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Harper's made its debut in June 1850, the brainchild of the prominent New York City book-publishing firm Harper & Brothers. The initial press run of 7,500 copies sold out immediately, and within six months circulation had reached 50,000.
The earliest issues consisted largely of material that had already been published in England but the publication soon began to print the work of American artists and writers — among them Horace Greeley, Horatio Alger, Stephen A. Douglas, Winslow Homer, Mark Twain, Frederic Remington, Theodore Dreiser, John Muir, Booth Tarkington, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Jack London.
The magazine reported important events of the day, such as the publication of Herman Melville's new novel Moby-Dick; the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable; the latest discoveries from Thomas Edison's workshop; the progress in women's rights.
In subsequent years, the magazine published Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill long before either man became a political leader. Theodore Roosevelt wrote for Harper's, as did Henry L. Stimson when he defended the bombing of Hiroshima. In the 1970s, Harper's Magazine broke investigative journalist Seymour Hersh's account of the My Lai massacre and devoted a full issue to Norman Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex.
Over the years, the magazine's format has been revamped, its general appearance has evolved considerably, and ownership has changed hands. In 1962, Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson, & Company to become Harper & Row (now HarperCollins). Later, the magazine became a separate corporation and a division of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company. In 1980, when the parent company announced that Harper's Magazine would cease publication, John R. MacArthur and his father, Roderick, urged the boards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company to make a grant of assets and funds to form the Harper's Magazine Foundation, which now operates the magazine.
In 1971, Lewis H. Lapham became editor of Harper's, a position he holds to this day.
In 1984, Harper's Magazine was redesigned by Lapham and MacArthur, who had become publisher and president of the Foundation. Acknowledging the time constraints of the modern reader, the revived magazine introduced such original journalistic forms as the Harper's Index, Readings, and the Annotation to complement its fiction, essays, and reporting.