When We Were “Seventeen”: A History In 47 Covers
by Jane Hu
The conclusion to a series about youth. Here, that’s Whitney Houston modeling, on the far right, for the November 1981 issue.
By WWII, movie magazines were falling from style. To maintain readership, many publications turned from a tight focus on screen celebrities to address women’s fashion more generally. It was around this time, for example, that Glamour of Hollywood dropped “of Hollywood” from its title. Keeping up with trends, publisher Walter Annenberg sought to revamp his movie magazine Stardom. The advice he kept gettig from friends: Talk to Helen Valentine, who, after starting out at Vogue, had gone on to Mademoiselle: The Magazine for Smart Young Women. So, in early 1944, Annenberg approached Valentine. They met, they talked, she came on board as editor-in-chief, and the first issue of Seventeen appeared in September that same year.
The magazine’s target audience was right in its title. Valentine once described the age of seventeen as “the age when a girl is no longer a child, yet isn’t quite a woman.” Teenagers are no longer a novel marketing demographic, but in 1944, the word “teen-aged” (then still a compound) was relatively new. The first mention in print, says the OED, crept up in Victoria, B.C. (the city, incidentally, where I spent my own teen years) with a 1921 local newspaper mention: All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening. And that’s what Seventeen would also offer: a cordial invitation to teenage girls — to voice their ideas. So how has that invitation changed over the decades? Let’s look!
In Kelley Massoni’s wonderful guide to the magazine’s history, Fashioning Teenagers: A Cultural History of Seventeen Magazine, she quotes Valentine’s recollections of her first meeting with Annenberg:
So I said, “Well, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the young people in this country today and one of the things that startled me was, I saw a picture of a meeting at the U.N. and it was a photograph taken before the doors opened and there was this long line of people outside and ninety percent of them were very young,” and I said, “This is what started me thinking about the young people in this country. People have an idea that the only thing they’re interested in is their next date, but it isn’t so. They are really thinking about very important things and we ought to be thinking about them in those terms.”
Valentine sometimes referred to Seventeen as her “baby,” but here she may be remembering its inception with rose-tinted shades. Though she attaches inspiration to a photograph of teens about to enter New York City’s U.N. building, the U.N. didn’t officially exist until October 1945, over a year after her pitch. Still, the story, no matter how misremembered, captures something about Valentine’s philosophy, which was, to take teens seriously.
Valentine was — if not ahead — right with her time. In the 40s, post WWII, youth culture was seeking to define itself against the dominant social groups of the parenting and schooling classes. While Britain had the Angry Young Man, the Teenager was an especially American idea. Until Seventeen, however, no magazine specifically targeted teens. Mademoiselle saw its audience as reaching from 18 to 34. Other magazines of the time focused on a younger set: Calling All Girls was aimed at “girls of 9 to 14,” while The American Girl was a Girl Scouts publication. Seventeen came to the fore as the teenage identity was itself picking up speed.
Valentine’s editorial letter, “SEVENTEEN Says Hello,” is written in a tone so conversational and bubbly that it still feels modern today. This freshness must have been especially striking at publication. She implores her young readers: “You’re going to have to run this show — so the sooner you start thinking about it, the better. In a world that is changing as quickly and profoundly as ours is, we hope to provide a clearing house for your ideas.” The letter ends with an invitation to America’s teenage girls to voice their ideas:
As a magazine, we shall discuss all the things you consider important — with plenty of help from you, please. Write us about anything or everything. Say you agree with SEVENTEEN or disagree violently, say we’re tops, say we’re terrible, say anything you please — but say it!
I’m no longer a teenager (at least by the numbers), but that letter? It still makes me gush.
While Seventeen now hosts an annual fiction writing contest, back in its first years the magazine used to devote, on average, 11 percent of (printed!) editorial space to fiction. Sylvia Plath, for instance, famously submitted 45 pieces to Seventeen before they finally published her short story, “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” in their August 1950 issue. Plath would have been 17 at the time. (It was her second appearance in the magazine.) What’s more, the magazine sometimes solicited book reviews from their girl readers during the 60s. Go down to the bottom of the page and click through for the literary musings of a young, nascent critic and queer theorist named Eve Kosofsky.
Seventeen is now only two years away from 70. Along the way it’s changed — if not really grown up. In a sense, the magazine has really kept its promise to speak not just at, but with, the teens of America. The forms in which this dialogue has taken place, however, have modified again and again over the years. Whether fiction submissions, “Traumarama!” stories, or protest letters, girls have tried in various ways to “say it!” to the teen mag. Now, let’s say hello back to Valentine’s brainchild, and take a look at Seventeen’s evolution throughout the decades — and what it (and teen girls) were talking about.
January and February 1945: Valentine wanted Seventeen to address the teenage girl as a “whole human being” — one that wasn’t only interested in fashion and boys, but who had also a political and social conscience. Hence, perhaps, the U.N. story. This cover girl is collared, cuffed, and well coiffed, but she also stands against a globe backdrop with a book and pen in hand. Smart in more ways than one.
As the February cover shows (on right), Seventeen was serious about teens getting serious. WWII incited the concept of “teen-ager,” in part, by asking the rising generation cohort to take a real political interest in their world.
April 1945: In its first years, the magazine cycled through themes. April meant the “Girl-Meets-Boy Issue.” A girl and a boy (sort of?) play cats cradle, when cats cradle was all the rage. Articles included “Jobs Have No Gender,” and “If He Could Only Cook.”
August 1945: August quickly became the back-to-school issue — as such, it contained the highest proportion of fashion and shopping coverage. Where the following September issue would include pieces such as “New Term…New You,” this one recommended a New Wardrobe in anticipation. During the war, girls were encouraged to dress in pants and shorts (as though to fill in for the missing masculinity still away at battle). Another article from earlier that year: “Daddy, May I Borrow Your Tie?”
September 1945: Valentine celebrates the magazine’s one-year anniversary: “You’re interested in boys and books, clothes and current events, people and politics, cooking and careers…in fact, you’re interested in everything. Your curiosity about your world and everybody in it has made our job easier, happier.” (That’s a Francesco Scavullo photograph on the cover.)
January 1946: Seventeen made sure to keep editorial virginal (no ads with alcohol or cigarettes, and absolutely no ads featuring hotel rooms). Annenberg wanted the magazine to be one that American parents actively wanted their teenaged daughters to read.
July 1946: For its first few decades, Seventeen covers didn’t showcase celebrities. Instead, they featured ‘real girls,’ such as these two. Just hanging out outside, drying their hair.
November 1946: “Your Parents and You” was another regular special theme issue in the rotation, usually coming out in November. The magazine advertised its readers as the savvy up-and-comers that could influence their parents. For instance, a July 1945 article offered this encouragement to teens:
[A]ir your views, whether about your allowance or about world politics, you may find some good mental stimulation in your family’s arguments. You may even prod Mother out of her housewifely confines to take a greater interest in history-making events. Or you may help her to rid herself of some worn-out old prejudices. And you may give your whole family a new awareness of the fact that the little girl they remember has grown into a thinking young woman. Then you will be on your own!
A few other “Your Parents And You” covers. Notice how the one in the middle positions the mom to appear disarmingly small in comparison to her daughter.
October 1948: “Your School and You.” I don’t know where to start with this one, except that you might need to hand over mathematical responsibilities to the boys. C’mon, Seventeen, girls can blueprint too.
August 1949: First: who needs hats when you can wear BOOKS? Second: those shoes!
September 1949: The magazine’s five-year anniversary. The cover not only harkens back to the symbolism of Valentine’s first editorial letter, but marks her farewell to the magazine. While this wasn’t Valentine’s last issue (that would come in April 1950), it was her final Seventeen birthday letter.
Annenberg and Valentine would sometimes clash over editorial direction. One big source of contention was the subject of racial diversity. When Annenberg asked her to limit the number of black teens shown in the magazine, Valentine responded: “Surely the presence of colored children in that story should delight any kindly human being. Anyone who is offended by it should not be holding a copy of Seventeen.” This was only one of many exchanges over the issue.
With Valentine’s departure, editorial shifted from the teenage girl as a “whole human being,” to one more insularly tied to the home. Seventeen moved from Valentine’s original focus on service and citizenship toward themes of domesticity.
October 1949: While the cover to this “Your Home and You” issue is supposed to represent good wholesome innocence, those shiny red apples, her lipstick, and that gaze suggest a latent sexuality that — placed in context of a velour houserobe and cross-stitch — strikes the mid-century teenage girl just right.
January 1950: Seventeen does vintage. Girl on left is clearly jealous.
May 1950: Seventeen goes meta. Girl on right sports trendy bangs.
Estelle Ellis, Seventeen’s then promotion director, designed a way to pitch the magazine to potential businessmen who might, in turn, want to advertise their own products in its pages. Borrowing marketing strategies used by Popular Science, Ellis went on to create the character of “Teena” for Seventeen. As Massoni explains, Teena was never based on a real individual, but was a persona created by cobbling together data from surveys of teenage girls and their mothers during the mid 40s. Ellis describes her:
Teena the High School Girl has a peck of problems. She’s what older folks call an awkward adolescent — too tall, too plump, too shy — a little too much of a lot of little things. But they’re big things to Teena. And though she doesn’t always take her troubles to mother, Teena writes her favorite magazine for the tip-off on the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the lipstick she wields, the room she bunks in, the budget she keeps, the boy she has a crush on. Seventeen seems to have all the answers — that’s why like Teena, smart advertisers use Seventeen.
By making Seventeen’s Teena-identifying readership as insecure as Teena herself, the magazine pushed its “too tall, too plump, too shy” (too insecure?) audience to buy products that would tone their too-much-ness down. With the turn into the 50s, Seventeen covers grew progressively more descriptive about the potential flaws of the teen girl. The publication was starting to resemble women’s magazines of today — what had been implicit began to get stated right on the cover. Two examples:
April 1951 and June 1955: The cover on the left lists: BOYS (all kinds); DATES (how to get); YOUR FUTURE (where is it?); TREASURES (for now, forever). The one on the right promises a “Diet with Ice Cream.”
October 1956 and July 1961: And covers started pointing to celebrity content, too. The big questions: “Elvis Presley: rising star or passing fad?” and “Bobby Darin: big talent or big talk?”
1957–1965: Pivoting from the 50s into the 60s, Seventeen grew more candid about sex, with cover lines like:
• “A doctor answers your questions on SEX AND YOUR EMOTIONS.”
•”How Much Kissing is Too Much Kissing?”
• “Girl Talk: a frank discussion between 6 teens and a doctor.”
• “SEX WITHOUT SECRETS: a frank and healthy boy-girl discussion.”
• “Love and sex: a psychologist offers special advice to girls.”
May 1959 and April 1966: And bosom oriented.
May 1965 and January 1966: In the mid 60s, the magazine consistently included politically-slanted pieces, such as these: “What You Can Do For Human Rights in Your Own Home Town” and “Four teens report on: the race for space, the war in Vietnam, civil rights, the war on poverty.”
January 1969 — January 1973: Sometimes, the overall heterosexually-directed, white magazine acknowledged homosexuality and race. “Can teens ease racial tensions?” asked one cover. On the cover on left here: “A Noted Psychiatrist Discusses Homosexuality” (along with the 1969 concern: “Should YOU Be Drafted?”). I think (I hope) Helen Valentine would have been gratified by these instances, if not entirely satisfied. She always wanted more for the American teen than the American teen-mag seemed to offer. The January 1972 cover was the second to feature a black cover model: Pamela Jones, an 18-year-old ballet dancer from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The January issue the following year featured “TODAY’S YOUNG NAVAJOS.”
September 1966: Around this time Drugs were both a frequent and explicit topic. An October 1974 cover wondered: “IS MARIJUANA WORTH THE RISK?” while a May 1970 one warned of “The Growing Menace of Pep Pills.”
1970–1971 As these covers demonstrate — “My Fight Against The Environment,” “Environment Volunteers: Where To Join Up” — being 17 in the 70s meant caring for the environment. April 22, 1970 marked, after all, America’s first Earth Day. The cover of the April 1971 issue, dedicated to Special Travel, boasted “vacation places for earth-lovers” as well as “5 pollution fighters and how they’re winning.” Note the green font.
Through 1972 At the same time, the magazine continued to publish on sex issues, including more candid discussions on birth control and reproduction. The cover on left features In January 1971, among pieces on “The Looks You Want” and “The Dating Scene Around the World,” the cover also promised “Answers to Your Most-Asked Questions on Birth Control.” (November of the same year included: “When You’re Single and Pregnant.”)The September 1972 issue had a large banner about “ABORTION: THE TOUGHEST DECISION OF ALL.” Just months before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Seventeen was making it an issue on their cover (in red, no less).
July 1971: But this is my favorite cover from this decade, for how markedly 70s it is in its particular kind of un-hingedness. Joyce Walker, on the right, was the first black model to appear on the cover.
Valentine’s ambition for Seventeen was simple: “It was time to treat children as adults.” I wish I could write that the magazine remained faithful to Valentine’s admirable editorial aims for it — or even that, if it hadn’t, it had only stopped doing so recently. By the 80s, though, it was clear that the publication had turned into something Valentine would have balked at.
I still enjoy looking at the covers, but most of the fun comes from imagining myself a teen during a time when I definitively was not. What is being sold on these covers is safely in the past for me — and nothing I can immediately desire. The response, then, is laughter instead of envy or desire.
November 1980: For instance, I find her cream-colored outfit and eight (???) braids positively adorable, but they also holler “The Eighties!”
February 1984: Or this cover with Diane Lane and a ginger cat on the cover, while in the corner you’ll find “Nice Guy, Tom Cruise.” The joke now is that this was a point when Tom Cruise wasn’t seen as a joke himself.
May 1985: What are readers supposed to want more? Her hair or her midriff? OK, I admit, I’m kind of into this one.
August 1986: Denim Denim Denim. Also, “When your best friend is better-looking than you.”
July 1987: Two words: River Phoenix.
September 1989: That left corner sends a rush of mixed messages, and it’s exactly such strange ideological contortions that Seventeen continues to communicate today.
April 1998: Tyra Banks on the cover, as well as a piece on why we love Matt Damon & Ben Affleck.
Much of the 90s and aughts content is well-represented on the the magazine’s website. For example, 1994 marked the debut of Seventeen infamous “Traumarama!” column, still going strong today. First, appalling title. But even more, “Traumarama!” marks for me the moment Valentine’s appeal for teens to “say it!” truly collapsed. The column apparently grew out of an overwhelming amount of letters by readers, but, really, the letters are so rhetorically and narratively (when they, y’know, have a narrative) homogenous, that you can’t help but see “Traumarama!” as just another branding scheme to break Teena’s confidence.
As Carley Moore noted in an essay, the content of the column almost uniformly focuses on themes of “Boy” and “Body.” Things I learned from “Traumarama!”? Don’t embarrass yourself in front of your “crush,” but if you must, make sure it’s not tampon-related. Don’t be a klutz (though you might get away with being a ditz), don’t be “too tall, too plump, too shy,” too anything, really.
Instead, be like James Van Der Beek — plain “sensitive, shy, sexy” (February 1999):
What remains intact from the magazine’s early days aren’t necessarily its finest parts. The echoes of the “On the Slimming Side” and “To Slim You Down” articles from the 40s and 50s ring louder than ever in Seventeen today (a phenomenon, of course, not isolated to this magazine). You might recall Julia Bluhm’s recent petition to have Seventeen cease digitally slimming their models. Bluhm technically succeeded and the magazine did indeed engage in dialogue with many, many readers. Still, others remain unmoved and find such a response to be not nearly enough — or even wholly sincere. As for racial diversity, American teens still deserve much more. But rather than simply boycott or deride Seventeen as priming its readers to desire a future of unattainable beauty standards, perhaps we can take a page from Valentine’s first birthday letter: “Say you agree with SEVENTEEN or disagree violently, say we’re tops, say we’re terrible, say anything you please — but say it!”
Previously in series: What Did You Want To Accomplish When You Grew Up?, Twenty-Seven, “Dear Abby, When I Was A Young Man”, The Cost Of Being A Kid In A Classic Adventure Novel, Acne Cures Through The Ages and Wisdom Teeth
This book review by 13-year-old Eve Kosofsky (later Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, known for her brilliant work on queer theory) appeared in the January 1964 issue of Seventeen. You’re welcome.
(Thanks to Jill Anderson for directing me to Sedgwick’s Seventeen history.)