The Cosmopolitan Magazine was founded by Schlicht & Field in 1886. In the first edition Paul Schlicht told his readers that the intention was to produce a "first-class family magazine". He added: "There will be a department devoted exclusively to the interests of women, with articles on fashions, on household decoration, on cooking, and the care and management of children, etc., also a department for the younger members of the family".
Within a year Cosmopolitan had a circulation of 25,000. However, Schlicht & Field went out of business in March 1888. A new editor, E. D. Walker, who had previously worked for Harper's Monthly, became the new editor. He introduced serial fiction, book reviews and colour illustrations. In four years Walker tripled circulation and Cosmopolitan became of of America's leading magazines.
In 1889 John Brisben Walker purchased Cosmopolitan. He employed top writers including Theodore Dreiser, Rudyard Kipling, Annie Besant, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and Edith Wharton. Walker also commissioned Olive Schreiner to write a long article on the Boer War and H. G. Wells had two of his books, The War of the Worlds (1897) and First Man in the Moon (1900), serialized in the magazine.
In 1897 Walker announced that Cosmopolitan would sponsor a free correspondence school. He proudly announced: "No charge of any kind will be made to the student. All expenses for the present will be borne by the Cosmopolitan. No conditions, except a pledge of a given number of hours of study." Within a few weeks, twenty thousand students had enrolled. Surprised by the response, Walker was unable to finance the venture and had to ask students to contribute 20 dollars a year for their education.
William Randolph Hearst purchased Cosmopolitan for $400,000 in 1905. Hearst recruited the well-known investigative journalist, Charles Edward Russell, to work for the magazine. Articles written by Russell included two collections of articles: At the Throat of the Republic (December, 1907 - March, 1908) and What Are You Going to Do About It? (July, 1910 - January, 1911). Other articles written by Russell included The Growth of Caste in America (March, 1907) and Colorado - New Tricks in an Old Game (December, 1910).
Alfred Henry Lewis was also employed by Cosmopolitan. This included the series Owners of America (1908 - 1909). Other articles by Lewis published in the magazine were A Trust in Agricultural Implements, April, 1905; The Trail of the Viper, April, 1911 and The Viper's Trail of Gold, May, 1911.
Another outstanding journalist employed by Hearst was David Graham Phillips. This included the series, The Treason of the Senate, in 1906. This was considered to be one of the most important investigations of the muckraking period of journalism. Other radicals who contributed to Cosmopolitan during this period included Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and George Bernard Shaw.
In the 1930s Cosmopolitan offered three serials and ten short stories. Many of America's novelists By the 1930s the magazine had a circulation of 1,700,000 and an advertising income of $5,000,000.
In the early 1940s Cosmopolitan began to call itself "The Four-Book Magazine". The first section contained one novelette, six or eight short stories, two serials, six to eight articles, and eight or nine special features. The other three sections contained a complete short novel, a normal length novel and a digest of current non-fiction books. Sales of Cosmopolitan during the Second World War reached over 2,000,000 copies.
In the 1950s there was a decrease in the demand for fiction. Sales of the magazine dropped dramatically. The size of the Cosmopolitan was reduced and although circulation was only just over a million in 1955, the magazine was still a profitable concern.