Like so many enduring enterprises, it began with one man’s dream. Robb Sagendorph of Boston had tried working for his father’s steel business, Penn Metal Inc. He’d tried farming at his wife’s family’s summer home overlooking Mount Monadnock in Dublin, New Hampshire. He’d tried writing for national magazines. Then he tried the steel business again. Robb’s father, the late George A. Sagendorph, had hired and fired his only son (there were also three daughters), no fewer than three times. But throughout those years following his graduation from Harvard in 1922 (where he’d served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon and the Harvard Business Review), Robb Sagendorph maintained a gut feeling that the six-state region known as New England should have a magazine of its own.
In September 1935, he made his dream come true. While driving from Dublin to Boston earlier that summer, he’d decided to call it Yankee Magazine. It would, he wrote later, be “for Yankee readers, by Yankee writers, and about Yankeedom.” Its “destiny” would be “the expression and perhaps, indirectly, the preservation of [our] great [New England] culture.”
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.
With a subtle mixture of sophistication (featuring writers such as Robert Frost, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Robert Tristram Coffin, and Gladys Hasty Carroll) and homespun country atmosphere (such as “The Original Yankee Swopper’s Column”), Yankee Magazine managed to survive the 1930s. Sagendorph’s wife, Beatrix, not only painted all the covers in those days and for many years thereafter, but also helped finance the fledgling enterprise in times of trouble.
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 it first appeared in the fall of 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 under 80,000. (Circulation had been twice that figure during the Civil War years.) However, Sagendorph immediately restored it to health, both financially and editorially, and managed to publish it each year during World War II, even while serving full-time in the Bureau of Censorship in New York. Yankee Magazine suspended monthly publication during the last two war years, but published a four-page issue annually in order to maintain the copyright.
After the war, Yankee was reduced in size from 9″x12″ to “digest” size and then, to better fit the old letterpress printing presses, to the unique 6″x9″ trim size for which the magazine became well known. Circulation grew to over 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 in no small part 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 that, when he opened an old book from which to quote, would fly out over the audience.)
In 1958 Judson Hale, Sagendorph’s nephew, joined the company on the editorial side, and seven years later, in 1965, Rob Trowbridge, his son-in-law, came on board to help with the business end of things. Five years later, shortly before his death on July 4, 1970, Sagendorph called both Hale and Trowbridge to his bedside. He told them that about 80 percent of YPI stock would be held in trust for his two daughters, Jane Kauppi and Lorna Trowbridge. Most of the remaining minority shares would be held by the Hale and Trowbridge families. (To this day, YPI remains a private, family-owned company, per Sagendorph’s wishes.)
Then Sagendorph beckoned Trowbridge and Hale even closer to his bedside and said, “But don’t grow the company any more, boys.”
“Why not?” was the obvious question, and both Hale and Trowbridge expected profound advice. “Because,” said Sagendorph, “the plumbing won’t take it.”
Despite Robb’s warning, YPI grew dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. Yankee Magazine and The Old Farmer’s Almanac did so well that the company started and purchased additional publications to expand even further. However, these new ventures didn’t perform as expected, and the company returned to focusing on its core businesses. In 1988 Joe Meagher became the president and led the company through extensive organizational changes, resulting in a business that was leaner and more competitive.
Even so, the economics of magazine publishing grew more challenging for YPI. In the 1990s media conglomerates were buying up magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and television stations. It wasn’t clear that small independent publishers such as YPI would be able to compete in a marketplace dominated by media giants. At the same time, the media landscape started to shift with the introduction of “new media,” most notably the emergence of the Internet as a medium through which consumers could get information and entertainment. What should the company do in the face of these challenges?
YPI’s board and shareholders decided to remain independent and to embrace the Internet as a publishing platform. Jamie Trowbridge took over as president in 1999 and led the company through further changes, positioning it for success in the 21st century. The company has launched new products from The Old Farmer’s Almanac; completely overhauled the structure of its Yankee Magazine business, changing the magazine’s format, frequency, and circulation in 2007; and invested in launching and growing a portfolio of Web sites related to YPI’s magazine brands. The company’s mission is to remain a successful independent media company committed to creating outstanding products that serve its customers and enhance its communities.
Through all the changes, YPI has held fast to the vision of its founder, Robb Sagendorph, who was so inspired by the spirit of New England that he started a magazine about it. Independence, integrity, ingenuity, perseverance, self-sufficiency, community — these are the values that have made both New England and Yankee Publishing successful. We continue to adhere to those values at YPI today.