Reading the world's longest-running children's magazine
Argentina’s Billiken is the world’s longest-running children’s magazine. Named after the Billiken doll that was designed in the early 20th century and became enormously popular in the United States, the magazine has been published by Editorial Atlántida, in Buenos Aires, since November 1919.
“When the magazine’s founder was looking for a name that would capture the zeitgeist and launch the magazine as a cosmopolitan and outward-looking product, the Billiken captured the mood perfectly,” says Dr Lauren Rea, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield, and P.I. on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project researching the history and legacy of the magazine as it approaches one hundred years of publication.
Billiken appeared weekly until June 2018 when it switched to monthly publication.
At its peak, in 1958, it was the first Spanish-language magazine anywhere in the world to sell half a million copies in a week.
With 5138 issues published to date, the magazine's archive is a treasure trove of educational material, illustrated short and serialised stories, comic strips, graphic novels, craft activities, readers’ letters, photographs, cover artwork and publicity.
“My project engages with a wide range of fields – including Literature, History of Education and Graphic Design – to investigate how the changes in the magazine's content over time both reflect and shape the way children have been seen in Argentine society,” says Dr Rea.
Over the last hundred years, Billiken has maintained near continuous publication in the face of Argentina’s shifting political and economic climates.
“Much of the magazine's success is down to nostalgia – people had it bought for them when they were children and so they in turn buy it for their children and grandchildren. But in the early decades it was a truly innovative proposition, attracting child readers with the latest European adventure stories and newly commissioned comic strips whilst reassuring parents that its content was morally edifying. The content was so varied that it isn’t comparable to UK publications like The Beano”, says Dr Rea.
From 1925, Billiken started publishing educational content which, at a time when teaching materials were not widely available, filled an important gap. For decades it was normal practice for teachers to set homework based on what was in the magazine.
Public schooling had been established in the late 19th century to teach children how to be Argentine. Billiken integrated itself into the nation-building project, following the school curriculum and celebrating the anniversaries of the nation’s key historic dates.
“When reading Billiken, children were being invited to believe in the story of the Argentine nation. The magazine was so successful over so many generations that it then managed to weave itself into the narrative of the country,” says Dr Rea.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of the magazine is its political content. There has been a lot of political upheaval in Argentina over the last hundred years and Billiken has been able to ride out the tides of history by constantly reinventing itself politically, although not without consequences to its reputation.
“Billiken was always a conservative magazine which bought into the idea of children as future citizens who needed to be shaped and moulded into the Argentines the country needed. There was a gender division within this with boys seen as ‘men of tomorrow’ and girls as ‘future mothers’. It is only really in the last twenty years that Billiken has tried to challenge gender stereotypes,” says Dr Rea.
As Billiken looks to its centenary, it is facing its biggest challenge to date.
“Over the last couple of decades Billiken has suffered from under investment and was never able to embrace the digital revolution. Teachers no longer needed to use Billiken to set homework and, at the same time, children were increasingly able to access entertainment content over different platforms. The magazine started to lose its place in the market,” says Dr Rea.
Billiken’s decline follows global trends in the consumption of print magazines. Now under new ownership, the magazine will be re launched for its centenary in the autumn as a digital and audio-visual product.
“The idea is to take the ‘soul’ of the print magazine and to transfer it into a multi-platform product”, says Dr Rea.
The move away from print presents new opportunities as content now has the power to travel further.
“At different points in its history Billiken was sold across Latin America and was even available in Spain. It now has the potential to reach that audience again and to expand to new audiences such as the Spanish-speaking population of the US,” says Dr Rea.
Dr Rea’s project has been timely as her historical research is setting the tone for the commemoration of the Billiken centenary and is underpinning different strands of the magazine’s multi-platform re-conversion.
“As a researcher it has been a privilege to study the history of the magazine at a time at which its future survival is being negotiated. Even as Billiken moves away from print it leaves behind a unique print archive which offers an alternative window onto the history of Argentina.”