Friday, 7 September 2012

Venus on the Cover: A Pubic Wars special - Part 1 the 1950s

Playboy's first cover, featuring Marilyn Monroe, from December 1953

We have seen in our Pubic Wars series (see index for entries in the right sidebar) how the battle for circulation between Penthouse and Playboy in the nineteen seventies manifested itself in a battle of ever-increasingly explicit photographs. The same thing, however, also happened on the covers of these magazines in a progressive approach as each tested the legal waters to see what they could get away with.  It must have been an exciting time to be a reader as gradually each magazine tried to be that little bit more racy.  In these posts we are going to confine ourselves to the erotic frisson generated by these cover images by examining them in  the light of the journey to more overtly erotic covers.

January 1954

We have to start with Playboy, of course, back in the nineteen fifties as Penthouse wouldn't appear for over a decade after Hugh Hefner's first (undated) issue of Playboy in December 1953, which featured a black and white photograph of Marilyn Monroe provided by UP.  It's a nice picture with Monroe exuding joie de vivre and her low cut dress would have been pretty racy in the early fifties.

Hugh Hefner's mock up of Playboy's first cover

Playboy wasn't producing it's own girly pictures at this point; they were all bought in from picture agencies or calendar companies. Likewise, the second issue (from January 1954) featured a rather uncomfortable looking graphic of two young ladies and the notorious Playboy rabbit.  Why Playboy continued to use this weird and faintly sinister anthropomorphic creation is beyond us.

February 1954

The third cover of the magazine showed more design flair as it harked back to the days of the Belle Epoque.  Paris, as a city, retaining its saucy image for Americans.  Put together by the same graphic house (called, with great originality, Graphic House). The French showgirl on the cover is also the first to display a lot of bare skin.

March 1954

By the fourth issue it was clear that a design style had been settled upon; limited but bold use of colour, a graphic, poster-style approach and the inclusion of one or more attractive young ladies photographed in black and white.  This design, compared with the previous issue, and, indeed, the young lady herself are completely contemporary.  For the first time we have a named photographer, Hal Adams, for the image. The lady herself is flashing a lot of breast with some full and delicious areas of underside on view.  

The girl is model Joanne Arnold who would go on to become Playmate of the Month that May.  The image is from a feature inside about photographer Adams shooting an advertisement for Hartog shirts, as an excuse to have lots of images of Miss Arnold in a state of undress, although there are no visible nipples on show.  Whilst nipples were permissable on inside pages they couldn't be too, er, prominent or Eastman Kodak would refuse to process them.

April 1954

Just when you thought a firm cover-style had been settled along comes this curious issue where the girl, what there is of her, is reduced to a tiny image.  Maybe Playboy's blossoming sales were giving them the confidence to be able to drop the girl from the cover.  The cover collage was credited to B Paul. B was short for Bea who was the wife of Art Paul, Playboy's first (and brilliant) art director. Art Paul designed the famous rabbit head logo for the magazine.

The image was cleverly mirrored on the inside page where the magazine opened up with a slew of congratulatory letters.

May 1954

Bea Paul contributed  another collage the following month, as the cover went full colour for the first time, with this rather whimsical image.  Only the girl's torpedo-like breasts stop it looking for all the world like a children's book illustration.

June 1954

The original design

A third Bea Paul collage, somewhat similar to the previous month's, followed for June before we got this  abstracted effort for July.  The next few month's covers didn't feature any photos of women at all, just illustrations.

October 1954

After a seven month gap Playboy presented another photo of a girl on the cover and this time she was in colour (although hand tinted rather than a proper colour photograph)!  It was all about the graphics (and the dreaded rabbit) again, though.

November 1954

We had had breasts on one cover and now we get some inner thighs courtesy of this action shot of can-can girls.  Playboy had stopped giving credits for its cover designs at this point.

December 1954

The final issue of the magazine for 1954 is interesting in that it introduces the Playboy rabbit with a framed picture of a Playmate approach.  This style would be used for many years for January's Playmate review issue.  In this case the lady is that month's Playmate Terry Ryan.

Art Paul and Hugh Hefner select the shot of Terry for the centrefold

Terry was the first Playmate to be shot directly under Playboy supervision and this issue had a six page layout on how it was done.Art director Art Paul featured in several of the photos.  Bea Paul, who would continue to do covers for Playboy into the seventies, was responsible for the collage once more.

January 1955

January 1955's issue sees Playboy's first proper colour photographs of women on the cover, albeit still subservient to a graphic design which is, this time, credited to Art Paul.

July 1955

Collage's and paintings continued on the cover until July 1955 when this photography by Arthur James of that month's Playmate Janet Pilgrim became the first full page photo on the cover of the magazine.  Pilgrim was the first of six Playmate centrefolds James would shoot in the fifties.  The tan-line rabbit head was also the first example of Playboy putting the rabbit head on the body of the cover model in some way.  

June 1956

Although more and more colour photographs of women appeared on Playboy's covers over the next few years they were, more often than not, subsidiary to a graphic design or other artwork.   The women were either fully dressed or only seen as head and shoulders shots.  Playboy was very much a lifestyle magazine at this point and for much of the time it was only really Hefner who wanted to continue with the Playmate every month.  Several of his staff wanted to drop the feature and become more like Esquire, on who's circulation level Playboy was rapidly catching up.  The covers reflected this lifestyle-magazine-with-women rather than a pure girly magazine content.  It wasn't until the June 1956 issue that another bathing beauty, Gloria Walker photographed by Peter Gowland, appeared on the cover.

August 1956

The original design

The art gallery cover made another appearance in much the same form that it would for the Playmate Review covers later on.  This time the scantily clad ladies were paintings, however, not Playmates.  The Playboy rabbit would appear on more and more covers during this period.

July 1957

It wouldn't be until July 1957 that Playboy featured a non-graphic cover again.  This photo of Playmate of the Month for May 1957, Dawn Richard, by Peter Sutton has her in a top enticingly unzipped enough to demonstrate that she isn't wearing anything underneath.  This is really the first plain photograph of a girl cover that Playboy did.  No fancy graphics, just a photo of a pretty girl.  A precursor to the  look of the cover in the sixties.

December 1957

December 1957's issue features the first photograph of a completely naked girl on the cover.  The playing cards (the lady features in a pictorial article about poker) are graphics, of course, but this was a big milestone for Playboy in its depiction of women on the cover of the magazine.

January 1958

Into 1958 and we have the first of the gallery-style Playmate review covers, which combines the approach of the December 1954 and August 1956 covers.  Although there are no visible nipples, of course, there is an awful lot of mammary flesh on display here, albeit in very small photos. This cover, more than any other to date, highlights the Playboy Playmate as the defining ingredient of the magazine.  As we shall see, the small pictures of Playmates appearing in these "gallery" covers would often be a step ahead of, as regards what the girls were displaying, what Playboy would risk in a picture of a single girl on the cover.

April 1958

For example, April's issue was fronted (literally) by some small photographs of buxom Las Vegas strippers.  The girls' busts are covered (just) but individually Playboy wouldn't have risked full size images like this on the cover, whereas  they could get away with small examples as part of a more dominant graphic design. 

May 1958

May's cover has a single photo once more, this time featuring that month's Playmate Lari Laine by Ron Vogel.  The picture is a head and shoulders variant of her locker room-set centrefold picture.  Lari manages to look cute, innocent and naughty all at the same time which is really what the Playmate of this period was all about; a nice girl who will do naughty things.  This was Vogel's first Playboy cover and first Playmate centrefold.  He would do nine more Playboy gatefolds in the next decade.

Future (December 1958) Playmate Joyce Nizzari is captured by Don Bronstein and incorporated into this graphic design, featuring Art Paul's rabbit head, by Jerry White.  The teenage Nizzari had met Hefner that year when he visited Miami and they began an intense relationship which lasted, off and on, until 1961. This would, however, be the last scantily-clad Playboy covergirl for many months. 

July 1959

When the next one came it came with a bang however, featuring that month's Playmate Cindy Fuller (left), Fran Stacy (centre) and Mary Jane Ralston all photographed in a giant bubble bath by Bunny Yeager.  There busts are well and truly covered (possibly by some post photo re-touching) but the image of three naked women in a bath together is a strong one.  You can see the rest of this pictorial in our Post on Cindy here

December 1959

So in the nineteen fifties Playboy's covers did not, on the whole, feature girls as their primary subject.  Many didn't have any girls on them at all.  Single photographic covers were rare but as we move onto the sixties, however, the graphic style and collages would become more unusual and cover photographs of girls would start to appear more often.  That doesn't mean that Playboy abandoned its clever graphics but images of women would start to predominate by the second half of the next decade.

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