The Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper
The Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper
The Curtsies Try Something New. Cyrus H.K. Curtis, a publisher from port land, Maine, and his progressive Boston-born wife, Louisa Knapp Curtis, moved to
Philadelphia in 1876 because it was chapter to publish their newspaper, the People’s Leader there. The newspaper filed was crowed in Philadelphia, and the People’s Leader failed. For the next three years they struggled with various other publications until they borrowed $2,000 from a relative and founded the Tribune and the Farmer. Cyrus edited the newspaper while Louisa acted as business manager. In the summer of 1883 Cyrus proposed a “Women and Home” department to fill some vacant space in the paper. Louisa wrote the material, and the column ran regularly thereafter. It stimulated a great deal of reader interest and adverting, and consequently the Curtsies decided to publish a monthly woman’ supplement to the weekly Tribune. The Ladie’ Journal the first issue of that supplement, appeared in December 1883; all subsequent issues used the title Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper. It soon surpassed the original publication in circulation and advertising revenue, capitalizing on the rising interest in reading among middle-class women. By October 1884 Curtis and his wife had sold the Tribune and established the Ladie’s Home Journal as an independent monthly.
Circulation Drives. Curtis was a master at increasing his lists of subscribers. He offered four subscriptions for one dollar, creating “clubs” in which his readers acted as his sales force. By the end of 1884 the Ladies’ Home Journal’s circulation was 100,000. Curtis also tried to improve its quality by printing the work of well-known female fiction writers. Marion Harland’s short story helped increase the list of subscribers to 270,000 by spring 1886. Louisa May Alcott refused to write a column for the Ladies’ Home Journal until Curtis offered to pay $100 to her favorite charity. In 1887 Curtis vowed to reach a million subscribers and took a big gamble to reach it. He raised the subscription price of the Ladies’ Home Journal to one dollar a year, expanded the magazine to thirty-two pages, added a cover, and brought in the advertising needed to sustain it. In 1889 membership reached more than 400,000 subscribers. Two years later the Curtis Publishing Company issued stock and was capitalized at #500,000.
The Formula. The Ladies’ Home Journal remains to this day the prototype for women’s magazines. Heavy with advertising and advice on homemaking, cooking, fashion, and children, it also included information on family relationships. In 1889 Curtis hired a previously unknown Dutch-born editor named Edward W. Bok. A peculiar man who seemed to have little affinity to women except his mother, Bok nonetheless developed the Ladies’ Home Journal into a remarkably successful enterprise. He made readers feel that the magazine was a trusted friend and inaugurated columns such as “Side Talks with Girls” and even “Side Talks with Boys.” He brought in well-known authors such as Rudyard Kipling and later secured a monthly column from Theodore Roosevelt, “The President,” which Roosevelt dictated from his barber’s chair. In 1895 he began publishing house plans and sheet music for John Philip Sousa marches among other popular songs. The famous architect Stanford White said that Bok had influenced American domestic architecture for the better more than any other man of his generation. Bok married the Curtises’ only child, their daughter, Mary Louise. In 1900 the circulation of the Ladies’s Home Journal topped 800,000 and three years later it finally reached 1,000,000.
Guide and Friend. The Ladies’ Home Journal also published occasional features on timely topics in politics and business, usually in the form of profiles of famous women of the day. The topics of poverty, temperance, and the vote for women did get covered, if not extensively. The periodical took on the role as surrogate friend and occasional mother for many women. For females on remote farms or in the frontier areas of the West, it was a welcome companion. Yet its main audience was middle-class women in towns and cities with populations of more than ten thousand. Curtis studied the neighborhoods where these women lived and promulgated a picture of the successful domestic woman, a different picture from the submissive, pious “flower” peddled to earlier generations. According to the Ladies’ Home Journal prized female attributes included intelligence, physical fitness and health, economic self-reliance, and the careful choice of a husband. While laden with contemporary notions of what was appropriate for each sex, the magazine brooked no tolerance of the notion that women were less capable than men. As a result the Ladies’ Home Journal became the best-selling magazine of its time, an arbiter of taste in the emerging nationwide culture.
Helen Damon-Moore, Magazines for the Millions: Gender and Commerce in the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post 1880-1910 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994);
John Tebbel, The American Magazine: A Compact History (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969).
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