Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Friday, September 7, 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 PenthousePlayboy and their imitators 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 and then a move back to less nudity in the late seventies.  Although we will concentrate ofnPlayboy and Penthouse we will also look at the covers of some of the other popular men's magazines on sale in the US.

Before Playboy there were other men's magazines in America, of course.  Mr included the usual mix of adventure stories, crime features and non-nude pin ups. Most of these magazines had covers featuring artwork rather than photographs.

January 1954

Playboy, changed everything, 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) as the previous issue, 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 the pictures.

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.

June 1955

The main rivals to Playboy in the men's magazine market at this time were Modern Man and Cabaret magazine, which were both published by George von Rosen and were aimed at a more downmarket readership.  Cabaret was launched in 1955, just over a year after Playboy.  The Hollywood film referred to on the cover as a role for actress Sheree North was How to be, Very, Very popular (1956).  North was no background stripper in this comedy but co-starred with Betty Grable (playing a character called Stormy Tornado!) as two strippers who accidentally witness a murder and have to hide out at a college in a Some Like it Hot-type plot. 

Sheree North in How to be Very, Very Popular

Interestingly, North's part was originally designed for Playboy's first centrefold Marilyn Monroe (who North was being lined up by the studios as the successor of) who turned it down and got suspended by Twentieth Century Fox as a result.  North had a long acting career appearing in films and TV for nearly fifty years, alongside actors as varied as Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Walter Matthau and even Elvis Presley (The Trouble with Girls). She worked into the late ninties appearing in a couple of episodes of Sienfeld..  She died in 2005 a the age of 73.

July 1955

Collages 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.  

January 1956

Escapade was copying Playboy's mix of photographs and graphics on their covers.  It also copied Playboy's literary pretensions, featuring authors such as Ray Bradbury and Jack Kerouac, who wrote a regular column for the magazine from 1959 to 1960.  Escapade was one of the better quality Playboy clones and lasted until the mid-seventies.

May 1956

Swank, too, was copying Playboy's technique of mixing artwork and photographs on the cover.  Unlike the Playboy covers, though, the drawn elements don't really add anything.  They could have just as well as used actual people.

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.

September 1956

Not as clever as the Playboy tan lines rabbit head cover but a good effort to trail their campus fashion feature inside, this Escapade cover shows a bit more thought than some of the other stripper portraits seen on the covers of other magazines.

February 1957

Gent hardly featured a girl at all on its cover for February 1957 but she was just visible in a clever postcard mock-up displaying that month's contents.

March 1957

Although the publishers of these magazines were anxious about prosecutions for obscenity the team behind Modern Man ran into a different problem.  Publisher George von Rosen, art director Sidney Barker and editor Ben Burns were convicted in an Illinois court of desecrating the American flag by having, in their January 1956 issue, a photograph of a naked model who had a piece of cloth "which covered her pubic region" which looked like the Stars and Stripe. Fortunately for them this decision was reversed on appeal in 1958.  This 1957 cover's assertive. fish-net clad lady sums up the difference between the down to earth, blue-collar Modern Man and the white-collar Playboy.

March 1957

Early Playboy actually had comparatively little nudity, apart from the Playmate of the Month who was only seen in the centrefold shot. After using a few professional nude models in early issues as Playmate, Hefner's vision was to show the "girl next door" as a naked, sexual being. George von Rosen used strippers almost exclusively as his models and in Cabaret much of the content was about burlesque stars too.  This girl is showing  a lot more skin than had been seen on Playboy to this point.

May 1957

Burlesque stars in America often had long careers, sometimes performing will into their forties so, equally, the ladies who stripped off for the likes of Cabaret magazine were rather older then the girls who came after them in the sixties and seventies.  Again, this lady reveals far more than her Playboy sisters had.

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 Playboy cover to feature a simple, un-manipulated photograph of a girl..  No fancy graphics, just a picture of a pretty girl.  A precursor to the  look of the covers in the sixties.

August 1957

Again, Cabaret had a famous burlesque performer, Lily Ayers, also known as the Princess of Peel, very nearly flashing some nipple on the cover.  Her dance in mink was one of her most well known acts.  Ayers was part Polynesian but never got the acting breaks she sought.  She began stripping in 1950 at Los Angeles' Follies theatre.  Not much of the girl next door here.

December 1957

Playboy's December 1957 issue features their 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.  Size, or lack of it, was everything when pushing the boundaries.

January 1958

Rivals to Playboy were springing up everywhere and one of the earliest was Rogue magazine, set up by William Hamling who had been working at George von Rosen's Publishing Development Corporation.  The company also employed one Hugh Hefner as a promotion director.  Hefner, desperate to find cash to fund his idea for a new magazine, then called Stag Party before the name change to Playboy, asked Hamling to invest $10,000 for a half share in the nascent Playboy company.  Hamling turned Hefner down and told him "you can't sell sex to the American public".  Rather like the man who turned down The Beatles, his rejection haunted him ever afterwards.  Early Rogue covers were all paintings and invariably feature a scantily clad girl and their curious equivalent to the Playboy rabbit, although we're not sure if it is meant to be a wolf or a fox.  The background of the painting gives a very good idea of the covers of the time.

April 1958

As an example of Playboy pushing the envelope by using small pictures, 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.

July 1958

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. 

December 1958

Modern Man's covergirl, Lisa Varga had already been the nude centrefold in Escapade magazine at this point, whereas Hefner was seeking out girls who had never posed before, if he could.

February 1959

By the end of the decade Escapade had dumped its illustrated covers and moved onto presenting photographs of their young ladies like this tiki themed girl.

July 1959

When the next Playboy scantily clad girly cover arrived 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.

September 1959

Hi-Life tried to get as much naked skin on the cover as it could but the girls weren't as pretty as Playboy's even if they were more topless photos of them inside.

October 1959

Launched in 1957 Adam had a very strong cover graphic identity with their models being set off by this strong vertical striped design for many years.  It really makes the girl the centre of attention and this lady is certainly revealing a lot for the time.

November 1959

This Venus cover demonstrates something we will see a lot more of in the sixties which is the gaping top aiming to expose as much cleavage as possible.   For this, of course, you needed outrageously busty girls.

December 1959

Nugget was presenting its girls in more of a tasteful Playboy type way and this could easily have been a Playboy cover of the time, although perhaps she is showing just a bit too much skin for Hefner's magazine at the time.

December 1959

So in the nineteen fifties Playboy's covers did not, on the whole, feature girls as their primary subject, unlike some of their more downmarket competitors.  they were also showing less of their models skin than their rivals.  Many Playboy covers didn't have any pictures of 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 photographs of women would start to predominate for all the men's magazines by the second half of the next decade.  


  1. Have you posted any other photos of Lari Laine? She's quite a hottie. Is the pictorial worth revisiting?

  2. No I think she deserves a post at some point.

  3. Nice job, as always. Quite worthy scholarship.