Famous Last Words: Ruminations on Branding
I was heartsick to hear American Heritage magazine is folding. I remember when it was founded back in 1954, the brainchild of three TIME alumni: James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph Thorndyke. It broke all the rules. It accepted no advertising, was printed on heavy, glossy paper and had a hard cover with a full-color painting printed on it. It was not just a magazine; subscribers kept every issue and displayed their collections on bookshelves, along with Time-Life books, Harvard Classics and other great continuity series of the time.
American Heritage circulation promotions were created by the legendary Frank Johnson, after whom the Johnson box was named. For newcomers to the business, the Johnson box is part of a direct mail letter. In those days, letters looked like letters and always were printed in Courier type. The Johnson box was a headline over the salutation—sometimes in boldface—and surrounded by a rectangle of asterisks. Even today, the headline of a direct mail letter is called the Johnson box.
Johnson once told me that it irked him to no end to be remembered as the Johnson in the Johnson box. He felt his greatest contribution to direct mail was the invention of a “bedsheet” circular that came out of an envelope and unfolded and unfolded and unfolded all the way to 17˝ x 22˝, dominating everything in the room.
For more than 50 years, the bimonthly American Heritage featured simply wonderful illustrated articles by the country’s foremost writers and historians and was an absolute joy to read and own.
Eventually, it was bought by Forbes Inc. and went to a traditional soft cover. At the end, American Heritage had 350,000 subscribers—as many as it ever had at its peak—obviously upmarket, intelligent readers who must have discretionary income and that renew well. I am incredulous that a great publication that’s been around for more than 50 years could simply crash and burn—another great brand trashed? But then, so did Time-Life books, LIFE and many other great brands.