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Jake via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Jake via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

A Brief History of Zines

Jake via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Jake via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

Zines have now become so mainstream that even Kanye West has one. In February 2016, the hip-hop artist tweeted: “Season 2 Zine pronounced Zeen short for magazine. A lot of people pronounce it wrong.” The tweet included a picture of the publication Kanye had made to accompany his second line of footwear for his brand, Yeezy. After decades of existence, zines are no longer strictly counter-culture, but they originated as small-scale DIY efforts—many with an anti-authoritarian message.

Most definitions of zines include the fact that they are small-circulation, self-published, and often inexpensive or free. That’s generally true, although these are more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. The most important aspect of a zine is generally that the publication identifies as one. Many zine-makers will say zines are as much about the community as the product, and that identifying as a zine is what separates these publications from comics, literary journals, websites, and other types of independent publications.

The first zine is often traced back to a 1930s effort by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago. It was called The Comet, and it started a long-lasting trend of sci-fi related zines. The important sci-fi zine Fantasy Commentator began in 1943, and ran in various iterations (though not continuously) until 2004. One of the pieces serialized in Fantasy Commentator eventually became Sam Moskowitz’s book on the history of sci-fi fandom, The Immortal Storm. The interconnectedness of zines and sci-fi is reflected in the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) Hugo award for Best Fanzine, first given out in 1955 and still awarded today. (As the name of that award shows, zines were originally called fanzines, alluding to the fans who made them. Eventually, fanzine was just shortened to zine, and the range of topics widened to include practically anything.)

The relationship between zines and sci-fi deepened after 1967, when the first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, was produced. It gained plenty of attention, and the second issue included letters by members of the show, including writer D.C. Fontana and actors James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Leonard Nimoy. (The actors all wrote their letters in character.) In 1968, Star Trek was reportedly going to be canceled after two seasons, but a letter-writing campaign—partly organized through fanzines—that generated over 160,000 missives was able to help get the show back on the air for another year.

The technological innovations of the ‘70s made zines easier to create than ever. In particular, the rise of copy shops allowed zine-makers to produce their work cheaply and quickly. (Previously, zines had been produced using mimeographs, which push ink through a stencil to make multiple prints, but the process was impractical for large-scale production.) Steve Samiof, one of the people behind the popular punk zine Slash, told Dazed in an interview earlier this year that the copy shops of the '70s were “extremely inexpensive—you could pay under $800 for 5000 copies and that would be the actual printing cost.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the main hub of zine culture became the punk scene in London, LA, and New York. Compared to the earlier sci-fi zines, punk zines had a grungier, DIY aesthetic that reflected the subjects being covered. Slash and other popular zines like UK-based Sniffin’ Glue covered seminal punk bands like The Clash, The Ramones, and Joy Division. The first issue of Punk, published in 1976, featured an interview with Lou Reed.

The first issue of Sniffin' Glue. Image credit: Wikimedia // Fair use

The dedication of the early punk scene allowed zines to get interviews with people who would go on to be big names before they had achieved fame. When punk started to gain popularity, many of the zines that previously helped define the scene shut down. Sniffin’ Glue ended in 1977 and in 1979 Punk followed suit.

In the 1990s, zines flourished again thanks to the riot grrrl scene. As an alternative to the male-driven punk world of the past, riot grrrl encouraged young girls and women to start their own band, make their own zine, and get their voices heard. Key bands included Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, L7, and Sleater-Kinney. By 1993, an estimated 40,000 zines were being published in North America alone, many of them devoted to riot grrrl music and politics.

But riot grrrl was more than just a musical genre, it was a feminist movement—though it was often difficult to pin down the specifics of that movement. As Max Kessler wrote in Paper, “Whatever riot grrrl became—a political movement, an avant-garde, or an ethos—it began as a zine.” Riot grrrl spread from its epicenter in Olympia, Washington to across the country and other parts of the world.

Many of the members of these bands also had their own zines. Bikini Kill ran a zine of the same name, and Tobi Vail, a member of the band, ran her own popular zine called Jigsaw. The zine Snarla was made by artist Miranda July and musician Johanna Fateman. Both Bust, first published in 1993, and Bitch, published in 1996, started out as zines connected to the riot grrl movement and have since grown into full-scale magazines.

 
Today, zines are more diverse than ever. The rise of the internet has helped make the cost of production almost zero, and online zines such as Plasma Dolphin, Pop Culture Puke, Cry Baby, and Cherry have brought young artists together to collaborate. However, zines are also still sold in person through zine fairs as well as online via Etsy and Big Cartel. The internet has also made it easier for zine makers to connect and find community regardless of location.

While the zines of the past have been shaped by the predominant themes of sci-fi, punk music, and the riot grrrl movement, there have always been zines on a variety of subjects. Today, that diversity is reflected in publications like Home Zine, which invites artists to explore the concept of feeling at home; Filmme Fatales, which explores feminism in film; and Dad Tweets—a short, humorous collection of selected tweets from a real-life dad. There is even a zine about what plants are best for attracting bees and other pollinators. In fact, there is an entire magazine, Broken Pencil, dedicated to covering zines and zine culture. (In the 1980s and early 1990s, Factsheet Five, a zine of zines, performed a similar function.)

The usefulness of zines as historical documents is now being recognized. Many universities have their own zine collections and there are also numerous independent zine libraries both in America and around the world. It’s easier than ever to learn about zines first-hand. However, the best way to learn and be involved in the community is the same as always: start reading and then start creating.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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