Want to make change? Make a zine.

Self-publishing to build community and spread some revolutionary ideas. It’s an American tradition.

Kate Doak-Keszler
(History) Made By Us
6 min readJun 2, 2023


Zines have gone digital, but sometimes you need to get out that glue stick and scissors.

This piece is a complement to The Story of You: A Guide to Navigating Your Civic Season Journey, created in collaboration with our Civic Season Design Fellows and partners across the country for Civic Season 2023.

Zine. Noun. Short for “magazine” — specifically, a small press or self-published work used by those outside the mainstream to share ideas and experiences. Zines have historically been a creative way for members of marginalized groups and social movements to find one another, to help to create community and drive collective action, including mutual aid. But the history of independent printers using small press to spread revolutionary ideas goes way back.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754–63), American colonists faced an economy depressed by war and new tax policies from the British Parliament to try and cover the costs of the conflict. The policies were not popular, and colonists shared their discontent, shared their radical ideas about freedom and self-determination and built solidarity against the British through one-page self-published broadsides.

You have to admit, printers of the American Revolution were pretty punk.

At the time, printing presses were used to transfer images from a woodcut or a copper plate onto paper — so many of the first printers were silversmiths, who used their skill in engraving metals to create political messaging. While breaking news might not have arrived as a push notification on your phone in 1776, information spread pretty quickly with these single-sided prints. Two of the most famous prints from this time are still familiar today.

Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre remains one of the most well-known images of the American Revolution.

First, the depiction of the Boston Massacre, a print of an engraving by Paul Revere. Revere printed 200 copies from his copper-plate engraving, which were seen not only throughout the colonies but back in London.

The original “Join or Die” image from 1758, next to a “Unite or Die” image produced in 1774.

Second, an image originally created by Benjamin Franklin, with the rattlesnake as a symbol of the American colonies, was originally used to rally colonists against the French during the French and Indian Wars in 1758. But after the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, the image was revived to encourage solidarity in opposing the British.

In more modern times, small press printing has often been used by artists — writers, poets, musicians — who use their art to find community and fuel political action. Take a trip through zine history, and get inspired to make your own zine this Civic Season!

Artists and Writers create their own platform in the 1920s

Not everyone in the Black literary community was a fan of Fire! One critic at the Baltimore Afro-American wrote that he “just tossed the first issue of Fire!! into the fire”. Ouch.

In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Poet Langston Hughes and Richard Nugent, a writer and graphic artist, had an idea for the experimental, apolitical African American literary journal. With the help of other important figures — Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, John Davis, Aaron Douglas, Wallace Henry Thurman — they solicited art, poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. The publication of Fire!! was controversial among African American intellectuals, some of whom saw the endeavor as self-indulgent. Sadly the publication never found enough financial backers, and in a twist of irony several hundred undistributed copies were lost — you guessed it — in a fire.

Sci-fi Fans coin the term “zines” in the 1930s

The Comet was the first science-fiction fanzine, published in 1930 by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago.

In the late 1920s, “pulp” science fiction magazines such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales became popular. As the fan base grew, editors found themselves inundated with fan letters detailing the impossibilities of their science fiction stories. In an attempt to name and shame, they published the letters with their authors’ names and addresses. Fans began writing to each other not only about science fiction but about fandom itself. Early publications were sometimes known as “letterzines” but they also featured non-fiction material, original stories and art as well. In fact, some well-known science fiction and fantasy authors rose through the ranks of fandom, including Frederik Pohl and Isaac Asimov.

Beat poets get groovy in chapbooks of the 1950s

Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao, were arrested and charged with disseminating obscene literature after the publication of HOWL.

The term “beat generation” is said to have been coined by Jack Kerouac, describing how he and many other young people felt at the end of WWII. The feeling of being beaten down, of questioning mainstream politics and culture, was foundational to the development of a movement that began on both the east and west coasts, but found its heart in San Francisco. It was poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti who began publishing “chapbooks” of poetry through his small press. The 1956 release of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl led to Ferlinghetti being taken to trial on charges of obscenity. The case was widely publicized and brought national attention to Beat poets. Ferlinghetti was found not guilty, and his legendary San Francisco bookstore City Lights is still in operation today.

Punk zines make a scene in the 1970s

“Sniffin’ Glue” was a monthly punk zine started by Mark Perry in July 1976. The publication ran for a year, and even jumpstarted the careers of journalists such as Danny Baker.

A rejection of mainsteam rock music in the 1970s, punk was an expression of working-class frustrations, with short, fast, stripped-down songs that often featured political and anti-establishment lyrics. At its core, punk was DIY. Many bands self-produced recordings, so it was natural that there should also be a thriving zine scene in punk. With increasing accessibility to copy machines, publishing software, and home printing technologies, punk zines helped spread the word about city and regional punk subcultures, specific bands, plus allowed a place for reviews and ads for new records and labels.

Riot grrrl feminist zines of the 1990s

A flyer from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna.

Out of the larger punk culture in the 1990s, the riot grrrl movement emerged as part of third-wave feminism. This group saw zines as a vital tool for organizing and communication. It was the band Bikini Kill, which formed in Olympia, Washington, in October of 1990, that would bring riot grrrls to publication. Singer Kathleen Hanna published a fanzine called Bikini Kill for their first tour in 1991, and introduced the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in their second issue. Zinesters Erika Reinstein and May Summer then founded the Riot Grrrl Press to serve as a zine distribution network that would allow riot grrrls to “express themselves and reach large audiences without having to rely on the mainstream press.”

Get Your Zine On

Whether it’s a drawing, poem, collage, or a new game you create, these pages provide you with the space to discover and use your voice. Spark your creativity with prompts in The Story of You, then share your story to the Civic Season digital zine and then explore how others around the country are making their voices heard.



Kate Doak-Keszler
(History) Made By Us

Preservationist by trade, storyteller by nature. History is a roadmap to the future, if you just know how to read it.