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With their photos of Britney peeling out with her baby behind the wheel and stories chronicling Nicole Richie's weight fluctuations, Star and Us have allegedly taken tabloid reporting to a new level. But compared to some of their ancestors, today's tabloids are like stodgy standard-bearers of journalistic integrity. Conceived in the 1930s, the first gossip rags began appearing at newsstands in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, filled with stories of gang warfare, traveling orgies, the shadowy queer underworld and girls gone wild in the cities' ballrooms and brothels. For the first time, the public had a fix for an addiction it never knew it had.


    Most of the early tabloids quickly came and went, going bankrupt or falling victim to indecency laws. But one, Broadway Brevities, a weekly collection of filth, lies, suggestive cartoons and mean-spirited gossip, survived for years. Launched in 1916 as a relatively demure monthly gossip source for the New York theater world, it evolved into a beautifully garish tabloid for the general public. In its heyday, between the years of 1930 and 1935, it featured the most tasteless copy the law would allow — and in many cases, things it wouldn't.
    Brevities' pages were littered with gossip about high-profile people about town. ("Helen Blair looked funny walking into Gimble's the other day with that sugar daddy," claimed an item that chronicled the city's ballroom scene. "But it paid, didn't it Helen?"). Covers were invariably splashed with a tawdry article that had sex and sin at its epicenter. "MOBS HUSTLE GALS! White Slavers Trap Innocent Victims; Virgins Bring High Price In Vice Mart" blared one story about prostitution and the mob. "BIG BALLS POPULAR: Mammoth Dances Provide Entertainment; Whoopee Seekers Desert Intimate Hot Spots" warned another about the proliferation of public sex. Assertions like, "STUDENTS OPEN WIDE! Girls and Boys Mingle in Sin Dens" —

Four Brevities covers that illustrate the editors' penchant for puns. (Click images to enlarge).

which appeared in Brevities on September 26, 1932 — were printed in bold on page one and basically made up out of thin air. Even the tagline that ran under the magazine's logo, "America's First National Tabloid Weekly," was a half-truth — Brevities was barely distributed outside New York.
    But the public didn't care; they devoured Brevities' lurid stories, double entendres and graphic cartoons. Previously, certain art magazines had been seized by authorities under indecency laws, but Brevities' particular mix of sexual sensationalism and "news" was shocking and unprecedented. And although a few similar tabloids like the Broadway Tattler and the New York Tattler would pop up briefly during the early '30s, Brevities was the indisputed king of the genre.
Within New York, its circulation was approximately 50,000 — a fraction of the audience for major media gossips like Walter Winchell. But what Brevities lacked in distribution, it compensated for with hysteria and amusement.

The term "tabloid" was trademarked in the 1880s as a word for little pills, or tabs, according to media historian Will Straw of McGill University. But by 1906 it was recognized as a term for half-sized newspapers. In its earliest years, the six-by-nine-inch Broadway Brevities assumed everyone reading it knew everyone else. Blind items asked questions like, "Who was the doll that had her sweetie followed by detectives for two whole weeks, and then gave him the bill when she found out he was K.O.?" Longer feature articles were, as Straw puts it, "devoted to the detailed destruction of reputations." But because of its cryptic, insular tone, its appeal was lost on the general public.
    But in the 1930s, tabloids went trashy. (Brevities' editor, Stephen Clow, had been imprisoned for blackmailing society figures in exchange for positive coverage, and had no compunction about going lowbrow.) The new publications weren't just for small spheres of elites who all knew each other — they were for the uncouth, loud-mouthed masses. "You had society magazines in the nineteenth century with, 'Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So were seen vacationing in Saratoga,'" says Straw. "But in the '20s, what happens is you get people publishing who aren't part of those social worlds. In many cases, they're Jewish immigrants or somehow on the outside. And by the '30s, it's all outsiders."
    Then, as now, gossip functioned as a form of social control. Brevities' stories became vague and abstract enough to be relatable to almost anyone. The April 4, 1932, cover story was titled "CHAIN SIN SOARS! Apartment Vice Nests in Big Cities Spew Evil into the Laps of Law-Abiding Citizens; Hundreds of Girls Sell Flesh in Dens Next Door to Homes of Decent People." It warned ominously that "bright, breezy girls in fashionable layouts" were moving prostitution out of the slums and into "well-appointed apartments where virtue is a memory and sex a matter of economics."

    "Where do the girls come from?" the writer asked. "
How are they employed? This is one way: A girl comes to the city in search of employment. She cannot obtain work; one of the chain scouts, always looking for business, picks her up. He treats her kindly and takes her to his apartment. Here she is introduced to the vice. The treatment she receives at the hands of many men is not to be described. After her brutal initiation into sin, the chain bosses are certain she will be too frightened, too crushed or too shamed to do anything else but accept the terms which are offered to her."
This was the tone of most Brevities stories: an anecdotal narrative that never ended well. Many read like Reefer Madness-esque government propaganda, dire warnings that a wayward lifestyle would lead to certain doom. Usually, that lifestyle involved casual sex and falling in with the wrong crowd. "Radical Writers Inhabit Love Camps" announced one headline. "Artist Colonies Seethe with Sex; Long-Haired Nuts Live Like Rabbits."



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