Magazines belong to a class of collectible items called "ephemera." The term comes from a short, fantastical essay by Benjamin Franklin called "The Ephemera." The ephemera of the title was a species of fly that only lived for a few hours or, in rare cases, a full day. Ephemeral products, therefore, are not designed to be saved. They are the quintessential "single-use" items. That makes magazines tough to collect because they deteriorate so quickly when not properly maintained.
Still, a skilled and enterprising collector can find exceptional examples of almost any magazine. Perhaps the most famous issue of all is Playboy No. 1, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its centerfold. The irony is that Ms. Monroe didn't pose for Playboy. She posed for the photos in 1949, a full four years before the Playboy debut, for a mere $50 so that she could make a car payment. Hefner just used those photos in his inaugural issue.
Today, most examples of Playboy No. 1 are rated "good" to "very good," which means their price will be somewhere between $2,100 and $4,500. Gem mint copies are, for all intents and purposes, priceless. Some sites say up to $750,000, but in that range, it becomes, "What will the other guy pay for it?"
Another magazine that collectors prize is what would have been the cover of the November 29, 1963 issue of Life. Of course, the cover was about the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The original cover featured the quarterback of the Naval Academy football team: Roger Staubach. In true 1960s style, too, the cover fairly screamed the question, "Negro Demands: Are They Realistic?" That cover was pulled. For that reason, the issues that have survived might be in better condition than most other magazines simply because they weren't handled.
The July 4, 1969, issue of Life that features Neil Armstrong before he blasted off with Apollo 11 is rare in its own right. But, when an already rare item is signed, in this case by Neil himself, the value blasts off like a Saturn V! The current value is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds.
The Neil Armstrong issue foreshadowed his famous step off the ladder 16 days afterward. The issue captures the essence of the sense of wonder Americans felt as NASA fulfilled Kennedy's challenge, issued in 1961. Life magazine has a pair of issues that are so far unique in the history of ephemera. In its first issue in 1936, the main story featured George Story, who was born just before the publication date. The bit was called "A Life Begins."
In the year 2000, when Life ceased publication, George Story died suddenly at the age of 63. The final issue, dated April 4, 2000, featured "A Life Ends," which was a pastiche of Story's life and the different appearances he had in the magazine over the years. Fine or very fine copies of both of these magazines are valuable, along with the scattered issues between 1936 and 2000 that featured Story.
Sometimes, magazines feature the artwork of masters, such as Salvador Dali featuring on the cover of Vogue in 1944. George Lois took a thought-provoking photograph of Muhammad Ali in 1968. Ali was pierced by several arrows in the same manner as the martyr St. Sebastian. Ali had been unfairly stripped of his world heavyweight title because he refused military service. It's still one of the most powerful covers Esquire ever produced.
No artwork collection related to magazines would ever be complete without the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. The cover photo of Sharbat Gula, taken by Steve McCurry and known simply as "Afghan Girl," is arguably the greatest photograph ever taken. It is widely known as the Mona Lisa of photography. Gula's piercing green eyes, which McCurry captured in the instant they stared into the lens, and thereafter into the very soul of the reader, sear the spirit. Although Gula and her children now live in a big house in Kabul, the photo shows her at the age of roughly 13 in a refugee camp, fleeing from the Russian invaders.
Commemoration, as artwork, and as rarities: These are all great reasons to collect magazines. Even if you keep the paper originals in acid-free plastic in a cool, dry place, you can always enjoy reissues and online copies so that you don't soil your collection. It's fun to share what you have with the world, isn't it? The word "ephemerist" doesn't mean "one who collects magazines." Maybe it should?