Silent Porn Star pointed me at an interview with a woman artist who created some of the covers for Weird Tales in the 1930s, Margaret Brundage.
As kinky as these and other covers were (check out Dian Hanson’s books on post-WWII men’s magazines), they seem to have been created by people who had no particular kinkiness to them.
Everts: Do you recall the most controversial Weird Tales cover?
Brundage: We had one issue [the September, 1933 issue] that sold out! It was the story of a very vicious female, getting a-hold of the heroine and tying her up and beating her. Well, the public apparently thought it was flagellation and the entire issue sold out. They could have used a couple of thousand extra.
Everts: Did you choose that scene to illustrate?
Brundage: You see, I would submit about three different pencil sketches. And they would make the selection of the one I was to do in color. Once in a while I would suggest a little color in my sketches, but most of the time [pause] well, they were very rough. And yes, they chose the scene. I didn’t. Having read the story, the thought of flagellation never entered my head. I don’t think it had theirs either. But it turned out that way.
Everts: What inspiration did you use for the exotic covers, the clothing, the monsters?
Brundage: In almost every instance, just off the top of my head.
Everts: Were you ever asked to start covering your nudes a bit?
Brundage: I was never asked to, no. One funny thing did happen. One of the authors — well, Weird Tales asked me to make larger and larger breasts — larger than I would have liked to — well, one cover, one of the authors wrote in and said that things were getting a little bit out of line. And even for an old expert like him, the size of the breastwork was getting a little too large.
So, a magazine with two scantily clad beautiful women, one holding a whip, on the cover, and the public “thought” it was about flagellation?
It’s weird that there’s a whip (technically a cat or flail) in the illustration, yet Brundage takes no responsibility for it. Neither does she put the responsibility for it on the magazine’s editors and publishers. It sounds like it just appeared there spontaneously. Maybe it did, in the sense that people do include things unconsciously in their art.
I suspect that these types of illustrations were an American manifestation of memes bubbling up from European erotica/porn, but also American illustration traditions as well. Maybe kink is a kind of strange attractor which keeps pulling minds toward it, even if they’ve never heard of it before. Pauline Reage claimed she had not read Sade before she wrote Story of O.
See Yankee Classic for a collection of Weird Tales covers.