Before cell phones, magazines were the only things keeping us entertained while we waited at doctor's offices, car dealerships, and in the restroom. These old magazines might feel like scrapbook fodder to some, but a rare selection are worth keeping out of the trash bin. The most valuable magazines are assorted, making them an easy collectible to find hiding somewhere in your attic or basement.
Anything related to Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly valuable, but a scandal that plagued her early career helped launch one of the biggest men's magazines in history. Playboy #1 (1953) features Marilyn on the cover in a pretty wholesome outfit and pose. She radiates towards the reader, serving as a unique juxtaposition to her centerfold nude from years before. Because her body was such a commodity, everyone at the time (and many people today) want to confirm their curiosity about what went on underneath her clothes.
This issue ranges in prices, fluctuating with buyer interest and the auction it's placed in, but they frequently sell in the low thousands. This dual lot comprising the Playboy and a book of Marilyn Monroe pinups sold at Julien's Auctions for $3,520.
Harper's Weekly 1861-1865
During the mid-19th century, Harper's Weekly: Journal of Civilization, was one of the most popular print magazines circulating. Unlike many other print businesses, the Civil War didn't destroy Harper's Weekly's profitability. In fact, thanks to their dedicated coverage of the political and military events happening during the war, they catapulted into stardom.
Although finding any copies of such an old magazine in good condition is a feat, you really want to find ones from 1861-1865 because they're the most valuable. Depending on who's buying and how many you have, they can sell for a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. An entire collection of the magazines printed during the Civil War years sold on Heritage Auctions for $3,437.50.
Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine April 1841
Magazines haven't always looked like they do today; some of them were much larger, others bound in hardback. Many of the greatest 19th century writers first published serial versions of their work in these print magazines. Think Dickens, Doyle, and even Poe. Edgar Allan Poe wrote and edited for the Philadelphia magazine Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine. In April 1841, their magazine featured Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," which is considered by the literary community to be the first detective story ever printed.
Interestingly, these magazines were often collected and bound into year-long or multi-year compilations. The magazine itself is estimated to be worth about $1,000, according to Sotheby's, and compilation editions are worth about $4,000-$5,000. For example, one rare antiquarian dealer currently has a 1st edition compilation on sale for $5,000.
Sports Illustrated April 1956
Continuously published since 1954, Sports Illustrated has given every sports enthusiast an inside look into their favorite players, teams, and drama. Just like Vogue does for the fashion world, Sports Illustrated does for the sports world. The most covetable cover today? The 1956 April issue with famed baseball player Mickey Mantle's portrait on the cover.
Look for this bright and colorful magazine in your old stacks and you could end up about $20,000 richer. In 2022, an almost mint copy sold on Heritage Auctions for an impressive $27,600.
Cosmopolitan April 1972
If you grew up in the 1970s and were attracted to men, chances are, you had a copy of Cosmopolitan's April 1972 issue. Nestled inside the pages was a centerfold unlike any before it. The rugged actor Burt Reynolds, known for hits like Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, almost bared all for Cosmo. Nowadays, the spread has become a piece of pop culture history, but at the time it caused quite the scandal.
The biggest draw for this magazine is that centerfold spread, so you want to look for copies and make sure it's still in there. Even if you can't find the magazine itself but only the spread, you're in luck. One group of about 20 prints of the picture sold in 2019 for $3,000.
Esquire April 1968
By 1968, Muhammad Ali had already become an Olympic gold medalist and a heavyweight champion. His talent and presence made him ascend into a true sports legend. One of Esquire's most famous covers bears a portrait of Ali in an imitation of the classic artistic expressions of St. Simon's murder. In boxing shorts and stuck with fake arrows, Ali is the modern-day martyr.
If you can find well-preserved copies of this magazine from April 1968, you can expect to get for about $100-$500 for it, when the right buyer's interested. One autographed copy, which really catapulted its value, sold for $640.
Tips for Picking out the Best Vintage Magazines
Not everyone's interested in the pictorial exposés written about in say Life Magazine or Time, but chances are, there's a vintage magazine you'd find interesting enough to thumb through. Fashionistas like old copies of Vogue, and some alternative collectors like old Playboy magazines. Whether you collect Life or something else, there are a few things to look for that make a magazine more collectible.
Check for Fold-Outs, Inserts, or Other Special Additions
When you're looking at magazines (especially ones from the 19th century) check and see if they have any foldouts, inserts, or other special additions inside. For example, some fashion magazines used to come with pattern cutouts folded into the pages so that people could use the patterns they were describing. Since they're not normally included in every edition, these special perks can make a magazine more collectible.
Find Issues with Important Figures or Events
In the same way that newspapers with headlines breaking major events are collectible, magazines that talk about important cultural touchstones are significant because of their connection to the things happening in the world. So, if you find a magazine breaking a news story that's gotten a lot of coverage or was world-changing, it's a good idea to pick it up.
Don’t Keep These Valuable Magazines as Bathroom Reading Material
With magazines, just about everybody has a chance of finding a valuable copy shoved somewhere in storage. They were widely distributed and cheap to buy, so every household had their favorite copies on standby. Just remember, every old magazine has some value, whether it's monetary or not.