Collecting the Literature: Rockhound Magazine (1972-80)

There is a lot of mineralogical literature in circulation, both current and classic. For the professional, there are journals like American Mineralogist, which cater to hard-core researchers, educators, and scientists. Journals like AM are daunting for the most part. Less technical but still devoted more to the scientific aspects of mineralogy is Elements, published by the American Geophysical Union.

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The cover of the premier issue of Rockhound magazine.

Publications like The Mineralogical Record and Rocks and Minerals fill a different niche. Although technical, these are both more friendly to the interested, but less specialised reader. In magazines like these, the reader is taken to locales around the world, and exposed to high-quality, glossy photos of the finest specimens that locations worldwide have to offer. Although both magazines have undergone some metamorphoses in their respective histories (over forty years for the MR, and over eighty for R&M), they are now positioned as the standard American sources on contemporary mineralogy. Rock & Gem, another venerable title in search of a niche, has become more of a general interest magazine in the last few years – it, at least, is the sort of journal that one can imagine finding in the magazine section of a Barnes & Noble, for instance, and includes not only articles on localities and museums, but also some lapidary arts. Rock & Gem is the only title which boasts a kids section, encouraging younger enthusiasts (which when done well is vitally important to the continuation of the hobby).

Rockhound was like none of these.

Recently, while looking for something else on a certain web bookstore (all right, it was ABEBooks, where much of my booky madness is played out), I discovered a publication which I only faintly remembered from my early childhood. It was called Rockhound: How and Where to Find Gems and Minerals. I ordered a couple of single issues, curious to see what it was which made this title seem vaguely familiar.

As it turns out I needn’t have bothered. When I dropped by my parents’ house to proudly show my finds to my father, he scoffed and produced a box full of them. He thought that he had nearly the whole run. As it turned out, he had about half.

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Rockhound, June, 1973

In the 1970s, my father recounted, he would go to one of the old-style news-stands downtown, before such animals became extinct in this city, and pick up the latest issue of Rockhound, whenever he remembered. Then he would read of potential locations for hunting, although, as far as I can tell, he rarely carried through beyond imagining the trip. The exception to this was a 1980 family vacation to Minnesota and Canada, where we visited amethyst mines at Thunder Bay in Ontario, as described in the June, 1978 issue of Rockhound. I imagine that he shared them with his father, another rockhound, as well, much as I share current journals and books with him. Rockhounding was something that started in our family with my grandfather and his brother, my great-uncle. Both collected for years and were influential in my growth as a collector. Indeed, apart from specimens, one of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Frederick Pough’s famous field guide, inscribed by my great-uncle to me.

Rockhound was an odd duck. It was a bit of everything: part location guide, part history, part specimen lore. Reminiscent of Rocks & Minerals under the editorship of Peter Zodac, It was a bit like belonging to your local rock club and talking with a group of widely travelled collectors, in magazine form. Articles were chatty, pragmatic, and helpful. Some lamented the passage of the “good old days” – to me, the time at which they were writing was “the good old days”.

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First published in February of 1972 (when I was not quite one year of age), Rockhound began ambitiously. A double issue, with color photography and good quality paper and coverstock, the first issue cost a whopping $2.50 (the cover price of the less widely-circulated Mineralogical Record, by contrast, was $1 in 1970, though colour wouldn’t appear for another two years in its pages). Subsequent issues would cost less, at 75₵ each, for several years. Rockhound was launched. Billing itself as “How and Where to Find Gems and Minerals”, it promised a good deal. The first issue’s cover even trumpeted: “He Found an Emerald Worth $100,000 in North Carolina!”, implying that if he could make $100K (in 1972 dollars, at that), then couldn’t you do it too?

One of the things that attracts some people to rockhounding is the notion of finding something precious and valuable, either for ones collection or for gloating rights, or for eventual sale. This was an idea which seems to have been attractive to the minor publishing mogul responsible for most of the eight-year run of Rockhound, John H. “Long John” Latham (1917 – ? )[1]. Clearly a pirate or an adventurer at heart, Latham published several magazines, with which Rockhound was loosely connected. Latham’s interest was in the Old West and in treasure hunting, to which end he published magazines like Treasure World, Western Fiction Magazine, and True Treasure. The only surviving publication created by Latham, Lost Treasure, continued into the online age.

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The final issue of Rockhound, August, 1980.

There is no internal evidence in those last issues that Rockhound‘s star was waning. The final issue, from August, 1980 [2], makes no mention of any impending demise, and even advertises for new articles. Subscriptions are also – humorously, one assumes – offered. Interestingly, this issue also included an article discussing the extremely recent (May 18, 1980) eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state.

Rockhound was often biased in the favour of those things which were more of collectable value, rather than mineralogical interest (although there’s no denying that those two vectors often intersect). But its articles often presented good and useful guides to collecting on what may even today be publicly accessible locations.

Why read Rockhound any more? I view it as a set that one can collect fairly inexpensively (individual issues found online typical sell for five dollars each or less), and as a unique piece of memorabilia, a place where the sciences of mineralogy and geology cross into the world of collecting. Some of the articles are still of use, particularly as the collecting locations discussed were, like Topaz Mountain in Utah, to pick but a single example, almost as remote now as they were forty years ago, and are therefore relatively unchanged. Some, though certainly not all, of the information in those eight years of Rockhound is still good, and can now serve to point a new generation of rockhounds, amateur lapidaries and curious mineralogists to some of the beauties and wonders that are still there to be found in the natural world.

Publication Breakdown

  • Publication Title: Rockhound: How and Where to Find Gems and Minerals
  • Dates Active: January, 1972 to August, 1980
  • Publication Frequency: Bi-monthly
  • Total Issues Published: 52
  • Illustrations: Colour in a few early issues, afterward black-and-white photos and drawings
  • Cover Price Range: $0.75 to $1.25, special introductory issue $2.50
  • Current Prices: average between $3 and $5 per issue, sometimes cheaper if bought in volumes
  • Purchase Sources: I filled in my collection using ABEBooks and eBay

NOTES
[1] A WorldCat reference does not include a death date; were Latham still alive he would be 95 in 2012: http://www.worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n85-180664

[2] “Final” as far as the limited information I have available indicates, I welcome any corrections that readers may have.

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