The Ladies Home Journal had humble beginnings as an advice column in the men’s magazine Tribune and Farmer. This magazine was owned by Cyrus Curtis. His wife, Louisa Knapp, wrote a column named “Women at Home”. The column was so popular that Knapp expanded it to include hints and tips on domestic and private matters and launched it as a two-page supplement on 16 February 1883.
The supplement grew in popularity and in 1884 began independent publication as The Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, but was shortened to the Ladies Home Journal soon after. There were 20,000 subscribers at the launch.
Edward Bok took over as editor in 1889 and introduced several features which helped to build the magazine’s success. He wrote the first edition of the “Ruth Ashmore Advice Column” offering advice and hints to women and girls on personal and household matters. The column received so many letters asking for advice that an independent journalist was hired to take it over; Isobel Mallon wrote under the nom de plume until her death in 1898.
Bok also introduced a low fee for subscribers and balanced the production costs by selling advertising space in the publication. Bok, however, had a strict code which filtered the advertisements and weeded out fraudulent claims, and he refused to advertise patent medicines.
Bok sought popular content from national and international writers. He included both fiction and non-fiction, publishing stories and book samples from prominent and upcoming authors alongside articles on architecture, fine arts, domestic life, recipes and health.
In 1903 Ladies Home Journal became the first American magazine with one million subscribers and proved to be a social influencer. Not satisfied with just refusing patent medicines advertisements, Bok and his writers embarked on a muck-raking campaign against them. This campaign was so effective that it helped to bring about the Federal Food and Drugs Act in 1906, ensuring the regulation of the ingredients, manufacture and advertising of consumables.
During the war years the American Government took out advertising space and published articles aimed at homemakers, with the intention of keeping up morale at home and continue public support for the war effort. With one of the highest circulation bases they had a large local and international audience.
In 1946 Ladies Home Journal adopted the slogan “Never underestimate the power of a woman”, which would prove to be a portentous statement. Members of the feminist movement targeted the magazine in 1970 when 100 women staged an 11-hour sit-in at the publishers’ offices. They protested the way the predominantly male staff wrote articles aimed at what feminists saw was the “mythological happy homemaker”. They demanded more female staff, improved conditions and salaries for female employees, and a change to more relevant and liberal content.
Ladies Home Journal remained one of the most popular women’s magazines but tastes were beginning to change. When the Meredith Corporation bought it in 1986, subscribers had dropped by over two million in the preceding 20 years.
As digital media increased, subscriptions decreased. In 2012 there was a major revamp of the publication, but increasing use of social media and digital forums meant a physical magazine became too costly to produce. After 131 years the last monthly edition was published in July 2014. Today, the Ladies Home Journal is only published quarterly, but retains an online presence.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.