Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Dewitt Wallace has reportedly been considered, "the most famous unknown man of his time." As the creator of The Reader's Digest, one of the most successful popular magazines in the world, he deserves to be included in the company of such publishing giants as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In its 76-year history, Reader's Digest has charted America's interests and values through most of the twentieth century, guided by Wallace's uncanny wisdom of what his audience wanted to read.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 12, 1889, DeWitt Wallace was the son of a Presbyterian minister who taught Greek and modern languages at Macalester College, where he later became president. As a boy, Wallace raised chickens, tended a vegetable garden, and operated an electrical repair service. Piety and learning were stressed in his home, but Wallace was more interested in sports, eventually becoming good enough in baseball to play for a semi-professional team one summer.
Wallace attended Macalester College for two years before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley, dropping out of college in 1912 to return to St. Paul. He worked in the book department of Webb Publishing Company, a firm that published agricultural textbooks. In 1916, realizing that few farmers were aware of the vast number of informational pamphlets available for free from state and federal government offices, he collected an annotated list and sold 100,000 copies to banks and stores throughout several Northwestern states.
During World War I, Wallace enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was wounded by shrapnel in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and spent his convalescence at an army hospital. While recovering, he practiced on condensing magazine articles. He also contemplated a magazine that would consist of a digest of condensed articles taken from general magazines. The basic plan for what would become Reader's Digest was hatched.
Wallace met his future wife, Lila Acheson, when he was in school in California. She was a classmate's sister. They met again when both were in New York City after the war and were married in 1921. When they returned from their honeymoon, they discovered that enough subscriptions had been sold to launch Reader's Digest. With the magazine's success, Wallace and his wife moved their headquarters from New York City to a $1.5 million edifice on an 80-acre estate outside Chappaqua, New York. They also built "High Winds," a castle-like home in Mt. Kisco, New York, to express Mrs. Wallace's interest in interior design, art collecting, and gardening.
Wallace was extremely private and publicity shy. He was described as "Generally ill at ease with strangers, he is always shy, soft-voiced, and speaks haltingly." Tall, lean, and slightly stooped, Wallace dressed "in the tweedy elegance of the English professor with the private income." Compared to his wife's confidence and optimism, Wallace was "a worrier, torn by inner doubts and subject to spells of melancholy." Despite his private manner, Wallace was remarkably adept at anticipating what his readers enjoyed, and his sense determined the content of Reader's Digest. As one of his editors remarked, "If Wally likes it, automatically 12 million other people will like it."
Millionaires many times over, the Wallaces maintained a major art collection and established the philanthropic Reader's Digest Foundation, which has donated $40 million to schools, religious organizations, and medical research. Wallace died in 1981 from pneumonia following surgery to remove an abdominal obstruction. When he died, The Reader's Digest, which had started with only 5,000 copies of the first issue, had a circulation of 18 million in the United States and 12 million abroad, reaching 100 million people in 163 countries.
After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Wallace returned to St. Paul and for six months studied magazine articles in the public library by copying out excerpts. He prepared a prototype edition of the Reader's Digest with 31 articles from such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, and Ladies Home Journal. As he advertised, "Each article of enduring value and interest, in condensed and permanent form." However, none of the dozen publishers to whom he sent the sample were interested. He decided instead to publish the magazine himself. Wallace mailed out several hundred circulars advertising his project, and when Wallace and his wife returned from their honeymoon, they discovered that 1,300 subscribers had paid $3 a year for the magazine.
The first issue appeared in February, 1922, produced by the couple in a basement room in Greenwich Village. They copied out parts of selected articles from magazines in the New York Public Library. By 1929 the Reader's Digest had a circulation of over 200,000 and a gross income of over $600,000. Profits were strong enough to allow the Wallaces to relocate to new quarters in Pleasantville, New York, and to begin contracting with leading magazines for exclusive reprint rights. In 1933 Reader's Digest began publishing articles of its own based on ideas mainly suggested by the Wallaces and written by freelance and staff writers. The magazine published a British edition in 1938. Later Spanish and Portuguese editions made Reader's Digest the most widely distributed periodical in South America. Rising costs made it necessary in 1957 to add advertising for the first time to prevent raising the price of the magazine. Expansion during the 1950s included the Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club, a television show, a record and film division, an educational edition and a Braille edition.
The Reader's Digest became and remained a publishing phenomenon and American institution. Its popularity is attributable to the great variety of subjects covered, including something for everyone: science, social service, education, government, politics, industry, sports, travel, nature, and biography, among other topics. Regular features included such popular features as "Life in These United States," "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power," "Humor in Uniform," and "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met." Editorially, Reader's Digest reflected Wallace's anti-Communist, conservative views and a consistent sentimental picture of American life. According to the New York Times, "In Wallace's magazine, one hears an incredibly American voice saying, in short simple sentences, that one can improve one's life, improve one's health, and, in fact, improve the world, if only one has adequate information . . . . It always implies that there is no problem without a human solution."
Chronology: DeWitt Wallace
1917: Joined the U.S. Army.
1920: Submitted sample edition of the Reader's Digest unsuccessfully to publishers.
1921: Married Lila Bell Acheson.
1922: Published first edition of Reader's Digest.
1938: Published first international edition of Reader's Digest in England.
1950: Published Reader's Digest Condensed Books.
1957: Began to place advertising in Reader's Digest.
1972: Received with Lila Wallace the U.S. Medal of Freedom.
Social and Economic Impact
With more than 100 million readers worldwide, Reader's Digest is the most popular magazine of all time. Dewitt Wallace took a good idea, supported by an uncanny sense of his audience, and helped to inform the world. In the era before television, Reader's Digest played an important role in instructing, inspiring, and connecting a vast worldwide audience. Reader's Digest also represented an important American cultural export. According to Time, "In the long run, Wallace's greatest contribution to the nation may be found in the cumulative effect of his overseas editions . . . . The Digest articles—depicting the innate decency, kindness, and simple virtues of ordinary Americans, the triumphs of a George Carver or a Helen Keller—have probably done more than all the Government propagandists combined to allay the fears, prejudices and misconceptions of the United States in other lands."
The unique professional and personal partnership between Dewitt Wallace and his wife Lila was expressed not just in editorial decisions that formed the magazine but as one of the most generous philanthropists in business. The Reader's Digest Foundation has made a significant contribution in education, social services, and medical research.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Reader's Digest Rd.
Pleasantville, NY 10570
Business Phone: (914)238-1000
Advertising Age, 6 October 1991.
Columbia Journalism Review, March-April 1994.
Heidenry, John. Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader's Digest. New York: Norton, 1993.
Nation, 27 September 1993.
New York Times, 1 April 1981.
Time, 10 December 1951.
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