" 'Of Enduring Interest': The First Issue of The Reader's Digest
as a 'Snapshot' of America in 1922 --and its Legacy in a Mass-Market
of a paper presented to the Magazine Division of the Association for
Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Anaheim, Calif., August 1996
The first issue of The Reader's Digest, dated February 1922, offers a
picture of America at a crossroads, a period of transition from the Progressive
era to the consumerism, nativism, and self-absorption of the 1920s. In its
standardization and its editorial goals of convenience and efficiency, "the
little magazine"--which one historian has called "the journalistic counterpart
of the Model T or the A&P"--was the perfect symbol of its time. Yet the lasting
success of the magazine's original editorial formula offers a broader
perspective on twentieth-century mass culture as well. This paper analyzes the
text of the debut issue against its historical context and considers its
cultural legacy. It argues why America's most plainspoken, upbeat magazine
should indeed be (as its founding editor promised) "of enduring interest" to
media historians and critics.
"Of Enduring Interest"/
"Of Enduring Interest":
The First Issue of The Reader's Digest as a "Snapshot" of America in
and its Legacy in a Mass-Market Culture
Carolyn L. Kitch
4001 Schoolhouse Lane
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17109
[log in to unmask]
A paper presented to the Magazine Division
of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
for the 79th Annual Conference in Anaheim, Calif., August 1996
"Of Enduring Interest":
The First Issue of The Reader's Digest as a "Snapshot" of America in
and its Legacy in a Mass-Market Culture
The 1920s in America have been characterized by historians and
popular-culture critics as "the Jazz Age," a time of flappers and speakeasies;
as an era of profound disillusionment following World War I, producing a "lost
generation" of youth; as a decade of 100-percent Americanism and mindless
conformity; and as a turning point in the history of technology, the heyday of
mass production. None of these descriptions is sufficient to explain this
complex decade, but all of them hold some truth. And most of these trends were
already evident in 1922 to DeWitt Wallace, an entrepreneur with a "talent for
divining what sociologists call the mass mind." That year he started a new
magazine called The Reader's Digest.
"The little magazine," as its subtitle read in its first issue,
offered readers 31 articles (one for each day of the month) of practical value
and "enduring interest" in condensed form--the "best" of the offerings of dozens
of other magazines and newspapers. In its scope, its articles' length, and even
its size--small enough "for slipping into a coat pocket or a purse"--the new
magazine was a model of efficiency. Seventy-four years later, the Digest is so
well-known that little of this needs explanation. But in 1922 such a
publication was a revolutionary idea that changed the publishing business. One
historian calls the early Digest "the journalistic counterpart of the Model T or
the A&P." Another noted that
What Ford [did] in automobile manufacturing, Wallace [did]
in publishing. Ford gave Everyman a car he could drive,
[and] Wallace gave Everyman some literature he could read;
both turned the trick with mass production . . . . Wallace
has . . . made history by adapting the assembly-line technique
to the production of literature.
In its standardization and mass dissemination, the Digest was--as an
idea and as a consumer product--a significant symbol of America in the 1920s.
The content of the original Digest also reflected America's transition from the
Progressive era of the first two decades of the twentieth century to the
consumerism, nativism, and self-absorption of its third decade. The topics
covered and opinions expressed in the magazine's earliest pages are
representative of both eras and in this sense offer a picture frozen in time--a
snapshot--of America just after World War I.
Nevertheless, there was something timeless in the very first issue of
the Digest, and the fact that it is one of the oldest surviving general-interest
magazines links its early themes to modern-day ideas. The same formula that
was pleasing to a large audience in the 1920s is still pleasing to a large
audience today. In this sense, the Digest offers a panoramic view of America in
the twentieth century.
This paper offers an examination of the debut issue of The Reader's
Digest in its historical context. Such an approach is an attempt to combine
conventional historical method with the textual analysis more common to
print-media research--to closely study one document, but less as evidence of
magazine journalism's influence on a culture than as a product of the culture's
influence on magazine journalism. It asks the question: Why did this type of
journalism begin in this time and place? It also considers why a particular
editorial concept has experienced lasting success beyond one time and
place--thus raising questions about how we might characterize American mass
culture in a broader sense.
America in 1922
The year The Reader's Digest was born, American social, political,
and economic conditions combined to create a friendly climate for DeWitt
Wallace's editorial vision. A post-war recession had finally ended, and with
economic recovery came a pro-business attitude on the part of the federal
government, under a generally disinterested President Warren G. Harding.
Supreme Court decisions of the early 1920s also reversed working-class gains
made during the Progressive era: restrictions on child labor were eliminated,
and striking unions were once again subject to anti-trust prosecution.
The corporate progress of the early 1920s was matched by social
regression. Popular-culture images of women changed dramatically: the model of
the female reformer--who during the Progressive era had campaigned to improve
public health, and who after 70 years of suffrage agitation had finally won the
vote in 1920--was replaced with the ideal of the flapper, a "shameless, selfish"
creature interested in money and sex who "takes a man's point of view as her
mother never could."
Popular images and opinion of African Americans and other minorities
were worse. During the first few years of the twenties, movements such as the
Harlem Renaissance and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Assocation
seemed to offer hope for the improvement of African Americans' social and
economic status; the rising popularity of jazz also showcased talented blacks
such as Louis Armstrong, whose name became nationally known in 1922 as he
emerged on the Chicago jazz scene. But white hatred grew in equal proportion to
In 1922, a Texas dentist named Hiram Wesley Evans, who described
himself as "the most average man in America," became Imperial Wizard of the
Ku Klux Klan, which had been in decline since the turn of the century. Evans
transformed the group's demographics by using modern advertising techniques and
a recruitment-bonus program to attract college-educated professionals, many of
them urban. Between 1920 and 1925, Klan membership grew from 5,000 members to
five million. This newer version of the organization targeted Jews and
Catholics as well as blacks.
Nativism in America extended beyond extremist groups. Writing just
after World War I, New York city attorney and zoologist Madison Grant warned
"native Americans" of the danger that the country would be "vulgarized" by the
millions of immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe and from
Russia, "the lowest stratum" of foreigners whose large families promised "the
survival of the unfit." In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese
immigrants were not eligible for U. S. citizenship because they were not members
of the "white race." Two years later, Congress passed the National Origins Act,
which served to severely restrict immigration from non-English speaking
Nativism and racism were integral parts of what Thorstein Veblen,
writing in 1922, described as the "unreflecting patriotic flurry [that had]
become a civic virtue" in the United States. Another social critic of the
day, Harold Stearns, lamented the "enforced dull standardization" sweeping the
country, not only in politics, but also in business and home life. Though
they had been formulated in the teens, the "scientific management" principles of
Frederick Winslow Taylor were widely applied in American corporations during the
1920s, and this phenomenon, along with the assembly line, made the work
experience of Americans increasingly uniform.
At home, Americans lived in structures that resembled each other on
the outside, as housing developments sprung up and suburbia flourished, and also
looked more and more alike on the inside, thanks to the furniture and the
kitchen and bathroom accessories mass-produced by companies like Sears. By the
early 1920s, nearly half of all non-farm dwellings had electricity , enabling
their occupants to use mass-produced electric appliances--which in turn allowed
them to store, and quickly prepare meals with, groceries bought in bulk at the
more than 5,000 A&P chain food stores. During the decade when "the automobile
became a 'necessity' for Americans," however, dinner was sometimes picked up at
one of the growing number of drive-through fast-food establishments. Clothing
was also mass-produced, and women were squeezing into the first dresses made
according to standardized sizes.
Americans were increasingly better able to compare their possessions
and lifestyles to those of their neighbors, since they were living in closer
proximity to one another: the 1920 census had shown that, for the first time,
more people lived in cities than in rural areas. This concentration of the
population, along with advances in transportation (including road-paving),
increased Americans' access to goods and services, at the same time that the
relatively new technique of national advertising increased their awareness of,
and desire for, mass-produced products. Many of the new consumers agreed with
the fictional George Babbitt--the title character of Sinclair Lewis's 1922
novel, whose name has become synonymous with unthinking conformity--that
"standard advertised wares--toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous
hot-water heaters--were . . . symbols and proofs of excellence."
Even the ways Americans were entertained and informed became
uniform. Every week in 1922, 40 million people sat in movie houses across the
country to watch the same films. By that year, ten magazines had
2.5 million each. At the same time their publications gained
readers, however, editors struggled with the fact that those readers were busy
and distracted people; according to a survey cited in Walter Lippmann's 1922
book Public Opinion, even college-educated Americans spent no more than 15
minutes a day with their newspapers or magazines. Readers were
. . . tiring of long investigative pieces by muckrakers like
Tarbell and Steffens, not to mention their relentlessly gloomy
portrayal of U. S. business and society. Shorter articles and
even news summaries were now in vogue. Liberty magazine
had gone so far as to post, at the head of each article, the
reading time; . . . . Collier's had pioneered the brief article
and was experimenting with the one-page short story. Soon
almost every popular magazine, including the Saturday
Evening Post, was beginning to shorten its once formidably
long short stories and features.
A 32-year-old man in Minnesota, just back from the European war,
noticed these very changes--in the many magazines he read every month, and in
the society around him. "We're living in a fast-moving world," he told his
father one day. "People are anxious to get at the nub of matters." That
man was DeWitt Wallace.
The Founder of "The Little Magazine"
In his 1922 book, American Individualism, then-Secretary of Commerce
Herbert Hoover wrote that America's "social, economic, and intellectual progress
is almost solely dependent upon the creative minds of those individuals . . .
who carry discoveries to widespread application." He surely was thinking of
men such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford--all praised in
the first issue of The Reader's Digest--but his description fit DeWitt Wallace
Nothing in DeWitt Wallace's adolescence foreshadowed greatness.
The son of a midwestern Presbyterian preacher and college president, DeWitt was
a self-described playboy and a two-time college dropout who couldn't seem to
settle on any one occupation. One of his many jobs was going door-to-door
through the midwestern states selling maps, an experience that "gave him an
insight into people's need for practical information--as opposed to the academic
knowledge so prized by his father." With money he earned from this job, he
bought a Model T.
DeWitt enjoyed reading magazines, and he combed through them looking
for tips on salesmanship and efficiency. Working for a publisher of farming
catalogs, he came up with the idea for a "digest" of farming advice, and he
convinced his employer to finance his plan. The resulting publication was
called "Getting the Most Out of Farming" and contained what DeWitt considered
the the most useful information in the many government-issued farming bulletins.
He had 100,000 copies printed and, in 1916, he went on a five-state selling
tour, trying to convince bank and seed-store managers to buy the booklets in
bulk and give them out as premiums to their customers. Though in the end he
made very little profit, he sold all 100,000 copies, and he found evidence for
his belief "that what the average hardworking American family most wanted in a
publication was information."
DeWitt's budding publishing career was suspended when he enlisted in
the Army after the U. S.'s entry into World War I and was sent to France, where
he was wounded by gunfire. During his six months of recuperation, he read
American magazines given to the hospitalized soldiers. "Instead of doing
crossword puzzles or playing chess," writes John Heidenry, "DeWitt relaxed by
practicing condensation techniques on the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair,
and Scribner's," trying to cut them to a fourth of their original size "while
retaining both their style and their substance. He decided, on returning to the
States, to publish another booklet--to be called The Reader's Digest."
Back home in Minnesota, he began gathering and condensing articles
from magazines in the Minneapolis Public Library. By early 1920, his 64-page
prototype--containing what would become the standard 31 articles--was ready. He
sent it to publishers all over the country, only to have it rejected by every
one of them, including William Randolph Hearst, who said such a magazine would
have a limited appeal and a small circulation. By the end of 1920, DeWitt
decided his luck might be better in New York, the heart of the publishing
industry. There, he married Lila Bell Acheson, a social worker and the younger
sister of a friend.
The two set about selling subscriptions to the Digest, working from
office space they rented at One Minetta Lane in the city's Greenwich Village--in
the basement of a speakeasy (whose customers helped them wrap the first mailing
of the magazine!). The fact that a conservative publication meant to appeal to
Main Street U. S. A. was born in such a building was supremely ironic; so was
the neighborhood, which at the time was home to radical writers Max Eastman and
John Reed and the experimental Provincetown Playhouse, where the works of
avant-garde playwrights, including Eugene O'Neil, were being staged.
The First Issue
Finally, with a $5,000 loan from Lila's brother, the Wallaces printed
and mailed 5,000 copies of the first issue, which DeWitt had compiled from
magazines in the New York Public Library. It was dated February 1922 and was a
small and somber-looking publication--63 pages of text with no
illustrations. On its understated cover was the magazine's name, a small
line drawing of a woman writing with a large quill on a scroll, and a blurb:
"Thirty-One Articles Each Month from Leading Magazines--Each Article of Enduring
Value and Interest, in Condensed and Compact Form." Inside were articles from
27 magazines of the day, including McClure's, Good Housekeeping, The
Atlantic Monthly, Popular Science, The Ladies' Home Journal, The American
Magazine, and Scribner's. Most had been condensed to a length of two pages, and
a few occupied only one page.
The editor's page, signed by Lila rather than DeWitt (an effort to
woo women readers), referred to the publication as "The Little Magazine" and
listed four reasons the modern reader would come to value the Digest:
1. Thirty-one articles each month--"one a day"--
condensed from leading periodicals.
2. Each article of enduring value and interest--today,
next month, or a year hence; such articles as one talks about
and wishes to remember.
3. Compact form; easy to carry in the pocket and to
keep for permanent reference.
4. A most convenient means of "keeping one's
information account open"--of reading stimulating articles on
a wide variety of subjects.
Given the pro-business atmosphere of the twenties, the banking
metaphor in the fourth point is particularly fitting. The fact that this pitch
was made in a list is also significant. Twenty-four of the first issue's
articles took the form of lists: each point the author made was actually
numbered. This technique served to further standardize the style and
readability of the early Digest articles.
Although the issue did not contain advertisements--and the magazine
would not include any until 1955--a promotional blurb, used as filler, was
cloaked in the advertising lingo of the day, phrased in terms of consumer need
and status: "The Reader's Digest has come into existence because you felt that
such a magazine would fill a real need--even before you had actually seen a copy
. . . . The Reader's Digest is to be regarded as an exclusive service to
members of our Association" (p. 63). The issue also contained an article
praising advertising as the medium through which millions of Americans learned
about nutrition, sanitation, home heating, medicines, and other aspects of
progress that promoted health and longevity (pp. 59-60).
This emphasis on scientific advancement and efficiency--which
reflected both the Progressive era's value of factual knowledge and the
America-first attitude of the twenties--was evident as well in other articles.
One, titled "Progress in Science" and containing information condensed from
features in Scientific American and Popular Science, reported new developments
including the radio telephone (i. e., telephones on ships); real-estate dealers'
use of aerial photography to promote property sales; the artificial coloring of
oranges; and lie-detector machines (pp. 35-36). A one-page feature
titled "Today" contained science trivia, including current life expectancy and
how many volts of electricity there were in a flash of lightning (p. 42). Other
articles explained how fireflies light up (pp. 37-38) and told the history of
time-telling (pp. 25-26) and of the printing press (pp. 55-56). Articles
explaining technology and nature would quickly become a staple of the magazine's
Although it was condensed from The Nation's Business, the article
"Research and Everyday Life" (pp. 47-48) could just as well have been taken from
a science magazine, or from one of the women's magazines of the day, which were
equally concerned with scientific progress. Its theme was that housework
was a scientific endeavor linked to chemistry and physics, and it cited the
results of experiments, conducted at the University of Pittsburgh's Mellon
Institute, involving laundry, baking, canning, and household cleaning.
In contrast to such seemingly benign applications of scientific
language, the Digest, along with other magazines of the day, used scientific
arguments to justify nativism. The message of "Can We Have a Beautiful Race?"
(pp. 43-44), condensed from a magazine called Physical Culture, was that America
would soon be full of ugly, stupid, and immoral people because of immigration
and high birth rates among foreign-born residents. The author explained,
I have studied thousands of women unloaded at Ellis
Island. They are broad-hipped, short-, stout-legged with big feet;
broad-backed, flat-chested with necks like a prize fighter and
with faces as expressionless and devoid of beauty as a pumpkin.
These women are giving us nearly three babies where the
beautiful women of old American stocks are giving us one; hence,
the beauty of the American women will steadily decline . . . .
The moment we lose beauty we lose intelligence . . . . All
the studies that have been made show that beauty and brains
are in quite a high degree associated. It has also been shown
that people with brains are usually better morally . . . .
Closely related to the pervasive theme of scientific progress was the
emphasis on self-improvement. Like the magazine as a whole, this focus was both
pioneering in the magazine industry (self-help articles quickly became a
component of most other mass-market magazines and remain a part of their
editorial mix) and emblematic of its time. Theodore Babbitt--son of the title
character of Lewis's novel, who cut out ads for correspondence-school courses on
"Improving the Memory," "Developing the Soul-Power," and how to "Be More Popular
and Make More Money" (p. 71)--would surely have been drawn to the Digest.
The first issue contained self-improvement articles including "To
Bore or Not to Bore" (pp. 51-52), a piece on how to be an engaging host or
guest; "Don't Growl--Kick" (pp. 61-62), a guide to effective complaining; and
"Useful Points in Judging People" (pp. 33-34), excerpted from the manual of the
National Salesman's Training Association. "How to Keep Young Mentally" (pp.
5-6) was an interview with the then-75-year-old Alexander Graham Bell.
As in the latter piece, expert input was an important component of
the Digest; in fact, several articles in the first issues were actually written
by experts. Thomas Edison defined the qualities of a good business
executive, as determined by a questionnaire he had devised (pp. 13-14). Albert
Payson Terhune, author of the popular novel Lad--a Dog, told what humans could
learn from canines (pp. 19-20). Brigadier General Amos A. Fries, identified as
"Chief of Chemical Warfare Service, U. S. A.," predicted "The Future of Poison
Gas" (pp. 31-32). Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson offered "Advice from a
President's Physician" (pp. 45-46).
The Grayson article was condensed from Good Housekeeping, and a
number of women's magazines were represented in the first issue of the Digest.
In his attempt to draw women readers, DeWitt Wallace devoted a relatively large
number of articles to their concerns, especially marriage and motherhood.
Some of these articles were lighthearted and modern . "What Kind of
Husband Are You?"--ostensibly addressed to male readers, but clearly for women's
enjoyment--listed the many thoughtless little things men do around the house to
annoy their wives (pp. 29-30); the satirical "Whatever Is New for Women Is
Wrong" (pp. 15-16), condensed from the Ladies' Home Journal, poked fun at men's
criticism of women's political and social gains throughout history.
Others were less approving of contemporary American women. One
chided mothers for keeping "the apron strings" tied to their teenage sons (no
mention is made of daughters), who were ready to go out into the world and
(pp. 11-12). This article is a wonderful example of both the
scientific references and the masculinity that typified the language of many
1920s magazines and books: praising boys' clubs such as the Boy Scouts and the
"Junior Achievement Bureau" as excellent transitions to manhood, the author told
mothers, "it's a scientific fact that a human instinct cannot be stifled at a
time when it naturally crops out."
Two articles were openly critical of "the New Woman." "Love--Luxury
or Necessity" (pp. 23-24) listed scientific reasons why "to be really
emancipated from love or the need of loving is to be abnormal" and "to imagine
that the activities of the independent and self-sufficient woman of today have
emancipated her from the simple emotional necessities of life is to make a
mistake which may in the long run be costly." The even more strongly worded
"Wanted--Motives for Motherhood"
(pp. 39-40) called childless wives "parasites." Its female
writer--who felt she and other middle-class white women were faulted for wanting
large families--criticized society and the media for glorifying "the New Woman"
as opposed to the "child-bearing mother pushed unjustly to the background."
Scientific-progress, self-help, and relationship pieces in the first
issue set the tone for future issues of the Digest. Other eventually-common
article formats--such as the round-up department, the personality profile, and
the human-interest filler--were introduced in the first issue as well. A
front-of-the-book page, called "Remarkable Remarks" (p. 4), was a compilation of
inspirational quotes and the forerunner of the Digest's popular, continuing
feature, "Points to Ponder." A five-paragraph explanation of who Croesus
was--as in the phrase, "rich as Croesus"--was the magazine's first filler (p.
18). If Croesus was an interesting historical figure in the 1920s, the subject
of the Digest's first personality profile was perhaps the greatest living symbol
of the decade: Henry Ford. That piece (pp. 21-22) was less a biography of Ford
than a compendium of his views on politics and business--from railroad owners
(greedy and self-serving) to the future of agriculture (dim).
The first issue of The Reader's Digest closed with a subscription
the rate was $3 a year--and a plea to readers that they pass the
form along to friends, who "will be delighted to learn of this unique
publication [and] will appreciate your kindness in bringing it to their
attention" (p. 63). Readers evidently complied, because during its first seven
years, when the magazine was sold only by subscription, its circulation rose
steadily. In 1926 it reached 20,000. By then the Wallaces had moved the
operation to a New York suburb appropriately called Pleasantville--as John
Heidenry describes it, "a storybook version of the American small town"--and
hired a business manager and another editor.
The Digest's Legacy: A Wider View of the Twentieth Century
While the early Digest's comments about immigrants, African
Americans, and non-traditional women provide plenty of material for modern-day
criticism, its editorial stance on these cultural outsiders was most likely a
reflection--a fairly comprehensive one--of the political and social climate of
the day, as discussed earlier in this paper. This reflection is, in itself, an
interesting body of evidence for historical analysis. Nevertheless, with regard
to its nativism, racism, and sexism, the new magazine was probably more of a
follower than a leader in the 1920s.
The new publication was unusual, however, in its standardized format,
its editorial mix, and its efficiently compact size. And, appearing after a
decade culturally characterized by intellectualism and grim realism, the Digest
was a media pioneer in its straightforward prose and its optimistic editorial
These qualities were the chief targets of criticism of the Digest
during the 1920s, just as they still are today. Detractors have argued, then
and now, that in its reduction of information and ideas, in its simplification
of major issues, the magazine was/is shallow, and insulting to the American
reading public. Those who have levelled such charges at "the little magazine"
would most likely concur with Willa Cather's 1922 assertion that mass-produced
literature "manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be
considered exactly like a cheap soap or a cheap perfume."
Yet other critics have viewed the Digest of the 1920s, and its
legacy, in a different light. Historian Ann Douglas notes that not only the
Digest, but also The New Yorker (founded in 1925) "disliked what Edmund Wilson
rebuked in 1927 as the 'development of language beyond its theme'; both relied
on spoken and speakable language." Literary scholar Earl Rovit includes
these two titles as well as Time (the third major, lasting American magazine
begun in the 1920s) in his argument that straightforward and concise editorial
matter was a response to a real, not manufactured, desire of American readers of
Rovit believes that the three magazines offered readers not
conformity but consistency, a reassuring quality in a world of increasing
turmoil. Each one provided "a collective voice that would be instantly
recognizable, consistent from issue to issue, and intimately associated with an
imprint of automatic reliability." Comparing this reassurance to the "bleak
despair" of the decade's' "lost
generation"--expressed in the works of, among others, Eliot,
Fitzergerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner--Rovit speculates that these magazines
symbolized Americans' desire during an era of moral confusion for "Truth (Time),
Goodness (Reader's Digest), and Beauty (New Yorker)."
Yet clearly the formulaic Reader's Digest has met the needs of more
than that one generation. While the turmoil of the 1920s gave way to very
different social, political, and cultural climates in later decades, the
Digest's popularity continued unabated. Today, the magazine's total U. S.
circulation is more than 15 million. Its very name has become a part of the
American vocabulary: someone who doesn't want to listen to a long explanation
says, "Just give me the Reader's Digest version" (meaning, "Just give me a short
version with the key points"--an accurate summation of DeWitt Wallace's business
This success has influenced dozens if not hundreds of American
magazines that were founded after the 1920s, as well as some that were in
existence even before the Digest was born. Editorial devices widely popularized
by the Digest--the list format, the expert byline, the human-interest filler,
piece, the round-up of inspirational or humorous quotes--are standard
fare in modern American consumer magazines. So is the medium's preference for
what DeWitt Wallace called "constructiveness" in articles, the editorial message
that, no matter what the problem, an answer can be found--a philosophy that was
an essential part of the upbeat original Digest. What's more, since 1938, the
magazine has been one of America's most successful cultural exports; today it is
published in 18 languages and reaches 14 million readers in 46 foreign
countries. "Except for the Scriptures," a media historian once noted,
"nothing ever published has been circulated more widely than the Digest."
A reading of any recent issue alongside the February 1922 premier
issue confirms what journalism scholars Ron Smith and Linda Decker-Amos
discovered in their 1985 content analysis of the magazine: that there is
"validity to the notion [that] the Digest is unchanging." A small but more
recent sampling, the last four issues of 1995 (September through December),
bears out this consistency.
Though there are more "original articles" in the current Digest,
reprints still fill about half of each issue. The magazine's length has
quadrupled since 1922 and individual articles now run an average of four to six
pages, but they are still about a fourth of the size of features in other
magazines. Including the regular columns, there is a consistent number of
articles per month--either 37 or 38, in the 1995 issues. While true-life dramas
have been added to the magazine's regular editorial mix, otherwise it is very
much the same in 1995 as it was in 1922: an assortment of self-help pieces,
personality profiles, round-up departments, reports on scientific progress,
stories about nature and pets, relationship pieces, and advice from experts.
The front cover is still relatively free of artwork, featuring, instead, the
table of contents page.
The social and cultural phenomena that made the Digest a welcome new
idea in 1922--the forces of urbanization, mass production, information
explosion, and the busyness of daily life--are still with us in 1996. To a
great extent, the conservative social forces that created a market for the
Digest's conservative tone and viewpoints in the twenties are also still with
us. The reassuring consistency, the sameness of style and content from issue to
issue, that made this publication popular in its first decade continues to earn
readers' loyalty in its eighth decade. One history of the Digest maintains that
Americans are so drawn to the magazine because
It prefers the positive, likes the sunlighted picture best. It is
directed to the same characteristics in the reader that it
displays itself: the curiosity, the humor, the love of adventure,
the affection for the familiar, the desire to understand, the
indignation at what hurts, the wish that things were better,
and the belief that they can be.
While sentimental, this description was most likely true of what many
Americans in 1922 hoped for (despite the realities around them) and is equally
true of how many Americans today like to think of ourselves (despite the
realities around us).
This paper has argued that the 1922 debut issue of The Reader's
a product of its time and place--a moment of great social, political,
and commercial change in America. Yet if one accepts the notion that a
journalistic medium is shaped by its historical setting, then the lasting
popularity of a particular editorial formula is equally telling about U. S.
culture over a larger time span.
The fact that this seemingly historically-situated magazine has
for 74 years suggests that the decades of the American twentieth
century may be culturally more similar than different, and that perhaps
historical "eras" (and their media) are not as clearly bounded as we may think.
Such a possibility underscores the relevance of historical scholarship to the
study of present-day media.
The wider view of the Digest's history is a paradoxical one: A
publication characterized by simplification and optimism is the most successful
magazine of a century often characterized by complexity and anxiety. The
questions this paradox raises--about American media and American audiences--are
of as much enduring interest as the medium itself.
 John Bainbridge, Little Wonder: The Reader's Digest and How
It Grew (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945), 5.
 John Heidenry, Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and DeWitt
Wallace and the Story of The Reader's Digest (New York: Norton, 1993), 41.
 Paul Boyer, et al., The Enduring Vision: A History of the
American People, vol. II, 2nd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1993), 814.
 Bainbridge, 175-76.
 Amy Janello and Brennon Jones, The American Magazine (New
York: Abrams, 1991), 231-35. At least 40 consumer magazines on the market today
are older than the Digest, but only one, the Saturday Evening Post (founded in
1821) is a general-interest magazine that achieved the mass-market appeal and
visibility of the Digest. Unlike the Digest, the Post has not published
continuously. Among the other survivors, those with truly mass-market
circulations (i.e., around or above five million), are all women's magazines:
McCall's (1876), Ladies' Home Journal (1883), Good Housekeeping (1885), and
Redbook (1903). However, another extremely influential twentieth-century
magazine, Time--which, though a news magazine, might also be classified as
"general interest"--would be founded in 1923, one year after the Digest's debut.
 Mary Beth Norton, et al., A People and a Nation: A History of
the United States, vol. II, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton, 1986), 682-83.
 George E. Mowry, The Twenties: Fords, Flappers & Fanatics
(Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1963), 174.
 Boyer, 824.
 Elizabeth Stevenson, Babbitts and Bohemians: The American
1920s (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 99. An article by Hiram Wesley Evans
himself, titled "The Klan: Defender of Americanism"--primarily an attack on
Jews--would appear in the January 1926 issue of the Digest (Heidenry, 66).
 Madison Grant, "Madison Grant on the New Immigrants as
Survival of the Unfit, 1918," rpt. in Leon Fink, ed., Major Problems in the
Gilded Age and the Progressive Era (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993),
262-64; Edmund Traverso and Van R. Halsey, The 1920s: Rhetoric or Reality?
(Boston: Heath, 1964), 99; Boyer, 823.
 Thorstein Veblen, "Dementia Praecox," The Freeman (June 21,
1922), rpt. in Loren Baritz, ed., The Culture of the Twenties (New York:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 37.
 Harold Stearns, "The Intellectual Life," Civilization in the
United States (New York: Harcourt, 1922), rpt. in Baritz, 348.
 Traverso, 48.
 Harvey Green, The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945
(New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 113; Ruth Schwartz Cowan, "The 'Industrial
Revolution' in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the
Twentieth Century," rpt. in Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, Women's
America: Refocusing the Past, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press,
1991), 375; Boyer, 802; Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America,
1929-1941 (New York: Times Books, 1984), 18; Joan Jacobs Brumberg, "Fasting
Girls: The Emerging Ideal of Slenderness in American Culture," rpt. in Kerber
and De Hart, 369-70.
 McElvaine, 19.
 Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Harcourt, 1922), 81.
 Norton, 699.
 Boyer, 812.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922),
 Heidenry, 42.
 Bainbridge, 36.
 Herbert Hoover, American Individualism (Garden City, N. Y.:
Doubleday, 1922), partially rpt. in Baritz, 236.
 The following biographical information about DeWitt and Lila
Wallace, including the events leading to the first issue of the Digest, is from
several sources: Bainbridge; Heidenry; Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr., The Condensed
World of The Reader's Digest (New York: Stein & Day, 1977); and James Playsted
Wood, Of Lasting Interest: The Story of The Reader's Digest (Garden City, N.
Y.: Doubleday, 1967).
 Heidenry, 31.
 Heidenry, 37.
 Heidenry, 40.
 The Wallaces' choice of the Village for the Digest's first
office seems even more ironic in light of Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick's
description of its Modernist residents during the teens and early twenties:
"Free thinkers and lovers . . . united by their fight against those tendencies
in American life that were driving their fellow citizens in the direction of
increasing standardization, mechanization, and materialism" (Adele Heller and
Lois Rudnick, eds., 1915: The Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New
Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art & the New Theatre in America (New
Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 3.)
 The Reader's Digest (February 1922). Subsequent references
to and quotations from articles in this issue are attributed by indicating page
numbers parenthetically in the main text.
 The choice of this illustration was not a matter of careful
deliberation. According to James Wood, "It was an ornament the . . . printer
happened to have in his case. There had been no money to spare for art."
Except for this cover art, which would be reused for several years, there would
be no illustrations in The Reader's Digest for another 17 years. (Wood, 36,
 There were also three book excerpts and a reprinted newspaper
 Proof that the list format was successful can be seen not
only in the success of the Digest, but also in the fact that hundreds of other
consumer magazines began to use it frequently; it survives today as one of the
most common article formats in mass-market magazines.
 Wood, 225.
 The best example was Good Housekeeping, which in 1908 had
established the Good Housekeeping Institute, staffed with chemists, engineers,
and nutritionists who evaluated the new mass-produced products and offered a
"Seal of Approval." (The Institute continues to do this today.) Advertisers as
well as editors glorified housework in terms of "domestic science." "Home
economics" emerged as a new professional field for women during the second
decade of the twentieth century, and homemakers were suddenly "technicians" and
 From the start, the expert byline was a common feature in the
Digest, as it has been in other American mass-market magazines since then. This
technique was not, however, a creation of the Digest; it had been pioneered by
the Ladies' Home Journal in the late-nineteenth century and further advanced
during the first decade of the twentieth century by muckraking magazines like
 DeWitt Wallace's admiration for Henry Ford is clear from the
tone of this article; so is his approval of Ford's corporate paternalsim, a
management style Wallace would imitate when building his own "company town" in
Pleasantville, N. Y.
 This $3 annual subscription price did not rise for more than
30 years (Wood, 224).
 This growth occurred despite the fact that during the
twenties, Wallace sent subscription solicitations only to people living more
than 500 miles outside New York. The reason for this was that he was paying
nothing for his articles, all reprints from other media, and he was afraid other
publishers would find out what was in the magazine! By the 1930s, he lifted
this restriction after he began paying for reprints as well as commissioning
"originals," articles prepared specifically for the Digest (Heidenry 63, 65;
 Heidenry, 55-65.
 Its continuing conservative editorial bias through more
liberal eras may also be a reflection of a strong conservative element in the
American population no matter what the prevailing climate.
Or it may have to do with the longevity of the Wallaces (DeWitt died
in 1981, Lila in 1984), who remained politically conservative and maintained
control of editorial decisions into their nineties.
 Willa Cather, "The Novel D_meubl_, Not Under Forty (1922;
Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 44.
 Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the
1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), 69.
 Earl Rovit, "Modernism and Three Magazines: An Editorial
Revolution," The Sewanee Review 93 (1985): 540-53.
 Audit Bureau of Circulation, "Magazine Publisher's Statement:
Reader's Digest," June 30, 1995.
 "Reader's Digest Global Fact Sheet" (Pleasantville, N. Y.:
The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1995).
 Bainbridge, 1.
 Ron F. Smith and Linda Decker-Amos, "Of Lasting Interest? A
Study of Change in the Content of The Reader's Digest," Journalism Quarterly 62
 A book condensation--that is, a whole book, condensed--can
total 20 to 25 pages.
 Only rarely has the Digest used significant cover art, as do
almost all other mass-market national magazines. A notable exception was the
July 1942 cover, which, along with the covers of dozens of other national
magazines that month--the first July after the U. S.'s entry into World War
II--featured the American flag (Janello, 26). During the late 1950s, the Digest
briefly experimented with putting the table of contents on the back cover and an
attractive photograph, generally unrelated to any article inside the issue, on
the front; the magazine had previously--and has since--run photos or
illustrations on its back cover (Wood, 161).
 Wood, 269-70.