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By Tom Wiener, January 1994


Tom Black was Smithsonian magazine's first Director of Advertising. He joined the magazine in September 1969 and retired in the spring of 1994. During his tenure, the magazine became one of the major success stories in publishing, mushrooming from an initial circulation of 164,000 to over 2 million, making it the leading magazine in the so-called quality field.

From the beginning, the magazine's readership ranked high in such demographic factors as level of education and disposable income. Black and his sales force, however, had problems at first trying to sell a magazine which many advertisers associated with a musty, dusty museum complex in Washington, D.C. Just when sales were at their lowest ebb, in the slimmer of 1971, sales turned the corner and took off.

Black's father, Howard Black, was Time magazine's first ad salesman, and Tom grew up with Henry Luce, the father of modern magazine publishing, as a frequent guest in his parents' home. After serving in World War II, Tom Black joined J. Walter Thompson, then the world's leading advertising agency, as a trainee but soon decided that he was more interested in being a part of a new and growing enterprise. He joined the fledgling sales force of ABC Television and wrote the network's first rate card. After a short stint with The March of Time newsreel operation, he found himself on the sales force of Life magazine, where he spent most of the 1950s, switching over to Time for much of the 1960s.

In 1969, at the age of 45, Black was looking for a new challenge when he was contacted by former Life editor Edward Thompson, who was starting a new magazine for the Smithsonian Institution. As Black modestly recalls it, Thompson probably remembered a favor Howard Black had done years before for Thompson and his son in making Tom Black Smithsonian's first ad director.


This collection consists of 4.25 hours of interview material. Oral historian Tom Wiener spoke with Black in his New York office December 15-16, 1993. Black also generously loaned materials from his files, including charts and statistics which illustrate some of his observations about the growth of the magazine and the shifting demographics of American society that have affected magazine readership and advertising, plus internal memos from the magazine's early days. Also included are an unedited transcript of the interview, plus an edited version. The latter was the basis for a booklet, which was presented to Black and guests at his retirement party in the spring of 1994. A copy of the booklet rounds out the collection.


Tom Black agreed to be interviewed for the project and donated the related papers, which were photocopied, in December 1993. The Tom Black Oral History Collection was made possible by a generous gift to the Center for Advertising History by Smithsonian magazine.


The Estelle Ellis Collection, #423, also contains material on the history of magazines, in that case the consumer periodicals Seventeen and Charm/Glamour.

Container List

Box 1

    Folder 1, Tom Black Oral History Transcript (unedited); 2, Tom Black Oral History Transcript (edited version); 3, Background Files. Memoes, correspondence, charts and statistics from Tom Black's files.

Box 2

    Two sets of cassettes, five in each set. Researcher copies, with and without time tracks.

Box 3

    Nine reel-to-reel tapes.


Revised: January 5, 2000