Professor Faye Hammill on Hospitality in the Glossy Magazines of the 1920s and 1930s

Professor Faye Hammill kicked off the new seminar series with a talk that spanned three glossy magazines from the early 20th century: Vanity FairTatler, and the Toronto-based Mayfair.

Reflecting on trends in the field of periodical studies, Hammill observed that the periodical itself tends not to be the object of knowledge. Rather, magazines and newspapers are used to illuminate other genres, or to tell us something about the periodical’s historical context.

Hammill’s approach to middlebrow magazines in the US, the UK and Canada bucks the trend by reading across different magazine titles and even across national boundaries. Moving beyond the question of what is distinctive about an individual magazine, Hammill noted, is crucial if we’re to identify what is shared between different magazines, and to adequately describe periodical genres.

This approach has particular implications for the study of early 20th-century periodicals. We shouldn’t focus on avant-garde publications to the exclusion of the other magazine and newspaper material readers were digesting. Modernist texts were part of a much larger media ecology. Hammill proposes that reading across periodicals will better enable scholars to contextualise Modernism and the mainstream in relation to each other.

Setting out to compare Mayfair (est. 1927) with the early 20th-century incarnations of Vanity Fair (1913) and Tatler (1901), she mentioned her impression that the Canadian Mayfair overall resembled Tatler more than it resembled its American cousin, Vanity Fair. But she asked us to keep in mind an important methodological question: What types of evidence, and how much evidence, should she gather in order to back up that claim?

Magazines like Vanity Fair, said Hammill, report the movements of an elite. They consolidate and police the identities of that social elite — but there is often a satirical edge to their reporting, so that the socialites in their pages are both celebrated and mocked. Middlebrow magazines contain gestures of inclusion and hospitality, and gestures of exclusion and reproof. Who’s invited, and who is gatecrashing?

Hammill asked us to imagine these magazines as they sometimes presented themselves. The middlebrow magazine was a party, its editor the host who introduced you to distinguished personalities. With its promise of entry into a fashionable social circle, the magazine was a cut-price proxy for participation in high society. The magazine was an ‘impossible social event’, where a nobody was invited to catch glimpses of the somebodies.

Advertisements for electric pianos and Elizabeth Arden products were framed as invitations, and readers were asked to participate in other ways. Mayfair invited its readers to chose a name for Maclean Publishing’s new women’s magazine, offering a $1000 prize for the winning entry: The Chatelaine.

However, the confiding tones of the party host are often in tension with harsh judgements and severe warnings. Alongside pally editorials and inviting advertisements, there are snide commentaries, personal caricatures of individual socialites, and cartoons of the kind of aspirants reading the magazine. (Mayfair is exceptional in that it didn’t mock its readership, and generally adopted a more respectful tone than Tatler or Vanity Fair.) Hammill referred to Derrida’s notion of ‘hostipitality’, the hostility contained within the hospitable. Whereas modernist texts foreground textual difficulty, in these more commercial publications difficulty is located in the social world. The magazine presents itself as a mandatory guide, caustic and affable by turns.

Hammill discussed Noël Coward as someone who took on this model of hospitality. Coward himself attracted a lot of celebratory press coverage, and he performed eccentricity and enjoyment in a way that called attention to the fact of performance, as in his song ‘I Went to a Marvellous Party’.

I went to a marvelous party
With Nounou and Nada and Nell,
It was in the fresh air
And we went as we were
And we stayed as we were
Which was Hell.
Poor Grace started singing at midnight
And didn’t stop singing till four;
We knew the excitement was bound to begin
When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin
And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin,
I couldn’t have liked it more.

As in the middlebrow magazines, the song is a report of a real party attended by real people and hosted by Elsa Maxwell. Coward mocks the party, but at the same time he’s careful to display his insider knowledge to other insiders, for example by using nicknames. Elsa Maxwell is the ‘Baba’ who appears later in the song.

Hammill argued that the differences between magazines’ models of hospitality — which may be inflected by nationality, race, class, and gender — are salient when multiple magazines are read alongside each other. Reading across publications refocuses periodical studies on the periodical itself.


Faye Hammill is Professor of English at the University of Strathclyde. Her seminar was partly based on material she gathered for her new project, ‘Noël Coward, Popularity and Print Culture’, which is supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. Other material was drawn from research carried out for her AHRC-funded project ‘Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture in Canada’.

Report by Olivia Ferguson, PhD student in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

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