Family Circle

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Family Circle

One of the most widely circulated magazines in the United States, Family Circle, like its sister magazines—Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Garden, and Woman's Day —, has not only disseminated and popularized expert knowledge about children, but has also been a major contributor to the nation's parent-education curriculum, a vehicle for the transfer of culture, and an exporter of American culture. It has been a medium through which information and ideas about children, adolescents, parenting, and the family have been transmitted to parents, especially, but not exclusively, to mothers, for over half a century. It has served, especially during the post-World War II era, as a guide and manual for families trying to make a comfortable home for themselves and their children with the limited resources at their disposal. Its readers were early proven to be good users of price-off coupons. Through most of its history it has been distributed in a way that has made it accessible to a very wide segment of the population, perhaps to a population that did not have easy access to other such media. When it first appeared, it was not available by subscription and was confined to chain grocery stores—whoever bought groceries in a supermarket all but inevitably saw it at the checkout counter.

In large measure Family Circle, like Woman's Day, has been overlooked by scholars and not received the attention they deserve, perhaps because they were started and continued for many years as magazines found only in grocery stores. Yet, their circulation has been greater than virtually all other similar magazines. While each has been described as belonging to the seven sisters—Ladies Home Journal, McCall's, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Garden (at times not included in this grouping), and Cosmopolitan —it may be more appropriate to view them as stepsisters. Family Circle, like Woman's Day, may justly be described as a store-distributed magazine, but neither is insignificant. There is no doubt that distributing magazines at the supermarket checkout stand was successful. In the 1930s and 1940s that spot was the exclusive domain of Family Circle and Woman's Day. They were joined there by TV Guide and Reader's Digest in the 1950s. By the early 1950s, according to Business Week, they were "hard on the heels of the big women's service magazines." Subsequently, others wanted their place there too.

Family Circle began to assume its present form when the United States was in the midst of its new consumer culture, rearing the children who would express themselves as young adults in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and when the American household was, as historian William E. Leuchtenburg observed in A Troubled Feast: American Society Since 1945, adopting "a style of consumption that was more sophisticated, more worldly [and] more diversified" than ever before. As Landon Y. Jones recorded in Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, it was the era during which the United States became a "vast maternity ward." By the end of the 1950s, 40 million new babies had arrived, and the number of children between ages five and 13 was increasing by a million a year. Family Circle provided the parents of those new babies with information on how to feed, bathe, educate, entertain, and how not to spoil them. Indeed, from its very beginning, Family Circle offered parents advice about children's development and behavior. Its first issue (September 1932) included both Dr. Julius D. Smith's "Judging the Health of Your Baby," information about baby's health, and what Dr. Arnold Gesell said they could expect from a child at six months.

The ways in which Americans lived changed significantly between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1960s. The places and the social-economic context in which American children were reared were radically transformed. Those who gave birth to the baby boom were mostly born in the 1920s and experienced the Great Depression and World War II. Those to whom they gave birth had no such experiences, and many were brought up in what some believed would be an increasingly affluent society presided over by the organization man. A new culture was being made. Parents who were reared in either an urban neighborhood or a small town now lived and reared their children in a new kind of living place and dwelling, the developer's house in the suburb. Family Circle served as an inexpensive and handy directory and manual for families who were adjusting to and embracing the new way of life the affluent society seemed to be promising. According to Business Week, magazines such as Family Circle told "the housewife how to cook economically, how to bring up her children, how to clothe them and herself, and how to take care of her house. To the budget-minded, this makes good sense." It was a "good formula for many new and young housewives who want[ed] help at their new job."

Family Circle's appearance in September 1932 was, as Roland E. Wolseley reported in The Changing Magazine, the beginning of "the big boom in store-distributed magazines." Of the many store-distributed magazines founded since the 1930s—perhaps as many as a hundred—Family Circle, like Woman's Day, is one of the two that have survived and prospered. In Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Theodore Peterson reported that "when the old Life was undergoing one of its periodic readjustments, its managing editor, Harry Evans, joined with Charles E. Merrill, a financier with an interest in grocery chains, to start a magazine that would be distributed free but that would carry advertising." At the time, Merrill was a member of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, & Smith which controlled Safeway Stores. Evans reasoned that since radio programs were broadcast to listeners without charge, it should be possible to secure advertisers for a magazine for which the reader did not pay. His hope that Family Circle would reach a circulation of 3 million (almost ten times greater than the initial circulation) was soon realized. By the end of 1933, its circulation was nearly a million (964,690); it was slightly over a million (1,068,106) a few weeks later (February 9, 1934).

Family Circle's initial circulation of 350,000 was distributed through Piggly Wiggly, Sanitary, and Reeves grocery stores in Richmond, Baltimore, and Manhattan. The first issue of the 24 page gravure-printed tabloid weekly contained recipes and items on beauty, fashions, food, humor, movies, and radio, and was mostly written by Evans. It survived the years of the Great Depression, and was clearly prospering in the 1940s. It lost its giveaway status on September 3, 1946, became a monthly, and sold for five cents. It then assumed its present format and began its use of color. In the post-war era, it grew with the baby boom. In 1949, when the Kroger stores joined the other chains in selling it, its distribution was national. By 1952 it was available in 8,500 grocery stores and was able to guarantee its advertisers a circulation of 3.5 million. In 1958 when it took over Everywoman's, it announced a 5 million circulation rate base and was then able to claim that Everywoman's Family Circle would be available in nearly 12,000 chain stores (nearly all of which were self-service stores) in over 1,800 counties where 93 percent of all retail sales in the United States occurred. By the end of the 1950s, its circulation was 5.1 million. By the end of the 1970s, its circulation was over 8 million. At the end of the 1980s, its audience was over 21 million. It then claimed it was the "World's largest women's magazine," a claim made on the Australian as well as the American edition.

Family Circle used celebrities as either authors or on its covers to increase its appeal and to satisfy the interests of readers. Covers of early issues featured Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Other early covers featured figures such as Mussolini, Stalin, Eleanor Roosevelt (December 29, 1933), and Amelia Earhart (December 8, 1933). During the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt contributed articles to Family Circle as well as to its arch rival Woman's Day. In the April 1955 issue, Quentin Reynolds wrote about the problems of adolescence in an article called "Help Over the Teen-Age Hurdle." The next month Art Linkletter explained "Why People Are Funny," and in September, Herman Hickman explained that "Football Is a Ladies' Game." When Everywoman's told its readers in 1958 that the next issue would be Everywoman's Family Circle, it also promised that in the first issue of the merged magazines Ivy Baker Priest, Treasurer of the United States, would switch to her role as a "successful mother" and ask: "Are we neglecting our children enough?"

The use of celebrities has endured and has earned Family Circle free advertising. The New York Times reported in February 1976 that Susan Ford, daughter of President Ford, was in Palm Beach "working as a model … for Family Circle magazine." It reported in 1981 that Nancy Reagan told Family Circle that she "had just gotten out of the tub" and Ronald Reagan was in the shower when "President Jimmy Carter went on national television to concede the election."

Charges that Family Circle's content is primarily about economical cooking, styling hair, or that it is primarily a woman's magazine can be made only by those who have not bothered to turn the covers of the magazine. In Magazines in the United States, Wood reported that Family Circle was "a full magazine, carrying romantic fiction with housewife appeal, feature articles on such subjects of family interest as sports, law, divorce, teen-age problems, gardening, and travel." Its largest department was "All Around the House" which included material on food and its preparation, household equipment, decoration, home building, and home furnishings. In "Your Children and You," one found articles on child care, parent-child relationships, and how to organize successful parties for children. A typical issue contained sections by contributors headed "The Personal Touch," notices of new movies under "The Reel Dope," "Beauty and Health" departments, and a "Buyer's Guide" that told where and how the products mentioned in the magazine could be acquired. As was announced in its first issue, it was designed as a magazine with something for all members of the family. While a very large portion of its editorial content, probably a majority of it, was devoted to food, needlework, and other activities traditionally identi-fied as women's activities, it did not ignore fathers and activities traditionally identified as men's activities.

Family Circle also included material directed to children and teenagers. For example, when the first monthly issue appeared in September 1946, it included "Teen Scene" by Betsy Bourne, a feature addressed not to parents but to teenagers themselves. It was similar to the feature Woman's Day introduced in 1939, Susan Bennett Holmes' "School Bus." Although most of it was addressed to females, some sections were addressed to males. Bourne, however, addressed only a portion of the nation's teenagers. There was no mention or acknowledgment of race. That may be explained by the period during which she was working, a period that ended with the Brown decision (1954). She further tacitly accepted that the families of the teenagers she addressed were all very much alike. There certainly was no significant acknowledgment of the great variety of familial forms and styles that prevailed throughout the nation. The topic that received most attention—Social Skills—told teenagers, especially girls, how they could manipulate and manage others—their parents and their peers—and how they could manage to get their own way. Girls were given instructions on how to catch boys and what to give and not to give boys.

Teenagers, especially the females, who followed Bourne's advice were being prepared to be good middle class wives. They would understand their husbands, be considerate, know how to dress, how to groom themselves, how to give parties, and how to participate in volunteer work. While they were being told how to manage, manipulate, and get their own way, they were not being told how to be independent or to pursue their own careers. Boys were given instructions on how to please girls. Presumably, that would transfer to pleasing their wives.

Family Circle has served as a successful exporter of American culture. In 1965 its Canadian circulation was 350,000. A British version appeared on September 23, 1964. By early 1966 it was the most successful monthly for housewives in Britain. Its initial circulation of 700,000, distributed through 9,000 markets, increased to 850,000 distributed by 13,000 stores by the beginning of 1966. On March 24, 1966, 5,000 self-service stores in Germany began distribution of a German edition, Ich und meine Familie with a circulation of 500,000 guaranteed through 1967. Most of its editorial content was to be provided by the Germans, but a significant portion of the material on health and infant care was scheduled to come from Family Circle. An Australian edition appeared in Australian supermarkets in May 1973. Family Circle and Vanchen Associated of Hong Kong entered into a licensing agreement in 1984 to make it available in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The first issue was written in Chinese, but the recipe headings were in English.

—Erwin V. Johanningmeier

Further Reading:

"Food-Store Magazines Hit the Big Time." Business Week. No. 1171, February 9, 1952.

Jones, Landon Y. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York, Ballantine Books, 1981.

Leuchtenburg, William E. A Troubled Feast: American Society Since 1945. Boston, Little Brown and Co, 1979.

New York Times. February 20, 1976, 25.

New York Times. August 11, 1981, Section II, 10.

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

Taft, William H. Americans Magazines for the 1980s. New York, Hasting House Publishers, 1982.

Wolseley, Roland E. The Changing Magazine. New York, Hasting House Publishers, 1973.

Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. New York, Ronald Press, 1956.

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Family Circle

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