the first
two years of the publication. [Stanford University Libraries]
The Passenger Department of the Southern Pacific Company led the charge through its new illustrated magazine Sunset, an obvious reference to the railroad's primary and much-touted Sunset Route between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The magazine was published from San Francisco at a cost of 5¢ per issue, or 50¢ for an annual subscription. In its first year, the publication included no outside advertisements under the assumption and hope that subscriptions and self-promotion would cover all costs. The magazine's creed read: "Publicity for the attractions and advantages of the Western Empire."

Advertisement in the March 1899 issue of Sunset promoting the Hotel Del Monte.
[Stanford University Libraries]
The purpose, scale, and scope of the magazine evolved rather drastically during its years under Southern Pacific control. Its inaugural issue outlined the initial plans for the magazine:
Its aim is the presentation, in a convenient form, of information concerning the great states of California, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana, and the territories of Arizona and New Mexico—a rich and inexhaustible field over which the dawn of future commercial and industrial importance is just breaking.
The pioneers in this field have laid a foundation strong and deep for the superstructure to be erected in the coming years, and, whether you share in its building or witness its growth from afar, it is a factor of the future which must be reckoned with--therefore we expect to interest you.
The resources of this great western empire for the husbandman, stockman, and miner, and for the tourist and health seeker, will be treated in these pages as fully as space will admit, as concisely as the subjects will warrant, and at all times—truthfully.
These words hid a rather obvious meaning: this magazine will promote the activities of the Southern Pacific Railroad in developing the American Southwest. The fact that the railroad company owned or was heavily invested in many of the businesses was not as blatantly emphasized.

From a 1903 issue of Sunset. The caption reads: "Trainload of eighteen cars of apples leaving Watsonville for the East, October 12." Photo by E. L. Clark.

In actuality, the magazine did precisely what it needed to do when it needed to do it. When there were public complaints about freight rates, the magazine would advertise the wide range of industries connected to the network. When politicians or authors, such as Frank Norris in The Octopus, criticized Southern Pacific's West Coast monopoly, the magazine promoted the interconnectedness of Southern Pacific with its local rivals and East Coast partners. It helped that the magazine circulated widely on the East Coast, where political decisions were made by people that did not interact with Southern Pacific services on a daily basis.

From a 1903 issue of Sunset. The caption reads: "A typical Santa Cruz landscape."

The content of the magazine was primarily visual and literary in its content. The first issue included artwork of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra accompanied by poetry and descriptive prose. This was followed by a short story by Paul Shoup and then a collection of news items, anecdotes, and company announcements and advertisements, all concluded with a poem by Fred Emerson Brooks appropriately entitled "Sunset." Featured sections focused on the natural environments of the Southwest and were accompanied by beautiful photographs and artworks, some colorized, all in order to attract potential property investors, settlers, and businesses. It cannot be forgotten that the railroad had received from the government and Western states over 25 million acres of land throughout the area and needed to sell or develop it.

A panoramic photograph of the Casa del Rey Hotel and Boardwalk Casino included in the August 1911 issue of Sunset. The caption reads: "It looms ahead like a long battleship, painted for times of peace. This is the Casa Del Rey, at Santa Cruz, California, the house of double garden. A triple-arched bridge leads from the hotel to its adjunct, the Casino, set in a blaze of color at the edge of a golden bathing beach." 
Southern Pacific offered space in each issue to local government bodies so that they, too, could promote their towns and resources to eager investors, settlers, and tourists. At one point or another, nearly every substantial town or city along Southern Pacific-owned track took the opportunity to promote itself, with some describing potential uses for the nearby land, some highlighting the people, and some explaining specific facets of the community. Both San José and Pajaro, for example, took the opportunity to clarify how to pronounce their names.

“The Old Witch tree, among the ancient cypress along the famous
Seventeen Mile Drive, at Monterey, is the symbol of the
enchantment that holds this region of surpassing beauty.”
From the February 1914 issue of Sunset.
[Stanford University Libraries]
It is interesting to note that the arrival of Sunset occurred just when the first automobiles were appearing on American streets. Initially, Southern Pacific promoted the motorcar as the perfect way to visit the hard-to-reach places, especially along the California coast. And as car ownership increased, so too did Sunset's promotion of viable road trips, even far afield of Southern Pacific tracks. The goal was to sell the Southwest, and while the railroad was important in the long-term, Southern Pacific figured the automobile was not an immediate threat.

June 1918 issue of Sunset, with art by Matto Sandona. The caption reads:
"We miss you but we're, oh, so proud of you."
To attract female readers, Sunset included special sections focused on modern living and society. There were also not-so-subtle hints that women out West had more freedoms and opportunities. More generally, the magazine showcased museums, theatres, and expositions on the West Coast in the hope of proving that life in California was on par with the East Coast elite. To further pull in women and educated men, the magazine featured literature and poetry from some of the best Western writers including Jack London and Bret Harte.  Accompanying these writings were beautiful artworks that emphasized the glory of the Wild West. Such art also took a prominent place on the covers of each issue beginning at the turn of the century.

The cover of the December 1909 issue of The Pacific Monthly.
Sunset's evolution from a corporate promotion tool to a popular, wide-reaching illustrated magazine was relatively fast but still occurred in stages. For the first sixteen years, the magazine focused primarily on railroad matters, even if such was not always obvious. But in 1912, Southern Pacific purchased the Portland-based Pacific Monthly and rebranded the magazine as Sunset: The Pacific Monthly. With this merger, the magazine reached a truly nation-wide audience but also became more than it was originally intended. As a result, Southern Pacific sold it to a group of its employees, who pledged to continue to use it to promote the railroad's services, albeit less obviously.

April 1914 cover of Sunset, one of the first after the takeover
by Woodhead, Field & Company. Art by Jules Guerin.
[Stanford University Libraries]
The primary reason for the sale in 1914 was the fact that the Southwest and West had changed dramatically over the past sixteen years. It was no longer the Wild West of old but had become a settled place, due in a large part by Southern Pacific promotion. And with war on the horizon, Southern Pacific had other priorities so needed to move on. Woodhead, Field & Company took over the magazine on behalf of the railroad and immediately began shifting its reach to attract a truly national readership. One of its first moves was to abandon the former digest format of the periodical and adopt the standard size of other illustrated magazines. It also abandoned the Wild West tropes to focus instead on the "Pacific Coast," in the hope of making the West appear more tame to Eastern tastes. Alongside this change, a news section was added to each issue that discussed West Coast items and included editorials, and commentaries.

December 1923 cover of Sunset. []

The changes that occurred to Sunset in the late 1910s and 1920s were drastic in scale but flowed naturally from the earlier Southern Pacific magazine. New and upcoming authors were brought in to write literary pieces. A new push was made to draw national authors to the magazine in the hope of making the West Coast appear more American rather than some untamed, distant wilderness. Meanwhile, political articles became more commonplace and featured more prominently in the 1920s. Perhaps the most famous contributor to the magazine throughout the Southern Pacific and Woodhead/Field era was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, who wrote exposés about Asian-American relations and the rights of Asians living on the West Coast.

Cover to the March 1928 issue of Sunset, showing a cowboy receiving a bowler
hat in the mail, signalling a change taking over the old West.
By the time the Great Depression set in, Sunset was in many ways the magazine for the Southwest and West Coast. It reflected the identity of people who had settled and lived there. It touched on topics that were important to them. And, especially in the 1920s, it advertised to them directly rather than to East Coast investors. It was undeniably the high point of the magazine as a Western promotional periodical and the height of Southern Pacific's reach, even if its sales were not always spectacular and struggled to keep up with similar East Coast magazines.

The Grand Canyon as depicted in Sunset issue September 1934.
Art by Maynard Dixon. [Stanford University Libraries]
The magazine's sale to Laurence W. Lane in September 1928 permanently shifted its direction away from its Southern Pacific days. Lane had worked for Meredith Publishing Company for fifteen years helping produce Better Homes & Gardens. He saw the potential in Sunset to become another lifestyle magazine, albeit one focused more on Western living. His editorial and content changes first appeared in the February 1929 issue and included the abandonment of The Pacific Monthly tagline, which was soon replaced with The Magazine of Western Living, as well as the change to an art deco style on the covers. Inside, the magazine very quickly came to resemble so many similar magazines across the country, with the focus shifted toward a balance of interviews with celebrities, content written by celebrities, and lifestyle advice. Some political items were retained and the central articles still often focused on Western travel, but the audience for the magazine had changed and, with it, the element that made Sunset unique.

The Lane family on horseback at Quail Hollow Ranch, c. 1940s. [Friends of Quail Hollow]
The Lane family continued to control the magazine until 1990, when it sold the monthly to Time Warner. In 1937, the Lanes purchased a rural ranch north of Felton along Zayante Creek which they named Quail Hollow Ranch. They used the property to entertain guests and vacation in the summer months. It was sold to Santa Cruz County in 1986 for use as a county park. Today, Sunset continues to exist as a Western lifestyle magazine, now based in Oakland and run by Regent, L.P., which bought the magazine in November 2017. However, since 1990, the magazine has struggled for readership and is now only published bimonthly.

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