Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Helen Damon-Moore, Magazines for the Millions: Gender and Commerce in The Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, 1880-1910

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Helen Damon-Moore, Magazines for the Millions: Gender and Commerce in The Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, 1880-1910

Annmarie Adams
McGill University
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, 263 pp., illus. Cloth US$59.50, ISBN 0-7914-2057-4. Paper US$19.95, ISBN 0-7914-2058-2.

1 "The Overwhelming Power of Sex Appeal," "He Doesn't Write, He Doesn't Call," and "18 Ways to Keep a Man Faithful" are only a few of the titles featured on a recent cover of Cosmopolitan. Above these, the pale turquoise letters of the glossy American journal's title are partially blocked by the cocked head of a lithe, long-lashed blonde model, sporting white pedal-pushers and a see-through lace top. She appears to lean against the edge of the magazine, grasping one ankle, looking innocent and a bit dazed.

2 It is hard to believe that this slick, supermarket magazine, with its emphasis on glamour and money as means of attracting men, was first launched as a magazine for men. That popular journals for men frequently underwent this kind of editorial "sex change," consciously broadening their audiences to include women and thereby attract lucrative advertising, is one of the many fascinating insights presented in Helen Damon-Moore's Magazines for the Millions. Journals first intended for women, however, did not survive such radical surgery.

3 Damon-Moore's book is a case study of two of the most influential American magazines ever published: The Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. In eight lively chapters, the author traces the history of these powerful cultural icons during three tumultuous decades, showing how both the Journal and the Post played significant roles in the commercializing of gender and the gendering of commerce. Through their editorial stances, advertising, regular columns, fiction, and contemporary news reports, these magazines — both run by the Curtis Publishing Company of Philadelphia — solidified assumptions about what sorts of material goods American women and men might wish to buy and about the highly gendered nature of the marketplace in which goods are sold.

4 Damon-Moore's perspective of each magazine is through the stance of its editor. Previous reseach, too, on The Ladies' Home Journal has focused on its conservative and headstrong second editor, Edward Bok, who steered the contents of the magazine for three decades. Damon-Moore begins, however, with a fascinating glimpse of the journal's first editor, Louisa Knapp Curtis, who was also the wife of publisher Cyrus Curtis.

5 It was during this crucial period of Knapp's guidance, according to Damon-Moore, that the journal cemented its role in the so-called Consumer Revolution. Knapp saw women's increased activity as consumers as a means by which they could expand their autonomy. This did nothing to challenge the patriarchal nature of capitalism, of course, whereby men were paid for their work while women were not. Under her editorship, nonetheless, circulation jumped from 25 000 at the end of its first year to 440 000 when she retired in 1889.

6 The confidential tone of Knapp's writing was done away with by Bok, who not only took over as editor of LHJ but also married the Curtis' only daughter, Mary Louise. Bok communicated with LHJ readers in a more condescending, almost preachy tone, instructing them how to live rather than sharing information, as had his predecessor. He signed his editorials and included collections of his own articles, while Knapp had edited the magazine more anonymously. And under Bok, readers were given less and less space in which to react to the magazine's content. Nevertheless, circulation figures continued to grow. Damon-Moore points out how Bok's editorship institutionalized the patronizing tone that still characterizes popular women's magazines. "The notion that women need help was institutionalized," she points out in an insightful chapter on Bok's role in the context of reading in America at the time.

7 Whereas Knapp had suggested that women's and men's spheres overlapped considerably, Bok was a firm believer that women's place was in the home. Threatened by women's advancing role in American society, Bok focused on raising the status of domesticity, rather than supporting the advancement of women outside the home. In fact, he opposed both higher education for women and the vote, despite evidence that thousands of LHJ readers supported these causes.

8 Damon-Moore claims that Bok's tenure coincided with a profound shift in the relationship of gender and commerce — from consuming as an activity for middle-class women to "viewing women as the culture's primary consumers and women as primarily consumers." The author claims this as LH/S lasting contribution to American culture, by examining the "mixed messages" embedded in the content of the increasingly commercialized magazine under Bok.

9 The author's mandate shifts considerably half-way through the book. Chapter 5 introduces The Saturday Evening Post, acquired by Cyrus Curtis in 1897 as a magazine for men. Here the gender analysis gets complicated. Damon-Moore points out that the Post's editor, George Horace Lorimer, had more in common with Knapp than with Bok, thereby suggesting that an editor's character may be a more important factor than her or his gender.

10 The real contribution of Magazines for the Millions lies in the complex comparison undertaken by Damon-Moore between the directives of the two journals. While most feminist authors study women's culture in isolation, typically emphasizing how it differed from men's (i.e., mainstream) culture, Damon-Moore shows how "men required gender construction just as women did." Her analysis of the Post's content in the context of other social forms of masculinity (Boy Scouts, boxing, fraternities) turns previous scholarship on its head, suggesting that there were simply fewer options available to men at the turn of this century, rather than a real "crisis of masculinity," as has been suggested by other historians.

11 Magazines for the Millions is a must-read for scholars interested in gender, the histories of reading, advertising, business, and shopping. Material Culture scholars, however, may be disappointed that the author focuses solely on the content of the journals and pays little attention to the real power of the magazines in determining the ways particular goods may have been perceived, displayed, sold, made, used, or even discarded. Granted, the author did go to great lengths to analyze the few instances in the magazines when readers voiced their opinions; sources in the histories of particular companies, however, may have enriched her interpretation of changes in content. Damon-Moore analyzes advertisements for Pearline soap, for example, which appeared in nearly every issue of the 1890s Journal, pointing out how they contradicted many of Bok's conservative editorials. How many people bought Pearline? How did it compare to other washing powders? How was it packaged? Where was it sold? How did women respond to the progressive images portrayed in Pearline ads?

12 And surprisingly, there is no mention in Magazines for the Millions of the Journal's unsurpassed power in reforming the design of American homes, particularly through its regular publication of model houses by famous American architects. Bok began this practice in 1895, offering readers the chance to purchase house plans for as little as $5. Since the editor frequendy offered prizes for photographs of the best houses built from LHJ designs, there is considerable information about the number of these houses actually constructed, their builders, and their locations. Bok's power in this regard was well understood even in his own day. Theodore Roosevelt allegedly commented that Edward Bok was the only one he knew "who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation."

13 The reasons for the seeming lack of interest in both material culture analysis and architectural history are clear from the one-page "Methodological Note," which appears at the end of the text. Damon-Moore read some 300 issues of LHJ and surveyed over 600 issues of the Post. These were her sources; the book is truly a survey of the magazines. It is not a study of their direct impact on an increasingly materialistic America.

14 Despite these shortcomings, Magazines for the Millions is an insightful, clearly written, and well-illustrated text. Besides, it puts a whole new twist on reading Cosmo.