Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living

by L. W. “Bill” Lane, Jr., Former Publisher of Sunset Magazine, Stanford Class of ’42

Originally published in 1998 on Stanford Libraries' web site and in Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living 1898 - 1998

With most successful endeavors, for humans as well as organizations, there is a recognizable life span of achievement and distinction, in addition to whatever other ways success is measured. Sunset magazine is a story of success, by any definition, in achieving a 100-year history of continuous publication without missing an issue. Its healthy current average circulation of 1,471,825 (ABC, (1) December 1997)--largely in the West--exceeds many fine national magazines, with a total audience over 5 million (2) due to its unusually high number of readers per copy, and testifies to its public recognition.

This feat is further significant, given its focus on only one geographical region of the nation: Western America. It is important to keep this regional emphasis in mind: National and worldwide conditions often had far different immediate and long-term repercussions in the West than the rest of the U.S. and were accentuated for Sunset's readership beginning with the first issue in May 1898. For example, Yosemite and other Western attractions were much more difficult to visit from east of the Sierra and Rocky Mountains, and Sunset's early goal was to make "coming West" much more comfortable and cheaper--which just might encourage a decision by some passengers to settle down out West! The early popularization of the automobile and airplane, the opening of the Panama Canal, concerns about the Empire of Japan, World Wars I and II, the great Depression, the wonders of radio earlier and later television, and the economic boom and population shifting taking place over the last 50 years are issues bearing witness that the West was not marching in sync step with the national agenda. They and many more examples are reflected in this bibliography of over 9,000 major Sunset magazine articles and some 900 Sunset book titles, editions, and reprints, the latter often with new, updated material. Many of these East-West differences are put in a historical context by Dr. Kevin Starr in his perceptive introduction and by Dr. Tomas Jaehn in his well-researched essay, "Four Eras: Changes of Ownership." My brother, Melvin Bell Lane, gives his experienced overview of Sunset Books. The magazine and books continue to reinforce each other.

Thus, the primary function of this bibliography is to recognize a century of "notable" editorial content in Sunset magazine under its four owners. But, make no mistake, senior editorial staff and team efforts are a critical part of the magazine's performance. Several early editors are mentioned elsewhere. It is worth noting, however, from the launch of the first Lane issue, there have been remarkably few changes in senior magazine editorship in the ensuing seven decades. Co-editors Genevieve A. Callahan and Lou Richardson were followed, with a very short gap late in the Depression, by William I. Nichols, Walter T. Doty, Proctor Mellquist, and William R. Marken. The Lane family greatly appreciates their contributions. Rosalie Muller Wright now serves as editor-in-chief. These senior editors, with their dedicated and creative staffs--as well as many fine book editors--deserve tremendous credit for what this bibliography represents.

A successful magazine personifies "team effort." Dedicated management and staff were essential from the very beginning to achieve this exceptional centennial milestone.

Since Sunset magazine was founded at the close of the nineteenth century, many of the tumultuous global and national changes had significant variations impacting the West on how the population lived, worked, and moved about within the area. In recent history, as California has been the magnet to draw the largest share of domestic and foreign population growth, some old and new Californians have moved to other states with smaller populations for a number of reasons. But the large majority move to nearby Western states. Very few relocations go off the Western "reservation"! And, at times, a few of these regional differences created a special challenge of survival for Sunset, unique in the history of successful magazines--granted that all have had their own rocky road and certainly with the relatively few magazines still being published that exceed Sunset's longevity of uninterrupted publication. According to the MPA, (3) only 39 magazines started publication before 1898 (Outdoor Life joined Sunset in 1898), and many are no longer published or had interruptions in their normal publication frequency. Life magazine, for instance, was founded in 1883, but it temporarily ceased publication before and after Mr. Henry Luce purchased the title for Time Inc. (4) However, it is important to note that there are more magazines in the U.S. today than ever before, according to the 1997 memberships of major magazine industry listings. (5) I'm not surprised. The high-tech/computer/Web industry alone has spawned a great many new magazines. My brother, Mel, and I often heard our father say, "A new magazine is the easiest to start up by an editor with a bright idea meeting over a couple of martinis with a printer who will advance paper and printing!" The two-martini lunch is not as fashionable and the "easy" part is not so, of course, with a touch of our Dad's humility, and is only relative to the costs of starting up a new radio station, TV station, or daily newspaper. That comment, also, was usually followed by "And to keep a magazine successful is harder than getting it started" and then a warning, "Don't kill the goose that's laying the golden eggs."

To succeed with a new magazine is always a risky business: editorial appeal, gaining circulation vitality with rising direct mail costs for subscriptions and newsstand display competition, and advertising acceptance. But, as the socio-economic trends with a growing population become more diversified, and new technologies become more available, there are growing opportunities for the selectivity advantage of magazines. Dad wrote to a friend shortly after buying a failing magazine in 1928, only a year before the Depression, "The Sunset deal, of course, is a gamble." Indeed it was, but it won big.

Because editorial content is so critical in the founding and survival of magazines, this scholarly and beautifully produced bibliography is a dream come true for me. Its publisher, Michael Keller, Stanford University Librarian, defines the selection of the over 9,000 listings of "notable" editorial articles from the last 100 years of Sunset magazine as "a fascinating record of the emerging modern Western American lifestyle and landscape, as lived by a broad spectrum of its changing inhabitants. That numerous aspects of the Western life influenced and foreshadowed life and styles elsewhere in the United States makes Sunset's editorial history as reflected in this bibliography even more valuable."

This 100-year bibliography was inspired by and benefited from a long history of Sunset's publishing an Annual Index, beginning in 1952, listing all articles from each year, in three regional editions. In 1964, a new Desert edition was added for the more arid Southwest. The first priority of regional editions was editorial. Advertising was not initially accepted in regional editions. Today, there are more regional breakouts for editorial changes and for local advertising. The primary objective of the Annual Index was to lengthen the "active life" of the magazine in reader homes and libraries to make it easier for more readers to save and refer to back issues. Also, our research made us aware of the benefits of increasing response to advertisers, especially those with coupon or bound-in reply requests, which were often acted upon weeks, months, or even years after the issue was first published. This was a "plus benefit" for magazines generally and a few especially--Sunset, National Geographic, Better Homes and Gardens, Reader's Digest, and others that were saved by readers. We did not want nor sell "pass along" readership figures to advertisers, including Sunset Books. We wanted Sunset to remain in the households of primary readers. Even so, some copies eventually ended up in doctors' offices, beauty and barber shops! As a marketing tool, the Annual Index benefited readers but, in turn, strengthened circulation and further gave Sunset a competitive edge with advertisers. We were able to present hard evidence of the confirmed "long life" of Sunset magazine, vis-à-vis broadcast media and newspapers, of course, and most other magazines. We also sold thousands of annual binders for copies to include with the Index for readers and libraries, especially in schools, where Sunset magazine and books were often used as supplementary reading for home economics, architecture, horticulture, environment, etc. Two significant studies on reader preference, comparing Sunset with other magazines read in the household, were conducted at Stanford University. (6) Older issues, back to the first issue, have always been valuable resources, especially for editors in researching anniversary issues and articles up through this centennial year.

So, as the years passed since the first Annual Index, we were missing a much-needed index from the first issue. This bibliography by Stanford University reflects the full century of publication, with continuity of editorial coverage in the major categories listed. Such continuity of editorial policy is significant, recognizing that Sunset magazine's destiny has been held by four different owners. And its fundamental editorial mission continues to adapt with the times from the new ownership of Time Warner with management through Sunset Publishing Corporation.

This last change of ownership is unique in maintaining the basic editorial and marketing objectives. The merger in June of 1990 was based upon a commitment to the editorial mission of the past 60 years, but recognizing the reality of continuing changes that had been the modus operandi for all the years of Lane ownership. Also, the Lane Publishing Company had no debt, owned its headquarters real estate plus a cattle ranch and suburban properties, and had a sizable cash surplus. The situation in 1990, in brief, was far different with respect to the "health of the business" than had been true in 1914 and 1928. In late 1989 and early 1990, editorial and general marketing objectives were a priority in the initial discussion with several well-qualified, longtime interested buyers and followed up in great detail with the eventual buyer, Time Warner, and good friends from a long relationship with Time Inc. Indeed, the long-established formula--a Western family service magazine with a record of remarkable achievements--was the chief asset, as well as the potential for continued growth. That assurance of confidence and respect by the buyer far exceeded in importance any discussion of financial values by the sellers. As Reginald Brack, Jr., Chairman, President, and CEO of Time Inc., which shortly before had become a part of Time Warner, explained at a meeting with Sunset employees on April 18, 1990: "One of the first things we discussed with Bill and Mel when we sat down in New York was the respective position of our companies as leaders in their fields. Clearly, you are the leader in the West ... It was the sheer size and growth of your market in the West and of California, in particular." An earlier news release from Time Inc. Magazines, dated March 27, 1990, regarding the upcoming sale, quoted Brack: "Lane Publishing is the preeminent publishing franchise in the country's fastest growing market, the 13 Western states."

Independently of ownership issues, however, Sunset's fate has also been determined over the century of publication by a backdrop of significant regional differences that have influenced all four owners, going back to its founding, that are distinctly Western: topography and weather; early geographic isolation of the West; the nation's last continental frontier facing the new emerging world of the Pacific and Asia; pioneer exploration and settlement with many lasting cultural differences; the dramatic and sudden impact of the discovery of gold 150 years ago; the May 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (Sunset's eighth anniversary!); and the massive, unequaled, voluntary migration from East to West beginning with the Gold Rush. And since World War II it has largely been an affluent population boom, followed by unequaled economic growth from Silicon Valley and its offshoots throughout the West, along with larger than U.S. average rate of growth of the inland Western states. Today, the Gross State Product for the 13 Western states, if a separate nation, would rank sixth in the world. (7) Not to be overlooked has been the important political fallout from the surging population growth that has triggered far larger and more influential representation in Congress. (It will jump again with the census in 2000.)

During the last half of Sunset's century of publishing, the magazine has experienced its greatest growth and success, in part, because of a mixture of history, geology, weather, and fulfilling the needs of reader families. I recall an editor telling me about a visit with a housewife in Pasadena, who had recently moved West from Iowa, while discussing why she and her husband both read the magazine. Her quick response was "Sunset is all about the West that we came out here for!" For a lot of queries from Eastern advertisers, that statement said it all. Neil Morgan supported this sometimes hard-to-explain phenomenon in his popular book Westward Tilt: The American West Today, with his early-on recognition in the early 1960s of the suburban revolution taking place in the West: "Sunset has been both a symbol and symptom of the West… it is now the bible of the Westerner. It has sensed and capitalized on Western regionalism." I would have preferred "responded to" instead of his second verb! However, encouraging migration was not a part of the mission, à la the Southern Pacific creed published in the first issue--subscriptions were long refused from non-Sunset states and later at higher, one-year-only rates and no newsstand sales out of the West. An irate lady from Boston wrote to my father, "How snooty can you get?" after her subscription order was returned. Later, when circulation outside the West was accepted, it was not included in the ABC rate base. But the out-of-the-West readers, often recipients of Christmas gifts from Western family members or friends wanting to share their "good life," became very responsive readers for many advertisers--and, I am sure, helped make the West a more desirable place to live for some family visitors who later moved out West! And Sunset was one of the few magazines that did not rent or exchange subscription lists.

Like the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, a much smaller fire 30 years later at our family home in Palo Alto had fateful and long-term beneficial influence on Sunset. While Mel and I finished high school, our parents rented an apartment and bought Quail Hollow Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its history went back to the Ohlone Indians and the Spanish Zayante Rancho. During the late Depression and World War II, up to the company's move from San Francisco to Menlo Park in 1951, many editorial projects and key business meetings were conducted at the beautiful and peaceful ranch where Dad kept a "country office." Many business meetings took place there with staff, advertisers, and others. Early discussions were held there that led to the founding of the Advertising Council, which is still flourishing today. Mom was an avid gardener and a home economist, so her gardens and kitchen were a beehive (and we had them, too!) for many experiments. Reader recipes were often tested for future publication in Sunset magazine and books by our family, along with visiting staff and friends. Brother Mel was often the barbecue chef, and our first staff family picnic was held there. Fortunately, Quail Hollow Ranch is now preserved as a Santa Cruz County Park.

The uniquely Western regional and socio-economic conditions have given impetus to the evolution of prominent demographics that have further set the West apart from the rest of the U.S.: higher per capita levels of education, income, home and car ownership, passports, etc. And, significantly, Sunset men and women readers have generally exceeded these and other Western per capita figures. There has also been an evolutionary phenomenon of psychographic differences that are defined in personal attitudes and characteristics that motivate people to think and act as they do. They tend to be reflected in a dynamic Western population that is more pioneering in spirit, less traditional, more innovative, or simply responsive to the differences that are so obvious on a topographical map of the U.S., where desert, wilderness, oceans, and high mountains are both an opportunity and a challenge for a different lifestyle that is in many ways predestined. Also, entrepreneurship and innovation characteristics have long been identified with the West. Interestingly, some 34 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences (8) currently live in the 13 Western states with 21 percent of the U.S. population.

For sure, not all Western differences are better for human happiness: smog (which is getting better), unpredictable earthquakes and mud slides, water shortages and floods, increasing traffic congestion, and ocean damage along our coast, to name a few. Sunset has tackled many of these "problems," giving Sunseteditors an opportunity to help readers find better answers. Sunset's editorials have helped families with ideas for minimizing damage from earthquakes and unstable building sites, brush fire prevention, conservation of water, solar energy, nonpolluting garden products, and many ways to help achieve better environmental goals. Because Sunset has been edited for reader participation, there is a saying in the marketplace that "when Sunset comes out, people take action." And Sunset ideas have been used by planning commissions and building inspectors, park and environmental planners, and other governing agencies to benefit a far broader population than just the many millions of Sunsetreaders over the years. Thousands of reprints of many articles have been distributed by local governments, garden clubs, and often other media that, again, have benefited a far wider group of people than only Sunset readers.

The Holy Grail of truly successful magazines--beyond the understandable pride and bias of the founder--starts with an editorial mission. Editors fulfill that editorial mission, starting a chain reaction to attract and hold readers. Reaching that goal must, in turn, develop a solid and marketable volume of circulation that is impressive enough for prospective advertisers to join with editors to provide the total service for readers. The most brilliant editorial content does not go it alone in commercial magazines. To fulfill the business mission of conventional magazines- for-profit requires that both circulation and advertising play critical complementary and synergistic roles in varying degrees of importance for the bottom line profit. Magazine publishers generally have a finger on the pulse of their reader audience for research and adjusting the formula to continue publication. Henry Luce is reported to have taken 10 years to reach a profit with Time Inc.'s now fantastically successful Sports Illustrated. Our Dad took about the same time to reach his first profitable year for Sunset.

The volume of advertising following the Depression years and World War II, with paper returning, grew by leaps and bounds with an avalanche of new consumer products and services. And the new television medium was taking an increasing lion's share of the dollars. Look, Collier's, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post folded. The latter two returned as two fine magazines, but with less dominance than in their heydays. However, Sunset continued to achieve solid gains through this very tough competition of television and later regional editions of national magazines. Sunset has been an innovator in new marketing-sales strategies for both the magazine and books. The magazine grew in circulation, exceeding Western population gains in rate of growth and established many magazine-industry records in pure volume of advertising and several key categories: automotive, travel, garden products, etc. In the midst of the battle for the prime consumers, Sunset published several issues over 300 pages--340 pages in April 1960, which was the maximum capacity of the presses at the time--and many in the 200-plus range. These postwar years gave Sunset editors the opportunity to write hundreds of long, in-depth articles, and many more that were shorter than a page, but carried a real wallop for readership. (These shorter articles are not included in this bibliography, as explained by the publisher in his Foreword.) The editorial-advertising ratio remained close to constant at 45 percent to 55 percent through the post--World War II Lane years. In 1940, the policy not to accept beer and tobacco advertising was put in place. Liquor was never accepted. Wine advertising was accepted and continues to be, while tobacco advertising is still not accepted. Some 30 categories of advertising were not accepted and several on a one-time decision, like the American Rifle Association and many others that we did not deem appropriate for a family magazine.

In the earlier tough and lean years, tightly written articles with black-and-white photographs and illustrations simply gave more helpful how-to-do-it information to readers and supported the growing number of advertisers to present their "what-to-do-it-with" advertising. The first editorial color under Lane appeared in December 1954 illustrating Christmas ideas in baking and decorating. I recall very clearly that in January 1961, my second year as Publisher, we ran a full-color page on Sonora, Mexico, followed by a four-color spread in April on varieties of citrus. It was reprinted as a poster by demand from nurseries. From then on, four-color photographs were in every issue, made possible by the great growth of advertising and improvements in printing and binding. Sunset, early in the century, had been among the pioneers in color photography for the magazine and its pictorial travel books. Under Lane, during the Depression and the war years, paper and space were precious, and color was not used, because more information could be conveyed in less space using how-to-do-it text and smaller line drawings and black-and-white photographs. And readers approved with a steady growth in circulation with very high renewals--which we monitored carefully. In fact, black-and-white editorial was developed into a strong marketing tool for selling four-color advertising, which stood out more facing the high readership of black-and-white editorial, and gained exceptionally high advertising readership figures.

As Dr. Tomas Jaehn points out in his essay, "Four Eras: Changes of Ownership," changes to the editorial mission and marketing objectives did not take place to the same extent in the 1990 change of ownership as had prevailed in 1914 and 1928, because Time Warner, as it announced, was eager to continue many of the profitable values already in place. However, and make no mistake, every single successful magazine must constantly adapt to change to stay healthy and keep and gain new readers as well as appeal to the advertisers. Actual readers inevitably change, conditions change, priorities change, technology changes, the status quo does not survive--and every one of Sunset's owners has changed procedures during their tenures. During the Lane years, we used to say Sunset magazine "changed by evolution, not revolution." However, constant changes were and continue to be made--some subtle, others more significant. But the "mission" stays firm.

For 100 years, Sunset has been a magazine reporting on and helping to make history in the West. It was founded with great enthusiasm as a new century was emerging, one bringing challenges anticipated and often unknown. It is my deepest hope that, with this extensive centennial bibliography and historical analyses, the experiences of failure and success from the past will help Sunset magazine and its readers meet the challenges of the future and continue to benefit Western America by representing the very best family values as a dynamic part of our great nation.


(1) Audit Bureau of Circulation.

(2) Mediamark Research Institute, Inc. (1997).

(3) Magazine Publishers of America.

(4) The American Magazine, MPA & American Society of Magazine Editors (1991).

(5) Including Standard Rate and Data Service (SRDS) Consumer and Farm Magazines, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) General and Farm Magazines, and Publisher's Information Bureau (PIB) Measured Magazines.David Ernest Faville, How Sunset Magazine Subscribers Evaluate The Magazines They Read (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Graduate School of Business, 1940), and Chilton Bush, Studies of Magazine Preference in Palo Alto, California (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Institute of Journalism Studies, 1954).

(6) David Ernest Faville, How Sunset Magazine Subscribers Evaluate The Magazines They Read (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Graduate School of Business, 1940), and Chilton Bush, Studies of Magazine Preference in Palo Alto, California (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Institute of Journalism Studies, 1954).

(7) As of 1994, per Tables 696 and 1347, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997).

(8) National Academy of Sciences Membership List (July, 1997).