Playboy, the men’s magazine that Hugh Hefner, aged 27, founded on 1 October 1953, was as nostalgic as it was progressive. It was, in other words, a product of its time – the 1950s – a decade that was, as Hefner put it, “a very conservative time… politically, socially and sexually”. But it was also a decade that was to be characterised by the first stirrings of change in society’s attitudes to sex and morality.
During the Second World War, millions of young men – Hefner included – were sent far from their homes and sweethearts – many for the first time in their lives. Glamorous pin-up posters of Hollywood starlets, such as Betty Grable, whose legs were insured with Lloyds of London for £1m, helped drive away the homesickness and loneliness. They would become the inspiration for the Playboy centrefolds.
More than anything, Hefner wanted to inject a little bit of that glamour into the drab life of the 1950s. He looked back with fondness to the heady Jazz Age of the 1920s, with its sharply dressed, mint julep-swilling Jay Gatsbys. That goes some way to explain the inspiration for what was intended to be the magazine’s logo: a tuxedo-wearing stag. (The magazine was to be called Stag Party, but there was already a Stag magazine. The name Playboy was soon settled on, with its iconic bunny head logo, designed by the legendary Art Paul, added from the second issue.)
While Hefner already had some experience working in the magazine business, he needed the funds to get his idea off the ground. His brother, a children’s TV host, chipped in $1,000, which he added to the $1,000 his mother had given him. Using his furniture as collateral, Hefner was able to raise another $600 from the bank. All told, Playboy was established on a budget of just $8,000 – not enough to guarantee the life of the magazine.
Searching for a gimmick, Hefner hit upon the idea of cashing in on the popularity of 3D cinema, but found the free glasses too expensive to give away with the magazine. His luck changed when he secured the rights for $500 to images taken of Marilyn Monroe for a rather risqué calendar. The star of 1953’s Gentleman Prefer Blondes became the inaugural cover girl when the first issue was published that December. But so unsure was Hefner that the magazine would be a success that the first issue didn’t even have a date. As it happened, Playboy was an instant hit, selling 52,000 copies. The next issue, with date, sold even more.
Also on this day
On this day in October 1908, Henry Ford’s “car for the great multitude” – the Model T – was unveiled to the public. Over the next 19 years, 15 million would be built. Read more here.