Scanning Around With Gene: The Stylish Covers of Fortune

I’ve long wanted to do a column on the covers of Fortune magazine, especially those published before 1960 when the magazine was one of the most lavishly produced in the United States. However, because the magazine began publishing in 1930, it was difficult to edit the many possibilities down to a manageable number for presentation here.

But I finally whittled down the images and chose some favorites. These covers are from a number of sources, including my own collection, Web archives, and a terrific book (out-of-print but still available at Amazon), FORTUNE The Art of Covering Business. Click on any image for a larger version.

Fortune magazine was founded in 1930 by Henry Luce, who had earlier co-founded Time magazine with Briton Hadden. When he presented the idea for Fortune to the board at Time, Inc., he quoted Leonardo de Vinci: “The eye giveth to man a more perfect knowledge than doth the ear. That which is seen is more authentic than that which is heard.”

Luce went on to say that “the new magazine will be as beautiful a magazine as exists in the United States. If possible, the undisputed most beautiful.” Many magazine buffs feel he easily accomplished that feat.

The first cover illustration and art direction for the magazine was done by T.M. Cleland, though by the fourth issue he had turned over art direction to his protégé, Eleanor Treacy. Luce encouraged fine art, the best photography, and spectacular print reproduction.

In fact, Fortune was such a difficult print job that the work had to be spread among several New York printers. The cover was printed on 125-pound stock, and the 11×14-inch size and large number of pages required each issue be stitched together by hand.

From the start, Fortune was expensive: $1 per copy or ten dollars a year for a subscription. A Sunday New York Times of that era was 5 cents. Despite the price, up to 30,000 people signed on for the first issue.

The stock market crashed just as the first issue was in the planning stages but Luce and crew carried on, determined to present business in an artistic and high-quality light. The unfortunate economic timing didn’t end up dimming the magazine’s success.

In that first issue, Luce wrote, “Fortune‘s purpose is to reflect industrial life in ink and paper and word and picture as the finest skyscraper reflects it in stone and steel and architecture.”

Throughout the years Fortune not only presented fantastic covers, often by well-known artists of the time, but dramatic photographs from the likes of Margaret Bourke-White and provocative writing from many of the best-known contemporary authors.

The inside pages were as lavishly designed as the covers. The oversized spreads made for dramatic presentations, and even advertisers got on board with unusual layouts that focused on art as much as copy. (I’ll look at Fortune ads in a future column.)

Early issues of Fortune are prized by collectors and I don’t have nearly as many as I’d like. They’re not only beautiful, but the ads and editorial content are interesting reads, as well.

Like most publications, Fortune was downsized over the decades and while it still exists, it’s a shadow of its former self. The original vision to publish the world’s most beautiful magazine has long faded, a victim of changing times and publishing economics.

But if you ever get a chance to pick up any old copies of Fortune, by all means do. You won’t be disappointed.

Special Note: Last week marked my nine-year anniversary writing these columns for For the vast majority of that time it has been my pleasure and fortune to work with editor in chief Terri Stone, who is leaving for a great new opportunity. My thanks go out to her, who is not only a talented and gifted editor, but a supportive and understanding friend. I would have never made it for nine years without Terri’s terrific work and kindness. I will miss our weekly interactions but expect our friendship to live on long after our writer/editor relationship ends.

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Posted on: February 17, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

9 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: The Stylish Covers of Fortune

  1. Really beautiful. I had no idea that’s how the magazine started out. Thanks for the education.

  2. Check the dates on the covers and you’ll notice how the art reflects the world events of the time.
    Thanks, Gene for all your work. I always look forward to seeing what you have posted every Friday.

  3. Wow ! Take off the publication dates and a lot of people would call those Adobe Studio’s end result.
    Thanks, Gene.

  4. Forbes Among 30 Clients Using Computer-Generated Stories Instead of Writers

    Pamela Pfiffner
    Editor in Chief (Pro Tem),

  5. Gosh, some of these are extraordinary. I especially like the 1937-1940 examples. As a designer who was trained in the 1960s, I fully appreciate the difficulty of printing many of these. I doubt young designers can fathom how fine printing was done 60 years ago.

    Thanks for posting these, Gene. It’s great to see such fine illustrations be brought to the attention of current designers.

  6. I adore your columns, I learn and reminisce so much it is frightening. Please keep up the splendid work! This column on Fortune magazine covers was amazing. Observing the art and design work on these covers is an education unto itself, please feel free to publish as many more as you possibly can. Seeing the interior layouts and advertising would be wonderful too. Thanks again. ~ delphyne woods

  7. Another great addition to your column Gene. I will miss Terri’s input too, and wish her the best in her new edeavor. I look forward to at least 9 more years of your Scanning Around With Gene columns, though, one of my favorite things about CreativePro.

  8. Great column Gene, I knew nothing of Fortune Magazine before and found this very interesting. The covers are amazing! I will now be on the lookout for classic editions of Fortune.

  9. It is wonderful that you celebrate Fortune. I started subscribing at age 12, in 1963, and have collected almost all of them as part of my library. They are works of art and filled with insights.
    Gary Hoover
    Austin, Texas

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