Bok, Edward (1863-1930)

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Bok, Edward (1863-1930)

An immigrant from the Netherlands, journalist and social reformer Edward Bok emphasized the virtues of hard work and assimilation in his 1920 autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and was reprinted in 60 editions over the next two decades. As one of America's most prominent magazine editors around the turn of the twentieth century, Bok originated the concept of the modern mass-circulation women's magazine during his 30-year tenure (1889-1919) as editor of the Ladies' Home Journal. His editorship coincided with a period of profound change, as the United States shifted from an agrarian to an urban society, and his was a prominent voice in defining and explaining these changes to a newly emergent middle class often unsure of its role in the new order of things. "He outdid his readers in his faith in the myths and hopes of his adopted country," wrote Salme Harju Steinberg in her 1979 study, Reformer in the Marketplace. "His sentiments were all the more compelling because they reflected not so much what his readers did believe as what they thought they should believe." Under his guidance, the Ladies' Home Journal was the first magazine to reach a circulation of one million readers, which then doubled to two million as it became an advocate of many progressive causes of its era, such as conservation, public health, birth control, sanitation, and educational reform. Paradoxically, the magazine remained neutral on the issue of women's suffrage until Bok finally expressed opposition to it in a March 1912 editorial, claiming that women were not yet ready for the vote.

Edward Bok was born to a politically prominent family in Den Helder, the Netherlands, on October 9, 1863, the younger son of William John Hidde Bok and Sieke Gertrude van Herwerden Bok. After suffering financial reverses, the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where from the age of ten, young Edward began working in a variety of jobs, including window washer, office boy, and stringer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His first publishing jobs were as a stenographer with Henry Holt & Company and Charles Scribner's Sons. In the 1880s, Bok became editor of the Brooklyn Magazine, which had evolved from a publication he edited for Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. In 1886 he and Frederic L. Colver launched Bok Syndicate Press, the first to widely employ women as contributors. The following year, Scribner's Magazine hired Bok as advertising manager.

In 1889, shortly after his 26th birthday, Bok became editor-in-chief of the Ladies' Home Journal, which had been founded six years earlier by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, whose only daughter, Mary Louise, became Bok's wife in 1896. Although Bok made the Ladies' Home Journal a vehicle for social change, he avoided taking sides in the controversial labor vs. capital political issues of the day. With a solid appeal to the emerging middle classes, Bok's editorials preached a Protestant work ethic couched in an Emersonian language of individual betterment. By employing contributing writers such as Jane Addams, Edward Bellamy, and Helen Keller, Bok helped create a national climate of opinion that dovetailed with the growing progressive movement. While advocacy of "do-good" projects put the Journal at odds with more radical muckraking periodicals of the period, Bok can still be credited with raising popular consciousness about the ills of unbridled industrialism. His "Beautiful America" campaign, for example, raised public ire against the erection of mammoth billboards on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and against the further despoiling of Niagara Falls by electric-power plants. Riding the crest of the "City Beautiful" movement that followed the 1892 Chicago World's Fair, Bok opened the pages of the Journal to architects, who offered building plans and specifications for attractive, low-cost homes, thousands of which were built in the newer suburban developments. Praising this initiative, President Theodore Roosevelt said "Bok is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and yet so effectively that we didn't know it was begun before it was finished."

The Ladies' Home Journal became the first magazine to ban advertising of patent medicines, and Bok campaigned strenuously against alcohol-based nostrums, a catalyst for the landmark Food and Drug Act in 1906. The magazine was also ahead of its time in advocating sex education, though its editorials were hardly explicit by late-twentieth-century standards. Even before the United States had entered World War I, Bok, who was vice president of the Belgian Relief Fund and an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson, editorialized that American women could contribute to peace and democracy through preparedness, food conservation, and support of the Red Cross and other relief efforts.

After his forced retirement in 1919, Bok published his autobiography and devoted himself to humanitarian causes. Swimming against the tide of isolationism after World War I, Bok tried to get Americans interested in the League of Nations and the World Court. In 1923, he established the American Peace Award, a prize of $100,000 to be awarded for plans for international cooperation. He also endowed the Woodrow Wilson Chair of Government at Williams College, named for the beleaguered president who failed to convince his fellow citizens to join the League of Nations. Bok died on January 9, 1930 and was buried at the foot of the Singing Tower, a carillon he built in a bird preserve in Lake Wales, Florida.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Bok, Edward. America, Give Me a Chance. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926.

——. The Americanization of Edward Bok. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.

Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1964.

Steinberg, Salme Harju. Reformer in the Marketplace: Edward W. Bok and The Ladies' Home Journal. Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Bolton, Judy
Judy Bolton