Constructing the Typical American in 1920s Magazines
ABSTRACT (150 words)
The 1920s is often remembered as the "jazz age," a time of flappers and
speakeasies--yet many media of the day portrayed American life in a very
different way. Popular magazines, which reached millions of readers every
month, described a modern but wholesome lifestyle based on a shared American
identity and defined in terms of the nuclear family. Their audience was not
urban sophisticates, but a socially and economically ambitious, suburban middle
class--the group that would be key to the success of mass culture in
twentieth-century America. This rhetorical analysis considers how two of the
era's top-circulation magazines, The Saturday Evening Post and Good
Housekeeping, used both verbal and visual imagery (especially the cover art of
Norman Rockwell and Jessie Willcox Smith) to create a blueprint for a distinctly
commercial version of family life.
Constructing the Typical American in 1920s Magazines
ABSTRACT (75 words)
Beginning in the 1920s, American magazines described a modern but wholesome
lifestyle based on a shared national identity. Their audience was an ambitious,
suburban middle class--the group key to the success of mass culture in
twentieth-century America. This rhetorical analysis considers how two
top-circulation magazines, The Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping, used
verbal and visual imagery, especially cover art, to create a blueprint for the
"typical" American family in a commercial world.
Constructing the Typical American in 1920s Magazines
The decade of the 1920s has been preserved in the American collective memory as
a time of reckless freedom and disillusionment, an era when a "lost generation"
of youth searched for escape through jazz, liquor, and sexual freedom. Some
mass media of the era reinforced this characterization, supplying images of
flappers and vamps, of college frat boys in coonskin coats, of fast-talking,
gin-swilling, world-weary socialites suspended in an endless weekend. Yet
other media, especially mass-circulation magazines, painted a very different
picture of the 1920s, describing a new kind of domesticity based on a shared,
"typical" American identity and defined in terms of the suburban nuclear family.
Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that the "feminine mystique," considered
to have emerged in the 1950s, actually dates back to the twenties; this paper
echoes that assertion and further contends that this earlier mystique, which
included fathers and children as well as mothers, was constructed in America's
most influential mass medium of the day, mass-circulation magazines. Focusing
on two of the best-read periodicals of the era, The Saturday Evening Post and
Good Housekeeping, this rhetorical analysis considers primarily cover imagery
but also editorial matter and advertising content--from which emerged a new
domestic ideal that would shape popular-culture imagery for the rest of the
The Scholarly and Theoretical Context for this Study
This study adds to a growing body of cultural history on the role of popular
magazines in the emergence of twentieth-century commercial culture. This was
the era when media first became "mass" in a truly national sense; it was also
pivotal era in social history, as a new middle income group became the
culturally dominant class in America and as women's social and political
opportunities widened. Richard Ohmann and Matthew Schneirov have considered how
changes in America's class structure shaped, and were shaped by, popular
magazines; Jennifer Scanlon, Ellen Gruber Garvey, and Helen Damon-Moore have
analyzed the gendering of consumer culture, including magazines, in the new
century. This study draws on such scholarship while adding a new dimension:
an assessment of the role of visual imagery in magazines' articulation of gender
Several studies have examined either the editorial content or the artwork of
The Saturday Evening Post during this era, including Jan Cohn's excellent book
on its editor, George Horace Lorimer, as well as works on the early years of
the career of artist Norman Rockwell. Since there are no major works of
scholarship on Good Housekeeping (aside from three books on the cover artist
studied here, Jessie Willcox Smith), this paper argues for the inclusion of
that magazine in studies of the cultural impact of early-twentieth-century mass
Several of the scholars mentioned above, particularly Richard Ohmann, view
early-twentieth-century mass-circulation magazines as a powerful political as
well as social force, and this paper concurs. It further supports Jennifer
Scanlon's argument that magazines of this era gave birth to the idea of a
"typical" American. Scanlon's analysis of gender examines how magazine articles
and fiction of this era constructed an average American woman. In its focus on
the American family, this paper considers gender roles within the family but
argues that the "typical family" was defined primarily in terms of class--in
terms of what editors and artists imagined to be the center of the U. S.
population's changing demographics in a time of significant population growth
and upward economic mobility.
During the early twentieth century, mass-circulation magazines existed in a
symbiotic relationship with the new national advertising industry, which
financially supported magazines in return for access to swelling audiences of
consumers. Central to the success of this commercial formula was the middle
class, whose social and economic choices would determine how business would be
done in the modern era. The middle class was thus key to the hegemony of the
producers of mass goods and mass culture.
In this paper, the concept of hegemony--first articulated by Italian political
theorist Antonio Gramsci--is used not as a synonym for dominance, but rather as
a way of describing the fragile alliances that exist at any moment between
leaders and followers, or, in a commercial power structure, between producers
and consumers. Gramsci refined Marxist theory by contending that the consent of
a populace is not enforced by some monolithic power; rather, the widespread
acceptance of certain ideas and conditions seems to be a choice freely made by
the majority of people in a society.
In such a system, the most influential group of "followers" or "consumers" are
quite powerful, since their consent is most necessary for the power structure to
continue. Therefore, as a commercial culture emerged in early-twentieth-century
America, it was in the best interests of magazine editors to help shape the
attitudes and behavior of the middle class--by offering examples, in text and
pictures, of what a middle-class American should be. Magazine art of the era
"provided the public with its first image of American ideals . . . . prototypes
after which they could pattern themselves"; at the same time, the idea of an
"ordinary" American entered the language of magazine editorial (Post editor
George Horace Lorimer even claimed that "the prime qualification of being an
editor is being an ordinary man").
This paper argues that, beginning in the years just after World War I,
magazines constructed that ordinary American in terms of the typical family, the
social and economic unit in American society for the rest of the century. To
make this case, it closely examines the verbal and visual rhetoric through which
editors and artists helped shaped middle-class identity and manufacture
"consent" to ideas about gender, class, and consumer identity that would best
serve a commercial culture. This study offers not a quantitative content
analysis, but rather what journalism historian Marion Marzolf called a "content
assessment," looking not just at the images but also beyond them into their
cultural context--a process of "reading, sifting, weighing, comparing and
analyzing the evidence in order to tell the story."
Marriage and Family in the 1920s
The particular brand of domesticity envisioned by magazine editors, writers,
and artists in the 1920s after World War I included all members of the nuclear
family--not just mothers, but also fathers and children. All three of these
roles had undergone significant debate and, to some extent, change since the
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the notion of a "New Woman"
was hotly and widely discussed in American media. A cultural construct that had
emerged in the 1890s, the New Woman represented real changes in women's social,
educational, economic, and political opportunities, including the movement of an
increasing number of women into higher education and the professions and
culminating in the achievement of suffrage with the passage of the Nineteenth
Amendment in 1920. Nevertheless, women's life patterns remained relatively
consistent. Between 1890 and 1920, the marriage rate rose steadily, and until
the Depression, fewer than 10 percent of U. S. wives were in the work force.
One thing that had changed was the set of expectations Americans brought to the
institution of marriage. The popularization of the works of Freud during the
1910s had validated women's sexuality, and the "new psychology" suggested that
spouses should be emotionally as well as sexually compatible. Marriage became,
for the first time, the primary relationship in both women's and men's lives.
The new companionate model for marriage coincided with an increasing interest of
middle-class men in home life. The "domestic man" spent time with his children
and "made his wife, rather than his male associates, his regular companion on
This vision of a new kind of American family in the twentieth century was
played out in a new type of living space: the suburb. The factors of
corporatization (providing stable incomes for white-collar men), swelling urban
populations, and advances in transportation combined to enable families to leave
cities and move to new housing developments in outlying areas. Historian
Margaret Marsh argues that early suburbs were created as part of a middle-class
vision of "masculine domesticity [and] marital togetherness," but that their
greater effect was the isolation of residents into families "centered around the
demands of childrearing."
Indeed, magazines and other prescriptive literature of the day suggested that
no marriage could be truly happy if it did not produce children. Thanks to the
increasing availability of birth control, parents had fewer worries about
overwhelmingly large families, so the children they did bear took on new status
in the middle-class household. Children were treasured and coveted, "becoming
almost a commodity, a kind of consumer good that symbolized family completion
and marital success." Infertile couples sought medical help or adoption.
Experts warned fertile women that refusal to bear children would prevent them
from experiencing "complete sexual satisfaction" or would lead to divorce.
Membership in the National Congress of Mothers, a network of "Mother's Clubs,"
more than tripled between 1915 and 1920, and in 1924, this grass-roots
organization evolved into the Parent-Teacher Association. Much of the new
campaign for "educated motherhood," however, originated in professions such
as psychology, medicine, and media. These experts instructed women to make
motherhood their first priority and yet to be careful not to smother their
children with too much attention. Such mixed messages produced uncertainty
that, itself, became a problem to be solved by experts. Promotional material
for the new Parents magazine, launched in 1926, explained: "Many of us cringe
at the revelation of our inadequacies . . . . educators, psychiatrists, writers
and social workers are turning their searchlights on Parents . . . [who] realize
that instinct and tradition are not sufficient equipment for their highly
It is little wonder, then, that the covers of mass-circulation magazines of the
late 1910s and the 1920s depicted women and men as mothers and fathers, and
increasingly showcased children themselves. The turn to domesticity was
foreshadowed in a mid-1910s paradigm shift that occurred on the covers of both
Good Housekeeping and The Saturday Evening Post.
Through the end of 1915, the former magazine had regularly featured the cover
drawings of Coles Phillips, an illustrator known for his sleekly-modern
"fadeaway girls," slim, young, sophisticated-looking women (whose dress patterns
blended with the color or design of the background), while the Post had been a
regular display case for J. C. Leyendecker's elegant couples, haughtily
beautiful women and debonair men. But at the start of 1916, both magazines
began long-term relationships with very different illustrators who specialized
in homey scenes of family life: Jessie Willcox Smith and Norman Rockwell. The
editorial material and advertisements inside these periodicals underscored the
cover artists' visions.
Maternity and Childhood in Good Housekeeping
By the time she became Good Housekeeping's primary cover artist (a position she
would hold for 17 years), Jessie Willcox Smith was already nationally known as
an illustrator of mother-and-child scenes and, particularly, of child life.
Smith's advertising work for Ivory Soap in the 1890s had led to assignments from
Scribner's, Collier's, and Century, as well as covers for The Ladies' Home
Journal, McClure's, and Collier's, and Woman's Home Companion featuring
Smith herself never had children, and by the time she began her work for Good
Housekeeping, she was well past childbearing age. Nor had she ever married,
rejecting, in her personal life, the heterosexual ideal of the modern era.
Yet she echoed the rhetoric of "maternalist" Progressive-era reformers, calling
marriage and motherhood "the ideal life for a woman."
More so than some of its competitors (especially the conservative Ladies' Home
Journal), Good Housekeeping cautiously embraced the women's rights movement.
Though it stopped short of supporting the drive for suffrage, it published
pro-suffrage opinions, and after women gained the vote, the magazine
encouraged its readers' informed participation in the electoral process. It
ran a regular report from Washington by Francis Parkinson Keyes, a popular
novelist and the wife of a Senator, who wrote not just about the social life of
the nation's capital, but also political isues of the day. In 1923, Mrs. Keyes
covered the International Women's Suffrage Alliance meeting in Rome for the
Still, Good Housekeeping's editorial pages centered on home care and
motherhood. Beginning in the mid-1910s, the magazine published a monthly
parenting-advice feature called "Mothers and Children" by Mrs. Louise Hogan.
These were not sentimental or emotional articles, but directly instructional
features. In May of 1916, Mrs. Hogan's "Mother's Day" column--referring to the
holiday declared by Congress just two years earlier--advised mothers on how to
avoid mental and physical exhaustion, not for their own sake, but for the sake
of their children. Another such article (illustrated by Smith) provided five
pages of detailed advice from physicians on what children should eat so that
they would not grow up to be "delicate or neurotic."
Advertisements in the magazine similarly described mothers' duties as something
akin to science, requiring a set of specialized skills that were inextricably
linked with the use of new products made for family life. An ad in a 1916 issue
explained that a child's health was "a question of food, hygiene and exercise.
The food problem is easily solved with Shredded Wheat."
By the mid-1920s, motherhood was being championed in the pages of the magazine
by none other than Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson, wife of the well-known illustrator
who had created some of the first visual representations of "the New Woman"
during the 1890s. Mrs. Gibson, then heading a foster-child-placement agency,
urged readers to adopt if they were unable to have children. She told the story
of "a cultured, well-to-do woman--the kind of woman about whom one says, 'She
has everything in the world' " but who in fact "was bored and lonely and
purposeless." Her husband, "a busy executive," did not want a child, but to
please his wife, he consented to adopt a daughter. The little girl charmed him
and made them a complete family. "She's just what we have wanted for years, and
we didn't know it," he exclaimed, speaking of his daughter as if she were a
After January 1916, such beloved children, drawn by Jessie Willcox Smith,
romped regularly on the covers of Good Housekeeping, and by the 1920s, they were
seen by a million Americans every month. This decade was a turning point for
the magazine: its circulation, which had been only about 300,000 in the early
teens, would reach two million in the 1930s. The nearly 200 covers Smith
drew for the magazine between 1917 and 1933 were a large part of the
publication's editorial identity and success. Good Housekeeping further
marketed reproductions of her drawings on items such as postcards and china.
Through these "collectibles"--such as her Madonna-and-Child pate series, offered
to readers by mail-order (Figure 1)--the magazine's covers and their idyllic
domestic imagery were preserved and displayed in American homes.
The presence of children in almost all of Smith's cover illustrations was a
clear sign that the woman accompanying them was (by virtue of having borne a
child) a woman, not the carefree "flapper" girl of the jazz age. Smith's women
were serious, rarely smiling, yet calm, self-assured, and serene. They were
usually shown in the act of mothering, bending down or leaning over to comfort
or help their children, rather than looking directly outward at the viewer.
Three examples of such women are those shown in Figure 2 (reading to a
daughter), Figure 3 (caressing an infant), and Figure 4 (gathering apples in an
apron from a son).
The women's own appearances contained clues about their era. All three
illustrations offered a modern version of maternity. No longer a Victorian
matron, the twentieth-century American mother was slim and pretty, a youthful
woman who no doubt followed the advice of a 1927 Palmolive Soap ad in the
magazine, which urged readers of the need to "Keep That Schoolgirl Complexion"
long "after school days." She was fashionable as well. The book-reading
mother's loose, flowing, dress and pointed shoes were popular styles of 1920s;
the apple-gathering mother's modernity was given away by her knee-length,
pleated skirt, her careless display of leg, and her bobbed hair.
This was not only the modern woman, but the new suburban mother, as suggested
by the outdoor backdrops. As telling as her setting was each woman's body
position, which directed the readers' eyes toward the child. On the magazine
cover of the 1920s, "motherhood" was more about the child than the mother. In
fact, most of Smith's covers were of children only, shown usually in the world
of nature, such as the young siblings apple-gathering in Figure 5 and ice
skating in Figure 6.
Smith's children could be overly-idealized, but many were shown in activities,
poses, and expressions that were universal. They seemed perplexed, curious, or
surprised, as if the artist had caught them in some secret act. One Good
Housekeeping reader wrote to the editors that Smith's cover subjects "really
look[ed] like children." The fact that Smith drew primarily toddlers
increased her subjects' typicality: they were sweet cherubs rather than little
people with individuality. A Smith cover child could be any reader's child.
Her drawings were "so representative of the American youngster that the
publication received numerous letters from concerned mothers in all parts of the
country" who thought that Smith had somehow drawn their children, notes
biographer S. Michael Schnessel. Smith saved one of these, sent in 1926 by
a mother in Beverly, Mass., who wrote: "I was very much thrilled on seeing the
November cover of Good Housekeeping, to find that my two darling children were
portrayed thereon . . . . Little Freddie's every characteristic line and pose
is so perfect, and Pamela's timid and wistful expression . . . . Where and when
did you see the children?" "Freddie" and "Pamela" are shown in Figure
Smith's favorite cover subject was Everychild, like the tow-headed boy in
Figure 8 building his future with ABCs. Boys in particular would become the
symbol of America's future in the editorial pages and the cover art of The
Saturday Evening Post.
The New Domestic Ideal in "America's Family Magazine"
Though Norman Rockwell is now best remembered for his Saturday Evening Post
covers of the mid-twentieth-century, his affiliation with the magazine and his
signature family scenes date back to the mid-teens. Like Smith,
Rockwell--already a contributor to Boys' Life and the Youth's
Companion--preferred drawing children, who were the subjects of 90 percent
of his Post covers between 1916 and 1919 and half of all his covers for that
magazine during the 1920s. Though older than Smith's typical cover subject,
Rockwell's child was also a vision of the American Everychild.
Most of his covers were anecdotes rather than merely images. Rockwell scholar
Christopher Finch notes that the artist'ss characters--"the protagonists of his
little dramas" which centered on "the small crises of everyday life"--were
"familiar icons." Moreover, "all the images seem[ed] somehow connected. They
belong[ed] to the same world."
Yet the world in which Rockwell's stories unfolded only seemed familiar; in
post-war America, Rockwell's world was in fact a utopian construction, what the
artist himself described as "life as I would like it to be." Rockwell's
hopes coincided with those of Saturday Evening Post editor George Horace
Lorimer, who made content suggestions for many of Rockwell's covers.
Lorimer imagined his primary readers as "the ambitious young men of the great
middle-class American public" and his broader audience as "the whole of American
mainstream society." His editorials praised Americans who still believed in
the age-old creed of individualism, who honored "the desire of every man to be
the architect of his own fortunes." He assured his readers that "there is still
room at the top, or pretty near the top, for literally millions of men and women
who possess the requisite industry, good judgment, frugality, knowledge of human
nature, persistence, intelligence and integrity." Such a person would
inevitably succeed, "no matter how humble his beginning."
The idea of the reader as "ambitious" and "rising" was central to the Post's
editorial identity in this era, and upward mobility was frequently discussed in
terms of family life. A 1923 ad showed two little girls and proclaimed, in
large type, "In 10 Years, Mother, One of these children will be enjoying social
advantages which the other can never hope to attain." The ad copy, which
promoted a series of phonograph records, played directly to middle-class class
anxieties and ambitions: "home musical training is all-important, inviting that
subtle advantage of personality which enables some persons to advance so much
further, in the keen struggle of life . . . . [to] take their places, without
embarrassment, among people of broad culture."
In editorials, in ads, and in the Horatio-Alger-like profiles that were a
common article format in the Post, the magazine attempted, notes Jan Cohn, to
engender "a sense of nationalism strong enough to override America's regional
differences"--a seemingly classless society united by a "typical" family
ideal. In keeping with this mission, writes Post historian Starkey Flythe, Jr.,
Rockwell's cover scenes "made America home, a comfortable sort of place where
Main Street and Fifth Avenue exist in an easy truce and the great and the small
have equal-sized emotions, pleasures and pains."
The America that Rockwell and Lorimer imagined in the Post of the 1920s reached
an enormous audience, more than two million at the decade's start and nearly
three million at its end. As its circulation rose, so did the number of
national advertisers who promoted their products and services in the Post, and
by 1926, the magazine's annual advertising revenue passed $50 million. Each
of the Post's weekly issues, which cost only five cents, ran over 200 pages and
included political commentary, comedy features, inspirational and romantic
fiction, and instructional articles--a mix with something for every member of
the family. And every member of the family appeared, at one time or
another, on Rockwell's covers.
Rockwell drew adult women quite differently than had his main precedessors in
magazine illustration, artists such as Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, and
Howard Chandler Christy who specialized in the "American Beauty" cover girl.
Arthur Guptill notes that "no matter how seductive [Rockwell] might try to
picture women . . . they always turned out to look more like a fellow's mother
or sister." He also drew them as sweet (though rarely seductive)
girlfriends: "I paint the kind of girls your mother would want you to marry,"
the artist himself noted. When Rockwell drew women--many of his covers were
solely boy scenes--these were indeed the roles into which most of his female
characters were cast.
Yet his cover mothers also differed considerably from Smith's modern madonnas.
In Rockwell's world, the figure of the mother was often something to be resisted
or escaped by the child, who was usually a boy. This woman was the smothering
mother experts warned about in prescriptive literature of the day. Figure 9 was
a prime example, a scene in which Rockwell "enables the observer to see the
boy's glee at his shearing, suggesting that his life has moved on a niche,
leaving his mother behind while he enters the world of men, symbolized by the
The American boy's search for masculinity was a common theme in Rockwell's
work. The well-groomed barber did indeed embody one version of that ideal, yet
Rockwell often chose a more rugged model. The frowning boy in Figure 10
suffered the taunts of his athletic friends not only because of his own
"debonair" appearance, but also because he was saddled with the unwanted
femininity of a lace-capped baby sister. ("The best part of the gag was the
baby's bottle in the boy's pocket," Rockwell later recalled. "I received lots
of letters about his humiliation.") Rockwell's art emphasized "a youthful
masculinity constructed around physical prowess in preference to a fussy,
family-oriented image of boyhood."
In the early twentieth century, these images had as much to do with adults as
they did with children. Rockwell's depiction of boyhood was only one example of
a national preoccupation with masculinity--what historian John Higham called "a
muscular spirit"--in the larger culture. His boy athletes, like those in
Figure 11, were visualizations of the "strenuous life" former President Theodore
Roosevelt had recommended for young men at time when, he believed, the weakness
of "the over-civilized man" endangered the future of "the race" and the strength
of the nation. This strenuous life was to be lived outdoors, away from the
overrefinement (and sin) of the city.
Early-twentieth-century psychologists saw rugged boyhood as the solution to
diminished manhood in the modern era, convinced that "it was the innate
primitive savagery of young boys that could point the way to the resolution of
the crisis of masculinity" and that adult males "should learn to be more like
boys and less like overcivilized men," writes historian Michael Kimmel. In this
view, "the savage child could be father to the man and reinstill manly
Rockwell's Post covers of the early 1920s confirmed this desire for masculine
transformation while also poking fun at it. The tackled boy in Figure 11
appeared stunned at what he had gotten himself into; in Figure 12, a
dumbbell-lifting "champ" looked longingly at a poster showing him how to "be a
man" ("it's easy").
Even as his boys matured and turned their attention to the opposite sex, their
attempts at manly behavior had mixed results. If courtship was sexually
exciting and dangerous elsewhere in popular culture of the 1920s--for instance,
in the frequent movie characters of flappers, vamps, and golddiggers--in
Rockwell's world, dating was a sweet and often comical rite of passage that
quite naturally led to love and a happy marriage. Many of Rockwell's teenaged
sweethearts were simply goofy, such as the clumsy skaters on a 1920 Post cover
(Figure 13). In Figure 14, a couple's attempt at sexual experimentation
resulted in embarrassment rather than seduction when a spying younger brother
Yet things inevitably turned out all right for Rockwell's courting adolescents.
Even though the young man at the Ouija Board in Figure 15 was helping the matter
along, neither he nor his girlfriend was seriously in doubt of the outcome of
his proposal. They were destined to achieve happiness as it was articulated in
the pages of Post--through ordinary but steady effort, and through simple family
Rockwell's newlyweds inevitably bore children who completed the 1920s vision of
suburban living. Heading this family was the "domestic man" who not only loved
but befriended his wife and who (as historian Margaret Marsh describes this
ideal) "took a significantly greater interest in the details of running the
household and caring for the children than his father had been expected to
take." Though he was still Lorimer's ideal businessman, he made the most of
weekends and vacations and found much of his personal identity in his family.
This man appeared not only on the Post's covers, but also inside the magazine,
in advertisements as well as editorial. One 1923 ad (Figure 16) showed a suited
father leaning back in a rocking chair and holding a bowl of soapy water from
which a young boy, seated on his knees, blew bubbles; the discarded newspaper at
his feet was turned to the comic strip "Bringing Up Father." The copy
proclaimed Palm Beach Suits the perfect attire for "A Summer Sunday morning when
you drop your paper for a romp on the porch with the kids; during a
heat-prophesying and heat-generating sermon; [or] a week-day business engagement
in a stuffy office . . . ."
In the new suburban domestic ideal of the 1920s, Americans were organized into
family units that negotiated the world together and symbolized American progress
through clean living. This message was underscored in Figure 17 by the vehicle
in which Rockwell's family moved forward: the automobile, the era's primary
symbol of progress. A similar cover published a decade later (Figure 18) showed
the family as a literal unit, collapsed together in exhaustion but completion.
The vacationing father, mother, and child were merged together as one, a single
image that pictured the good life in America.
"People like to think that Rockwell painted Middle America," notes art scholar
Tom Sgouros. "The truth is, Norman Rockwell invented Middle America." So
did Jessie Willcox Smith with her modernized mother-and-child tableaux on the
covers of Good Housekeeping, and so too did the writers, editors, and
advertising copywriters whose vision filled the pages of magazines such as Good
Housekeeping and the Post in the 1920s.
While this world was a constructed one, it was not merely prescriptive. The
soaring circulations of both publications during this decade suggest that the
idea--and ideal--of suburban family life resonated with readers, that these
media "portrayed Americans as they chose to see themselves" (as one scholar
characterizes Rockwell's art) The magazines' turn to domesticity was rooted
in broader developments that had to do with masculinity and modernity, with the
evolution of women's roles and women's rights, with tensions between urban and
pastoral life, and with changing ideas about marriage and childhood in the new
century. Yet it was rooted as well in the social and economic importance of
middle-class Americans within an increasingly commercial culture, a new power
structure that revolved around the concept of an ideal lifestyle to which all
readers could (and should) aspire.
Media producers have continued to describe American life in terms of a
"typical" nuclear family, following the model that was set in place in
mass-circulation magazines of the 1920s--three decades before the more
widely-examined media celebration of mid-century suburban family life. Not in
the 1950s, but in the 1920s, magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and
Good Housekeeping articulated a "mystique" that would re-emerge following the
Depression and World War II, and that would characterize commercial culture, and
the middle-class American identity, for the rest of the twentieth century.
 1 Flappers danced across the covers of the humor periodical Life and amused
the wits of The New Yorker and The New Republic, while writers in The Nation and
The Ladies' Home Journal fretted about Americans' "new morality" and
 Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the
Turn of the Century (London and New York: Verso, 1996); Matthew Schneirov, The
Dream of a New Social Order: Popular Magazines in America 1893-1914 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1994); Jennifer Scanlon, Inarticulate Longings: The
Ladies' Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture (London and
New York: Routledge, 1995); Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor:
Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York:
Oxford University Press,1996); and 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).
 Jan Cohn, Creating America: George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday
Evening Post (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).
 These works include Rockwell's autobiography, My Adventures as an
Illustrator (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988), as well as biographies and
collections of his work: Laurie Norton Moffat, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive
Catalog (Stockbridge, MA: The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, 1986);
Thomas S. Buechner, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective (New York:
Harry N. Abrams, 1972); Donald Walton, A Rockwell Portrait: An Intimate
Biography (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978); Norman Rockwell and The
Saturday Evening Post (1916-1928) (Philadelphia: Rittenhouse Press, 1976); Robin
Langley Sommer, ed., Norman Rockwell: A Classic Treasury (London: Bison Books,
1993); Christopher Finch, Norman Rockwell: 322 Magazine Covers (New York:
Abbeville Press, 1979); Starkey Flythe, Jr., ed., The Saturday Evening Post
Norman Rockwell Book (New York: Bonanza Books, 1986); and Arthur L. Guptill,
Norman Rockwell, Illustrator (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1946).
 S. Michael Schnessel, Jessie Willcox Smith (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell,
1977); Gene Mitchell, The Subject Was Children: The Art of Jessie Willcox Smith
(New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979); and Edward D. Nudelman, Jessie Willcox Smith: A
Bibliography (Gretna: Pelican Publishing, 1989).
 In this era, the ability to purchase consumer goods (including magazines)
was largely limited to the middle class, but, as Richard Ohmann notes, this
would change in mid-century, when the working class's own rising earning power
and access to consumer credit made them "consumers," too (Selling Culture,
 7 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, translated by
Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 80,
 Susan E. Meyer, Norman Rockwell's People (New York: Harry N. Abrams,
 9 George Horace Lorimer, quoted in Amy Janello and Brennon Jones, The
American Magazine (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), 62.
 10 Marion Marzolf, "American Studies--Ideas for Media Historians?"
Journalism History 5, no. 1 (Spring 1978), 15.
 11 Women comprised 35 percent of all college students in 1890 and nearly
half in 1920; the percentage of professionals who were female rose from 35 to 44
percent between 1900 and 1920 (Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism
[New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987], 148, 350n4).
 12 Elaine Tyler May, Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in
Post-Victorian America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1980), 117, 167.
 13 Margaret Marsh, Suburban Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Press, 1990), 76.
 14 Marsh, Suburban Lives, 129, 184.
 15 Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, The Empty Cradle: Infertility in
America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1996), 112-113, 120.
 16 Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State,
1890- 1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 44.
 17 I am borrowing this term from Sheila M. Rothman, Woman's Proper Place:
A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present (New York: Basic
Books, 1978), 177.
 18 Nancy F. Cott, Introduction, Root of Bitterness: Documents of the
Social History of American Women, ed. Nancy F. Cott (New York: E. P. Dutton,
1972); Rothman, Woman's Proper Place, 211.
 19 Quoted in Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, 170.
 20 Smith also illustrated several well-known children's books of the day.
 21 For more on Smith's background, see: Schnessel, Jessie Willcox Smith;
Mitchell, The Subject Was Children; Nudelman, Jessie Willcox Smith; Catherine
Connell Stryker, "The Studios at Cogslea," February 20-28, 1976 (Wilmington:
Delaware Museum of Art, 1976); Jessie Willcox Smith, "Jessie Willcox Smith,"
Good Housekeeping (October 1917), 190-191; Patricia Likos, "The Ladies of the
Red Rose," The Feminist Art Journal 5 (Fall 1976): 11-15, 43; and Christine
Jones Huber, "The Pennsylvania Academy and Its Women, 1850 to 1920," May 3 to
June 16, 1973 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1974).
 22 Stryker, "The Studios at Cogslea," 12.
 23 One reason may have been the fact that Anna Kelton Wiley--wife of Dr.
John Wiley, the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute--was a member of the
militant Woman's Party. In February of 1918, the magazine published her views
in "Why We Picketed the White House" (beginning with an italicized disclaimer
that "Good Housekeeping does not believe in picketing the White House") (29,
 24 For instance, Elizabeth Frazer, "Say It with Ballots," Good
Housekeeping 74 (June 1922), 27-28, 186, 189-190.
 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines V (1905-1930)
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 134.
 26 Mrs. Louise Hogan, "Mothers and Children,"Good Housekeeping (March
 27 Advertisement, Good Housekeeping (February 1916), 13.
 28 Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson, "When a Child Adopts You," Good Housekeeping
85 (July 1927), 79, 133-134, 136. 139.
 29 Mott, A History of American Magazines V, 133, 136.
 30 Interestingly, the ad further warned, somewhat threateningly, "It's not
in the thirties and the forties that Youth Preservation presents itself as a
problem. It starts in the late 'teens [emphasis theirs] and the early twenties
. . ." (Advertisement, Good Housekeeping [November 1927], n. p., in the Alice
Marshall Collection, Penn State Harrisburg, Harrisburg, PA).
 31 Lucy Van Haney, Brooklyn, NY, to Good Housekeeping, d. November 28,
1926, Jessie Willcox Smith papers, Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the
Fine Arts (Philadelphia, PA).
 32 Schnessel, Jessie Willcox Smith, 124.
 33 Constance Bell Pearson, Beverly, MA, to Jessie Willcox Smith, c/o Good
Housekeeping, d. October 28, 1926, Jessie Willcox Smith papers.
 These children, and Smith's other cover toddlers, were in fact more
likely to have been her suburban Philadelphia neighbors' children, who modeled
 35 At the start of his career, Rockwell also published in American Boy,
St. Nicholas, American Farm and Fireside, the Popular Monthly, Literary Digest,
Life, Judge, Leslie's Weekly, the American Magazine, and Collier's.
 36 Buechner, Norman Rockwell: A Sixty Year Retrospective, 52.
 37 Finch, Norman Rockwell: 322 Magazine Covers, 8-11.
 38 Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, 34.
 39 Laurie Norton Moffat, "Norman Rockwell: Illustrator of America's
Heritage," American History Illustrated 21, no. 8 (December 1986), 27.
 40 Mott, A History of American Magazines IV (1885-1905), 688; Damon-Moore,
Magazines for the Millions, 154.
 41 George Horace Lorimer, "Is Success Personal?" The Saturday Evening
Post (April 10, 1920), 30.
 42 Advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post (January 20, 1923), 86-87.
 43 Jan Cohn, Covers of The Saturday Evening Post: Seventy Years of
Outstanding Illustration from America's Favorite Magazine (New York: Viking,
 44 Flythe, Foreword, The Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell Book, vii.
 45 Mott, A History of American Magazines IV, 696.
 46 Jan Cohn, Creating America, 165.
 47 Illustration historian James J. Best uses this term in describing these
illustrators' "signature" cover work (American Popular Illustration: A
Reference Guide [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984], 95).
 48 Guptill, Norman Rockwell, Illustrator, 79.
 49 Rockwell, My Adventures as an Illustrator, 34.
 50 Norman Rockwell and The Saturday Evening Post (1916-1928), 27.
 51 In his study of the artist's "fashioning of American masculinity"
during the 1910s and 1920s, Eric J. Segal divides these "competing versions of
white, middle-class American masculinity" into "sartorial masculinity that is
based on fashion and taste" and "corporal masculinity," a matter of "bodily
fortitude" ("Norman Rockwell and the Fashioning of American Masculinity," Art
Bulletin 78, no. 4 [December 1996], 633).
 52 Quoted in Guptill, Norman Rockwell, Illustrator, 152.
 53 Segal, "Norman Rockwell and the Fashioning of American Masculinity,"
 54 John Higham, "The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s," in
Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1970), 82.
 55 Theodore Roosevelt, "The Strenuous Life," in The Strenuous Life:
Essays and Addresses (New York: The Century Co., 1901), 1-21. The ideal of an
outdoor life was manifested in organizations such as the new Boy Scouts of
America, whose annual calendar Rockwell illustrated for 53 years.
 56 Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: The
Free Press, 1996), 164. Kimmel is referring to claims first made in
psychologist G. Stanley Hall's 1904 landmark study Adolescence: Its Psychology
and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion
and Education, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1904).
 57 Marsh, Suburban Lives, 76.
 58 Advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post (May 19, 1923), 94-95.
 59 Quoted in Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Pyle and Rockwell--Totally American, Yet
Not at All Alike," Smithsonian 25, no. 4 (1994), 93.
 60 Finch, Norman Rockwell: 322 Magazine Covers, 9.