Harper’s Weekly, A Journal of Civilization began publication in 1857 as a venture of the New York publishing firm of Harper and Brothers. The Weekly was among a group of new magazines that benefited from lower postal rates and provisions that publishers instead of subscribers paid the postage. It was soon popular thanks to its use of illustrations, the relatively high quality of its printing, and its editorial content. By the end of 1861, the magazine had a circulation of 120,000 and stood, in terms of readership, among the leading magazines of the Civil War period.
Most magazines suffered circulation losses when the southern states seceded. The popularity of Harper’s Weekly, however, grew because of its coverage of the Civil War. It was widely read by the soldiers of the Union Army, and the magazine hired artists, including Thomas Nast, to follow the army in its campaign.
Although editorially the magazine supported the Lincoln administration and the Union cause, it was less strident in tone than Nast’s work “Compromise with the South,” described by many as Nast’s first great political cartoon, was published in the September 3, 1864 issue. The Republicans distributed reprints of this cartoon widely in campaigning for Lincoln’s reelection.
In 1863 George William Curtis became editor of Harper’s Weekly and under him the magazine’s influence grew. Curtis and Nast worked well together for a time. During the 1870s Nast’s cartoons attacking William Tweed and his political cronies in New York City gained national attention, and boosted the magazine’s circulation. It especially received favorable notice from Republicans. Both Curtis and Nast, although they had their disagreements, were important Republicans, although the magazine was ostensibly non-partisan. The magazine’s influence was greatest during the 1870s.
Harper’s Weekly began to lose favor in 1884 as a result of Curtis’ and Nast’s opposition to the Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine. Curtis and the magazine’s publisher consciously spoke out against Blaine knowing that it would cost circulation. What they did not count on was the widespread and vitriolic attacks on the magazine, especially those directed towards Nast, leveled by Republican publications Harper’s Weekly never recovered fully from this episode. Nast left the magazine in 1887 as the result of on-going conflicts with its editor and publisher Harper’s Weekly ceased publishing in 1916.
For additional information see Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, Vol. II, 1850-1865 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938): 469-87.