The Legend of the Almost Lost

‘Sunset’ magazine cover, April 1946. Photo by Sam Oppee. All photos copyright 2019 Sunset Publishing Corporation. SUNSET is a registered trademark of Sunset Publishing Corporation and is used with permission.

Four years ago, on a serene campus in Menlo Park, a group of longtime editors for Sunset Publishing Corporation, whose magazine touted such halcyon coverlines as “Can’t-Miss Pies” and “Other Things to Do in Newport Beach,” huddled together, panic-stricken.

Since 1898, Sunset—publisher of Sunset magazine and more than 800 books—had chronicled life in the West. That history had been preserved for posterity and research, meticulously catalogued in multiple rooms and dozens of file cabinets. Time Inc., Sunset’s owner since 1990, had just told the editors to empty everything into dumpsters. They were moving to Oakland. 

‘The Laboratory of Western Living’

Sunset’s coming of age coincided with the ascendance of California and the West. The magazine was launched and distributed (for a nickel per issue) by Southern Pacific Railroad executives in 1898 to lure travelers westward. (It was named for the Sunset Limited train, which ran from New Orleans to San Francisco.) In 1928, Sunset was bought by Laurence W. Lane. Early issues were literary in tone and included essays by Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and naturalist John Muir, who helped establish Yosemite National Park.

History professor emeritus David M. Kennedy, ’63, a founding co-director of Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, says that after World War II, the magazine became an emblem of life in the American West, “when the West [became] the most dynamic, booming part of the national economy.” The postwar Sunset cultivated a new and uniquely Western lifestyle that millions aspired to: casual living, enhanced by an appreciation and stewardship of the outdoors.