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Hunks in the stacks: Gawking a 30-year stash of Playgirl magazines at the SF library

A vintage Playgirl magazine cover features a shirtless man embracing a woman.
Playgirl magazines are on display on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Public Library as part of its Women's History Month programming. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

People of a certain age may remember sneaking copies of Playgirl under the bedsheets with a flashlight or surreptitiously sliding a less suggestive magazine over the front of the steamy cover—which famously bared the birthday suits of Tom Selleck, David Duchovny, Keith Urban and Brad Pitt inside its pages from the 1970s to the early 2000s.    

But on Tuesday, a handful of former teenagers pawed through the pages of the iconic skin magazine openly—this time, with no shame—at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch. The point of the reading exercise (yes, I only read Playgirl for the articles), was to reconsider the magazine not as a piece of smutty eye candy but as a feminist project in its own right. 

Librarian Kelci Baughman McDowell, who organized the library’s overview of women’s magazines from the 19th century to the present, didn’t initially plan to include Playgirl in her program. As part of the library’s Women’s History Month celebrations, Baughman McDowell invited patrons to analyze the representation of female bodies, clothing, fashion and gender roles in magazines dating back as far back as the 1840s. 

A person holds a magazine with various images of a shirtless man, including him playing a violin.
In honor of Women's History Month, the San Francisco Public Library unpacked its archival copies of Playgirl for the public during the Women's Magazines and Feminism, 19th Century to the Present—Encore event. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

But upon flipping through some early issues of Playgirl in the library’s archives, she decided to break out selections from the whole 34-year stash. “I couldn’t resist looking inside of it,” Baughman McDowell said. “And I was really shocked. ... There’s an article about abortion. There’s an article about migraines. … So I just thought it would be kind of spicy, so to speak, to bring Playgirl into the mix.” 

Playgirl started publishing sensuous spreads of semi-nude B-list celebrities in the 1970s but amped up the exposure of skin over time. The SFPL subscribed to Playgirl starting in 1974 and holds issues from 1973 through 2007, according to Baughman McDowell. Per library legend, “some radical librarians running the reference center at the old Main Library may have had something to do with getting Playgirl in the library,” she said.

Baughman McDowell also wanted to encourage patrons to consider “whose version of women’s sexuality is this,” especially considering that most of Playgirls’ early masthead consisted of men. “Is it just lip service?” 

A woman holds up a Bitch magazine with a shelf of colorful books behind her.
Librarian Kelci Baughman McDowell holds a copy of Bitch magazine for a Women's History Month reading event examining women's magazines from the 19th century to the present. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

While some may be surprised that bound copies of Playgirl are preserved in the library’s collection, Baughman McDowell said that the copies are not some “dirty secret.” They can be found in the open stacks or called up from storage, should you choose. They’ve long been considered part of the library’s larger mission to promote freedom of information.

“I worked in Catholic institutions for 20 years, so I'm having the thrill of my career right now putting out issues of Playgirl on display,” Baughman McDowell said. “That's just a credit to the openness of the philosophy of San Francisco Public Library. We view it as an information source.”

As for the patrons who ogled over issues of Playgirl on Tuesday, the dreamy nudes and sultry centerfolds of hunky 1970s celebrities elicited more amusement than titillation.

Two people examine old magazine s on a table; one is intently studying a page.
Terrie Eusterbrock, right, and librarian Jennifer Weiser flip through rare collections of magazines on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Public Library. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“This is so funny,” said Lynne Srinivasan, a 60-year-old retired environmental consultant, as she paged through some of the early issues. She’d chanced across a photo of Carol Burnett Show announcer and OG Wonder Woman heartthrob Lyle Waggoner—who is credited as Playgirl's first centerfold model—sucking in his stomach.

I, too, couldn’t help but chuckle over the 1970s dreamboat soap opera star Ryan MacDonald soaking in a bubble bath while holding a wine glass, or other nudes of hairy-chested stud muffins paired with dating advice according to their astrological signs. As standards of beauty change, so too do definitions of sexiness.   

“This is hysterically funny,” Srinivasan said.

An ad with a shirtless man holding a phone reads "DIAL NOW GUYS ARE WAITING! 1-900-HOT-HUNK $2.99/min."
An ad from an issue of Playgirl on display at the San Francisco Public Library markets a hotline to talk to hunky men. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The next “Women’s Magazines and Feminism, 19th Century to the Present” interactive reading activity happens from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Friday at the San Francisco Public Library’s Learning Studio on the fifth floor of the Main Library at 100 Larkin St. A pop-up display of Playgirls is also available to view on the fifth floor next to the elevators. Visit to learn more.