David Butterfield

Why The Spectator is the world’s oldest weekly magazine

Why The Spectator is the world's oldest weekly magazine
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Founded in 1828, The Spectator has been proud to describe itself as ‘the oldest continuously-published weekly in the English language’. But this is rather modest, for it is both the oldest weekly magazine in the world, and the oldest general-interest magazine continuously in print. Yes, the internet is full of claims and counter-claims in this most competitive of fields, but the facts prove to be unambiguous.

First things first. The oldest cultural and literary magazine that is still on the go is the Serbian monthly Letopis Matice srpske, which first appeared in 1825, three years before The Spectator. However, this magazine has had a number of breaks in publication: it didn’t appear in 1835-6, 1849 and 1942-5, a total of some six years. On three other occasions publication was significantly held up: all volumes for 1867-70 appeared in 1871, for 1877-8 in 1879, and for 1915-20 in 1921. It has therefore been printed (variously as Serbske letopisi, Srbskij letopis, Novij serbskij letopis, and Letopis Matice srpske) in 187 years, two fewer than The Spectator.

What, then, of The Scots Magazine, which proclaims itself not just ‘the oldest popular periodical’ but also ‘the oldest magazine in the world’? It is nothing of the sort. Although the original magazine was founded in the venerable year of 1739, it disappeared two centuries ago. After merging with the Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany in 1804, and adopting that name in 1817, it collapsed in 1826 – coincidentally the year in which Robert Rintoul, founder of the Spectator, headed from Scotland to London to further his journalistic career. The title was not resurrected for sixty years: in 1887 The Scottish Church (founded two years earlier) changed its name to The Scots’ Magazine. Yet, far from this being a continuation of its namesake, it was a simple rebranding: as its editor put it, ‘nomen non animum mutamus’ (we change our name but not our spirit). That magazine only survived to 1900. Finally, in 1924, the St Andrew Society of Glasgow resurrected the name yet again: it’s this last run which survives as the present-day monthly, now edging towards its first century.

The modern Scots Magazine, then, can no more claim 1739 for its birth than Tatler (1900-) can claim 1709 – when Richard Steele founded his revolutionary but short-lived tri-weekly periodical of that name – or indeed the Spectator 1711 – when, with Joseph Addison, he founded that most celebrated of all dailies.

In stark contrast, The Spectator, since its first issue of July 1828, has succeeded in maintaining unbroken publication every week – even in the most trying of circumstances. During the general strike of May 1926, the editorial staff managed to get an eight-page ‘sort of paper’ out via a Gestetner Duplicating Machine. Even during the Shinwell fuel crisis of February 1947, when Attlee’s government decreed that all British weeklies be suspended for a fortnight to conserve the nation’s resources, The Spectator managed to appear: at the invitation of the Daily Mail, a miniature digest of the weekly magazine filled that newspaper’s second page for 20 and 27 February, complete with masthead, political comment, editor’s notebook and literary review. After enjoying that sudden spike in circulation to 3.6 million (‘putting some of its regular features before a far larger public than they normally reach’), The Spectator returned to its typical stand-alone form. In 1970, however, the issue of 4 July had to be rolled into that of 11 July because of the printers’ strike then afflicting many magazines. An unamused statement below the leader said enough: ‘we apologise to readers for this departure from the normal pattern’. The first deliberately double-week edition arrived in Christmas 1976, a merciful practice that has continued for subsequent Christmas specials.

In 1980, The Spectator inherited the title of the oldest general magazine in English, when ‘Maga’, the monthly Blackwood’s Magazine (founded 1817), at last ceased publication. But, to move from generality to specificity, the world’s oldest ‘magazine’ of any kind is The Gospel Magazine, founded in 1796 as a monthly miscellany of biblical exegesis and spiritual reflection. (Its name was taken from a separate publication of 1766-83.) Since 1975 it has been a bimonthly, turning out six issues a year. In the academic world, too, there are a few periodicals – in so sense magazines – of older origins than The Spectator: the scientific Philosophical Magazine (1798-), the medical Lancet (1823-), and the richly-illustrated annual Curtis’ Botanical Magazine (1787-), now overseen by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. Earliest of all, however, is Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, founded as a monthly in 1665. In a quite different category is Lloyd’s List, the digest of shipping news that appeared from 1734 until 2013, when it took on an exclusively digital form.

For most of its existence, The Spectator was officially classed as a newspaper, a field in which there survive some far older titles. The world’s oldest weekly newspaper is Berrow’s Worcester Journal, founded as The Worcester Post-Man in 1690. The oldest extant newspaper is the Swedish Ordinari Post Tijdender, founded in 1645, but lamentably online-only since 2007. The oldest paper still on paper is Haarlems Dagblad, which in 1942 incorporated – at the instance of the German occupation – the Oprechte Haerlemsche Courant, ultimately founded in 1656.

Weekly magazines have always had an immense effect on British life. Among the hundreds of titles that have appeared and evanesced are many that pervaded – and persuaded – the nation: The Political Register, The Examiner, John Bull, The Athenaeum, Saturday Review, Sporting Life, The Listener, Nation, Weekend Review; the irreverent pages of Punch also had a powerful place for 160 years. Now The Spectator is the oldest surviving weekly magazine, not just in Britain but worldwide. It is also the world’s oldest political periodical. In addition, since it has had no break in publication, it can also claim to be the world’s oldest general magazine that has been continuously in print.

Here’s one final feat. In 2020, The Spectator will reach its 192


year, overtaking the monthly Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1922) as history’s longest-surviving general-interest magazine. In the summer of that year it will also publish its 10,000


issue, a feat achieved by no other weekly, and far beyond the issue run of any other magazine in print.

For all its varied and provocative writing, The Spectator’s printed history is a model of constancy and continuity. Pick a date and take a look for yourself:  The Spectator’s complete history in print – some half a million pages – are freely available to browse online.

Note from the editor: The world's oldest weekly magazine is also the fastest-growing in the UK, with its sales (far) higher than any point in the last two centuries. To find out why, take out three-month trial - full access, just £12 for 12 weeks. Click here.