Good Housekeeping

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Good Housekeeping

By dint of its very title, Good Housekeeping magazine stands as a symbol of a past era in American life. Along with Redbook, Woman's Day, Ladies' Home Journal, and others, Good Housekeeping belongs to what is known in industry parlance as the "Seven Sisters" of women's service magazines, and achieved its most pervasive success in an era when the bulk of middle-class women stayed at home and focused their energies on cooking, cleaning, and their children. Good Housekeeping and its cohorts "gradually built up the power of the matriarchy," wrote John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman in The Magazine in America, 1741-1990. "Mom was … a figure of responsibility, dignity, and authority in the magazines." Good Housekeeping, however, differed from the other women's service magazines in its slightly elitist air; clearly aimed at women running economically stable households, in its heyday the periodical featured articles on how to choose a children's camp while, in a 1998 issue, readers received a run-down on the capital-gains tax.

Good Housekeeping began in 1885 as a ten-cent bi-weekly founded in Holyoke, Massachusetts, by Clark W. Bryan, a local journalist. Following on the heels of the success of Ladies' Home Journal, from the start Good Housekeeping catered to the young, affluent homemaker, a distinction that would later set it apart from its competitors in the field. It did not shy away, for instance, from feature stories on how to deal with hired help around the house. The first edition solicited reader contributions for a write-in contest on the topic "How To Eat, Drink and Sleep as a Christian Should." In 1891 it became a monthly, and in 1911 it was acquired by the Hearst publishing empire and its offices relocated to New York City.

From the start Good Housekeeping offered domestic guidance in the form of recipes, etiquette advice, and child care issues; it also contained more fiction and poetry in its pages than other women's magazines. In 1900, the magazine founded its famous Good Housekeeping Institute, which moved to state-of-the-art facilities in New York in 1912 and came under the guidance of a renowned former chemist from the United States Department of Agriculture. The GHI conducted research into food purity, tested products for safety, and in general brought a scientific approach to housekeeping. Its findings often became editorial features in the magazine itself, and from 1902 the magazine offered its "Ironclad Contract," the promise that any product advertised in Good Housekeeping would perform as promised. The "Seal of Approval" evolved over the next few decades in legal language and scope of guarantee, in order to deal with enforced compromises that result from this problematic mix of editorial focus and advertising revenue.

Circulation achieved the one-million mark in the 1920s, and the magazine—like much of the old-money, upper middle class in America—was virtually unaffected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, though its competitors suffered. Much of Good Housekeeping's tone was set in the years between 1913 to 1942 under the editorship of William Frederick Bigelow. (The magazine would not have its first female editor until 1994.) Bigelow introduced renowned writers such as W. Somerset Maugham and Booth Tarkington to the roster of fiction contributors, and the illustrations came from the pen of celebrated American artists such as Charles Dana Gibson. Keeping true to the magazine's focus on the sanctity of motherhood, its cover featured illustrations of children, at least through the 1950s; adult celebrities began appearing in the 1960s, but the December issue almost always still features an elaborate gingerbread house, with instructions inside on how to bake and construct this time-consuming piece de resistance of holiday festivities.

In the golden era of the Seven Sisters—the 1950s and 1960s when circulation and advertising pages reached an all-time high—Good Housekeeping continued to set itself apart, and above, its competitors in the field. It maintained its policy against liquor or tobacco advertising, and shied away from the tragic first-person tales found in other women's magazines, but did have an advice column written by Dr. Joyce Brothers. An etiquette column from Elizabeth Post, a descendant of the legendary authority Emily Post, gave readers advice about table manners and dealing with nosy neighbors; Elizabeth Post's daughter-in-law Peggy continued the column in the late 1990s.

After a circulation high of 5.5 million in 1966, Good Housekeeping lost readership and with that, advertising revenues, over the subsequent decades, as more American women entered the workforce on a full-time, permanent basis throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Redbook and other service publications responded to the trend, focusing their features and advice on how to manage both a household and a job outside the home, but Good Housekeeping did not. By the early 1990s, this orthodoxy had served the magazine well, and it began positioning itself toward a new demographic: career women who were giving up work in their thirties to become full-time suburban moms. The magazine launched its "New Traditionalist" ad campaign to attract readers and revenue with this focus. It remains one of the top performers in the Hearst media empire.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Endress, Kathleen T., and Therese L. Lueck, editors. "Good Housekeeping." Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines. Westport, Greenwood Press, 1995, 123-30.

McCracken, Ellen. " Good Housekeeping and McCall's : Safe Consumerism and Ideological Formation." Decoding Women's Magazines: From "Mademoiselle" to "Ms." New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Mott, Frank Luther. "Good Housekeeping." A History of American Magazines. Vol. 5. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1968, 125-43.

Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1964.

Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741-1990. New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.

"The Way We Were! The Way We Are!" (special supplement). Good Housekeeping. February, 1990.

Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. 3rd ed. New York, Ronald Press, 1971.