Pigs provided the raw material for the lead article of the inaugural issue of Fortune magazine, seventy years ago in February 1930. Determined ‘to give business a literature’, its editor, Henry R. Luce, fabricated a silken purse out of the meat packers, Swift & Co.

At twenty-five, Luce, had co-founded Time in 1923. Six years later, he persuaded his board that ‘Business, the smartest, most universal of all American occupations, has no medium of expression except the financial pages of newspapers and the cheapest, least distinguished of magazines. Unless we are prepared to believe that America’s industrialists are chiefly concerned with … the stale Get-Rich-Maxims of onetime errand boys, the subject matter of such a magazine as Forbes must be piddling and inexpressibly dull’. Fortune would be his contribution to business as a civilisation.

Trivia and tedium were not the worst of it. Wall Street Journal columnists were taking bribes to promote stocks. Luce sought to hold the line ‘between the gentleman and the money-grubber’, a distinction which was ever fluid, as the patrician president of the Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, demonstrated when he confessed to swindling his clients.

To prove that ‘Business is, essentially, our civilisation’, Luce wanted ‘as beautiful a magazine as exists in the United States’. He succeeded. Fortune began as a large format, 184-page book with colour processing, fine printing and a stylish type face on art paper so heavy that it had to be hand sewn. The New York Times described their combination as ‘Sumptuous to the point of rivalling the pearly gates’.

To succeed, Luce knew that Fortune would have to be ‘brilliantly written. [More sophisticated than Time]’. So he employed amateurs, not bookkeepers, often Yale poets, like himself. For Fortune’s managing editor, Luce recruited Ralph Ingersoll from the New Yorker who brought with him its spaciousness and polish. Regulars included Dwight Macdonald, Archibald MacLeish and James Agee who contributed enduring insights on ‘The American Roadside’. R. Buckminster Fuller was a consultant. A line describing a cotton field as ‘worn and warped like a wrecked heel’ captures the intensity and evocativeness that these essayists wrought. Luce was disconcerted, however, to discover that the finest writing on business came from socialists and New Dealers. Indeed, Ingersoll converted himself into a fellow traveller.

Fortune shifted investigative journalism away from the muck-raking of the 1900s towards a discursive critique. For instance, it unravelled how Gillette had achieved its 1930 dividend by representing dispatches as sales. Although Fortune has never been as liberal as it was during the 1930s, it had continued to criticise corporate malpractice. A two-part feature on ‘The Incredible Electrical Conspiracy’ in 1961 stands as an indispensable reference for the operation of cartels. Today, Fortune is clear-eyed about the accountancy that underpins the stock market boom: ‘By inflating reported earnings and covering up the true cost of an acquisition, they can make even a dog of a deal look brilliant’. Last April, it ridiculed the valuation of intangibles such as information

The quality of the photographs and of their reproduction further distinguished Fortune. Captions could be drawn from Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. More potently, its photographers fused the image with the story, opening the way to the photo-journalism of Life magazine which Luce launched in 1936. His photographers and essayists contributed to the ‘documentary expression’ prevalent through US novels by Dos Passos or Steinbeck. During 1999, Fortune reproduced photographs from its archives as a sign of respect, but also as an admission that today’s glossy colour images are bland by comparison with the chiaroscuro of its early decades.

With Time at ten cents, Fortune’s one-dollar cover price asserted Luce’s confidence in civilisation as a business. Subscriptions grew from 34,000 in the first year to 96,000 by 1934 when the venture returned a profit. Circulation in 1939 reached 137,000. Despite the slump of 1938, Fortune took in $1.5m. from the advertising on 80 of its 140 pages.

Advertisements enriched the opening and closing sections with luxury products, associating high-ticket items with high culture. Moreover, most ads were illustrated with faux oil paintings or drawings, some by museum artists. Luce hoped to marry mass and high cultures as the genius of American exceptionalism. He expected marketing to display ‘good taste’ but accepted that  advertising was art in overalls.

The commercial application of industrial design was but one of Luce’s enthusiasms for businesses’ using ‘the vehicles of the culture to forward its own growth. The expressions of the culture have gained in richness and variety … because the culture has found new outlets in meeting directly the exigencies of business. Finally, the major vehicles of the culture are businesses in themselves’. Hence, he saw radio and the cinema as ‘the most characteristic mark of our culture’.

Art works also represented current events, with France at war portrayed in a series of gouaches, and a portfolio of Ben Shahn’s paintings depicting the home front.

Austerity in wartime dislodged the more arcane artistic features, such as the one on Chinese ceramics which would have been at home in Apollo. Meanwhile, the covers acquired abstract qualities when oil pipes mimicked Leger’s Cubism. Inside, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams maintained the art of photography. Articles on high culture now had more of a financial slant, with stories about an orchestra in Detroit that paid its own way, the bookkeeping that kept ballet companies aloft despite a run of deficits, art on business calendars, and the art market.

Culture was never an indulgence for Luce, but part of his conviction that the twentieth century would prove to be ‘The American Century’, as he argued in a 6000- word editorial in Life in 1941. His ambition was not just to make business responsible for ethics and aesthetics. The task was to elevate the ideals of American business into a world civilisation. Hence, in 1950, Fortune rejoiced that industrialists were matching their stream-lining with purchases of twentieth-century art. Ten years later, an article enthused over corporations splurging on Abstract Art, the banner under which the US imperium declared its cultural independence from the School of Paris.

Fortune had made few concessions to those who gobbled data on the run. Its manners could not have been more opposed to those at Time, which served up all the news of the week in an hour’s reading, in bites no longer than 400 words. A 10,000-word investigation of changes in the structure of banking remained typical while two out of three subscribers read all or part of its dozen articles. Even the monthly round-up of business conditions meant another substantial read.

By 1960, however, Fortune recognised that the promise of boundless leisure was illusory. Twenty years later, Time ran a cover story on the ‘time famine’, our world of faster food and news on the hour. In the interim, Fortune’s contents page abstracted articles to help harried readers allocate their scarcest resource - time. A major concession to rush came in 1978 when Fortune became a fortnightly to keep up with the news. Henceforth, its writers chased succinctness as stories became ‘briefer, some running only to two pages’ allowing room, as the then editor confessed, for only ‘a couple of articles with the breadth that was traditional’.

By the 1980s, sales of The One-Minute Manager were of a piece with the one-idea consultant, the one-notion text and the one-book executive. The CEO at Sears complained at being too busy to skim even the financial press, let alone to open a book. Fortune has added pages with nibbles of data, like those from Time in the 1920s.

If Henry R. Luce could see Fortune today, would he disown his septuagenarian child as ‘piddling and inexpressibly dull’? Or would he nowadays go along with Nestle’s CEO, Helmut Maucher, who quipped in 1993 that he had ‘nothing against culture and ethics, but we cannot live on that’?