Nicole’s staff pick from earlier today reminded me: I’ve been meaning to draw attention to the riches of archive.org’s Magazine Rack, a clearinghouse for defunct, forgotten, and abstruse periodicals from decades past. Anyone interested in media and design will find something diverting here. They’ve amassed a stupefyingly diverse collection, including such celebrated titles as OMNI (once the best sci-fi magazine around) and more … specialized fare, like The National Locksmith, Railway Modeller, and, of course, Sponsor, the magazine for radio and TV advertising buyers. All of these have been carefully digitized, and they’re free.
The best discovery I’ve made so far is Desert Magazine, a monthly dedicated to everyone’s favorite Class B Köppen climate classification. A journal of the Southwest with a conservationist bent, Desert dates to 1937 and ran for nearly fifty years, ceasing publication in 1985. Its founder and longtime publisher, Randall Henderson, died in 1970, well before I was born, but I like the cut of his jib. (Probably the wrong metaphor—few occasions for sailing in the desert.) In any case, he sounds like a copywriter from the J. Peterman Company:
My first glimpse of the then dusty streets of Indio was in 1908 when I looked the village over from the top of a boxcar. I was a student in Los Angeles, on my way to Imperial Valley to earn some vacation money as a fruit tramp in the cantaloupe fields, and since it required folding money to make the trip on a cushion seat, I was on the observation deck of those “side-door sleepers.” The Southern Pacific train crews were very tolerant toward Imperial-bound hoboes in those days. The more melon pickers there were in the fields, the greater the pay-load for the outgoing refrigerator cars.
Desert managed, impressively, to publish lively, intelligent writing about a very dry place, month after month. I have never lived in the Southwest—I haven’t even visited—but before a recent nondesert vacation, I put several issues on my iPad and ended up reading them more or less from cover to cover, swooning all the while for more arid climes. Desert boasts excellent photography, buoyant prose, and features on geology, art, wildlife, gardening, mining, camping, et cetera. I won’t pretend that all of this is scintillating—there’s a regular column called Uranium News—but there’s something to be said for the sheer, indefatigable persistence of it. And it could be prescient: a 1962 issue dedicated to the Coachella Valley predicted that it would become “the center of desert vacation life in America and the entire world.” (They could not foresee, alas, that it would become “Burning Man for rich college kids who read Stereogum.”)
But the magazine’s chief asset is its rugged, warm design style, which brings to mind all that great midcentury National Forest signage. Below are some of its finest covers. Yes, they’re disproportionately heavy on cacti and/or buttes. This comes with the territory. Don’t like it? Go read Humid Subtropical or Tundra, then.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.