In December 1953, the inaugural issue of Playboy magazine hit newsstands without a date. Hugh Hefner, its creator, was unsure of the magazine’s success and its future, so by withholding the date he hoped he could continue to sell that issue until he sold out of that first run.
Mr. Hefner, who died on Wednesday at 91, had nothing to worry about.
In its prime, the magazine ranked among America’s top-selling publications, alongside Life and Time, sometimes beating their subscription rates. The magazine, aimed at men, quickly transcended Mr. Hefner’s target audience, with a subscriber base that cut across gender, race, class and ideology. Today it’s easy to write off Playboy, and Mr. Hefner, as the last remnants of a more sexist age. But seen from the perspective of the 1950s and ’60s, they were progressive icons — not just in the libertine styles they promoted, but in the causes that they featured in the magazine’s pages and made central to what it meant to be a modern man.
The masculine ideal of the era was narrowly prescribed: aloof, outdoorsy, a breadwinner, “manly.” Showing an interest in culture, fine food or travel were anathema. Mr. Hefner felt trapped in that conformity and designed a magazine that promoted a very different idea of what made a “man” through its features and advice on clothing, food, alcohol selections, art, music and literature. Though it quickly became a cliché, male readers really did “read it for the articles,” telling surveys that they enjoyed features on the ideal bachelor pad even more than the centerfold.
Of course, Playboy was never just about the articles. From the beginning, its goal was to combine and appeal to men’s entire range of interests — intellectual, entertainment and erotic. Hence the Playboy Playmate, which Mr. Hefner modeled after Esquire’s Vargas Girls, popular among servicemen during World War II. Women in the magazine were intended more as the girl next door than as sex objects.
Still, the fact that they were often topless (full nudity didn’t appear until 1972) brought criticism that Mr. Hefner objectified women and promoted an unrealistic standard of female beauty, that women should be subservient playmates for the modern man. To Mr. Hefner, women were simply a part of the interests of most heterosexual men. The magazine featured discussions of equal rights, contraception and reproductive choice for women. Mr. Hefner never saw that as a contradiction.
As the magazine’s editorial style evolved, Mr. Hefner and his editors delved more into politics and current events. By the 1960s, he was writing a frequent installment he called “The Playboy Philosophy,” in which he addressed topics like the First Amendment and sexual mores. He advocated for gay rights. He pushed for women’s access to birth control and abortion rights. He discussed censorship as well as what constitutes “obscene” in the United States and promoted the free exchange of thoughts and ideas.
And readers responded. So many wrote in that the magazine created “The Playboy Forum,” where it published readers’ letters discussing the content of the “Philosophy.” Playboy became more than just a magazine, but a place that facilitated dialogue among a wide variety of readers: Men, women, veterans, draft dodgers, congressmen and clergy all wrote into the Forum.
Mr. Hefner went beyond the pages of Playboy to spread his message. He created the Playboy Club franchise to bring the atmosphere of the magazine to life for its readers. Men and women could buy good food, good liquor and good entertainment.
He integrated his staff and membership; he hired men and women of all races, and often provided black comedians and musicians some of their first performances in front of white audiences. When a New Orleans and Miami club owner segregated the clubs’ membership, Mr. Hefner bought those franchises back. The clubs provided women employees with tuition reimbursement and encouraged them to attend college.
Mr. Hefner also set up the Playboy Foundation, which supported First Amendment rights, often contributing to defendants in free-speech cases. The foundation went on to support other works, including providing funding for PTSD research, commissions on Agent Orange and programs and organizations for veterans.
Those latter causes were no coincidence: Playboy played a major role in the American war in Vietnam. For hundreds of thousands of young men “in country” — their average age was 19 — the magazine made them feel like they were back home. The centerfold pages hung on tent flaps and office walls, and could be found stashed in pockets, helmets and packs. The interest went beyond the women: Young soldiers eagerly perused the glossy advertisements for the latest stereos, cars and fashion, which they could buy at one of the mall-like PXs on one of the military’s sprawling bases (yes, even cars, which the government would ship home). It acted as a how-to guide for consumption and consumerism for many young men who had never had disposable income before.
Articles and interviews in the magazine were some of the only sources of real news about the growing antiwar and counterculture movements stateside. They went beyond the headlines, too, discussing and critiquing strategy, the draft and the politicians who moved the chess pieces. But the magazine also remained supportive of the men fighting the war. Countless letters from servicemen to the magazine, now stored in the Playboy archives, reveal how much the magazine boosted morale, how it brought a welcome respite from the boredom, tedium, terror and chaos they witnessed on a daily basis.
Playboy’s evolution reflects changing norms and values in American society. Though it deserved criticism, Mr. Hefner’s magazine reflected and grappled with the problems in American society.
In August 1967, a soldier named Donald Iasillo wrote to Playboy thanking the magazine for literally saving his life. An issue folded in his chest pocket prevented a bullet from entering his heart. “Usually for reasons other than its value as armor plate, Playboy is by far the biggest morale booster in Vietnam,” he wrote. “For this, we all thank you.”
Amber Batura is a doctoral candidate in history at Texas Tech University.