Yankee by the Decade: New England's Magazine for 75 Years
Robb and Trix Sagendorph founded Yankee Magazine in Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1935. Robb was a frustrated freelance writer who believed that New England needed a magazine “for Yankee readers, by Yankee writers.” The initial subscriber list totaled 614 names, of which 600 had been purchased from a fraudulent subscription agency that had simply picked names at random from the Boston telephone book. So it could be said that Yankee actually began with 14 subscribers. Fortunately, the couple was able to live off Trix’s family money as the business got going. An accomplished artist, Trix contributed illustrations to the magazine’s pages. She provided illustrations for hundreds of Yankee covers, from the 1930s through the 1960s.
In 1939 Sagendorph purchased the publishing rights to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, America’s oldest continuously published periodical, from Little, Brown in Boston, and became its 11th editor since its first appearance in 1792. It had fallen on hard times during the Depression years, even omitting its famous weather forecasts from the 1938 edition, a blunder often blamed for the plummet in circulation to fewer than 80,000 readers. (Circulation had been twice that figure during the Civil War years.) However, Sagendorph immediately restored it to health, both financially and editorially.
During World War II Robb Sagendorph was recruited to serve in the Bureau of Censorship in New York. While working full-time, he continued to publish small editions of Yankee and to maintain the Yankee trademark. The scarcity of paper forced Yankee to go from 9×12 inches to “digest” size and then, to better fit the old letterpress printing presses, to the unique 6×9-inch trim size for which the magazine became well known. In July 1945, Sagendorph published a slim, 10-page issue of Yankee with these opening words: “With this issue Yankee returns to the old stand. We are back because our faith in the simple, everyday, honest things of life is as strong as ever.” Soon, subscriptions reached 10,000.
Circulation grew to more than 40,000 monthly during the late 1950s, but the principal money maker in those days remained The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which truly blossomed thanks to the national publicity that its weather forecasts, now written in rhyme, began to enjoy. Sagendorph appeared regularly on national radio and television programs and was a much-sought-after speaker at events throughout the New England states. (One of his favorite “props” was a wind-up moth; when he opened an old book from which to quote, it would fly out over the audience.)
In 1958, Jud Hale, Sagendorph’s nephew, joined the company as assistant to the managing editor. Hale had recently graduated from Dartmouth and wasn’t sure how this first job would work out. He barely knew his uncle, who hadn’t been very encouraging when he wrote to ask about publishing as a career. But it turned out that Jud Hale had a knack for editing. Fifty-two years later, he’s still at Yankee as its editor-in-chief and chairman.
After Yankee celebrated its 25th anniversary and as the editorial demands of the operation increased, Sagendorph decided he needed help managing the business. His son-in-law Rob Trowbridge, a law school graduate working for a conglomerate in New Jersey, was ready for a hands-on job. When he joined Yankee in 1964 as associate publisher, Trowbridge made changes that led to growth in subscription, newsstand, and advertising sales. Small direct-response advertising, for which Yankee had been a forum from the beginning, took off. The number of pages per issue doubled during this decade. In addition, color printing was introduced for the first time within the text of the issues, with a color photo featured in each “center spread.” By the end of the decade, Yankee‘s circulation was almost 400,000.
Shortly before Robb Sagendorph died of cancer on July 4, 1970, he called both Hale and Trowbridge to his bedside. He appointed Hale editor and Trowbridge publisher. “But don’t grow the company any more, boys,” he advised. “Why not?” was the obvious question, and both Hale and Trowbridge expected profound advice. “Because,” said Sagendorph, “the plumbing won’t take it.”
The “boys” didn’t heed his advice. Hale set about improving Yankee‘s editorial standards. Whereas Yankee had accepted stories from many sources, Hale began assigning stories to professional writers. And he hired some talented young editors and a new art director. The magazine switched to color printing during this decade.
The intersection of two trends in American society drove Yankee‘s circulation to more than 800,000 in 1979. In reaction to the societal upset of the late 1960s and the 1970s, many readers came to Yankee for the comfort of its traditional storytelling. At the same time, young readers who wanted to get “back to the land” picked up Yankee for its useful how-to information.