First Years as a Woman’s Editor: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 16

Edward Bok has often been referred to as the one “who made The Ladies’ Home Journal out of nothing,” who “built it from the ground up,” or, in similar terms, implying that when he became its editor in 1889 the magazine was practically non-existent. This is far from the fact. The magazine was begun in 1883, and had been edited by Mrs. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, for six years, under her maiden name of Louisa Knapp, before Bok undertook its editorship. Mrs. Curtis had laid a solid foundation of principle and policy for the magazine: it had achieved a circulation of 440,000 copies a month when she transferred the editorship, and it had already acquired such a standing in the periodical world as to attract the advertisements of Charles Scribner’s Sons, which Mr. Doubleday, and later Bok himself, gave to the Philadelphia magazine—advertising which was never given lightly, or without the most careful investigation of the worth of the circulation of a periodical.

What every magazine publisher knows as the most troublous years in the establishment of a periodical, the first half-dozen years of its existence, had already been weathered by the editor and publisher. The wife as editor and the husband as publisher had combined to lay a solid basis upon which Bok had only to build: his task was simply to rear a structure upon the foundation already laid. It is to the vision and to the genius of the first editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal that the unprecedented success of the magazine is primarily due. It was the purpose and the policy of making a magazine of authoritative service for the womanhood of America, a service which would visualize for womanhood its highest domestic estate, that had won success for the periodical from its inception. It is difficult to believe, in the multiplicity of similar magazines to-day, that such a purpose was new; that The Ladies’ Home Journal was a path-finder; but the convincing proof is found in the fact that all the later magazines of this class have followed in the wake of the periodical conceived by Mrs. Curtis, and have ever since been its imitators.

When Edward Bok succeeded Mrs. Curtis, he immediately encountered another popular misconception of a woman’s magazine—the conviction that if a man is the editor of a periodical with a distinctly feminine appeal, he must, as the term goes, “understand women.” If Bok had believed this to be true, he would never have assumed the position. How deeply rooted is this belief was brought home to him on every hand when his decision to accept the Philadelphia position was announced. His mother, knowing her son better than did any one else, looked at him with amazement. She could not believe that he was serious in his decision to cater to women’s needs when he knew so little about them. His friends, too, were intensely amused, and took no pains to hide their amusement from him. They knew him to be the very opposite of “a lady’s man,” and when they were not convulsed with hilarity they were incredulous and marvelled.

No man, perhaps, could have been chosen for the position who had a less intimate knowledge of women. Bok had no sister, no women confidantes: he had lived with and for his mother. She was the only woman he really knew or who really knew him. His boyhood days had been too full of poverty and struggle to permit him to mingle with the opposite sex. And it is a curious fact that Edward Bok’s instinctive attitude toward women was that of avoidance. He did not dislike women, but it could not be said that he liked them. They had never interested him. Of women, therefore, he knew little; of their needs less. Nor had he the slightest desire, even as an editor, to know them better, or to seek to understand them. Even at that age, he knew that, as a man, he could not, no matter what effort he might make, and he let it go at that.

What he saw in the position was not the need to know women; he could employ women for that purpose. He perceived clearly that the editor of a magazine was largely an executive: his was principally the work of direction; of studying currents and movements, watching their formation, their tendency, their efficacy if advocated or translated into actuality; and then selecting from the horizon those that were for the best interests of the home. For a home was something Edward Bok did understand. He had always lived in one; had struggled to keep it together, and he knew every inch of the hard road that makes for domestic permanence amid adverse financial conditions. And at the home he aimed rather than at the woman in it.

It was upon his instinct that he intended to rely rather than upon any knowledge of woman. His first act in the editorial chair of The Ladies’ Home Journal showed him to be right in this diagnosis of himself, for the incident proved not only how correct was his instinct, but how woefully lacking he was in any knowledge of the feminine nature.

He had divined the fact that in thousands of cases the American mother was not the confidante of her daughter, and reasoned if an inviting human personality could be created on the printed page that would supply this lamentable lack of American family life, girls would flock to such a figure. But all depended on the confidence which the written word could inspire. He tried several writers, but in each case the particular touch that he sought for was lacking. It seemed so simple to him, and yet he could not translate it to others. Then, in desperation, he wrote an installment of such a department as he had in mind himself, intending to show it to a writer he had in view, thus giving her a visual demonstration. He took it to the office the next morning, intending to have it copied, but the manuscript accidentally attached itself to another intended for the composing-room, and it was not until the superintendent of the composing-room during the day said to him, “I didn’t know Miss Ashmead wrote,” that Bok knew where his manuscript had gone.

Miss Ashmead?” asked the puzzled editor.

Yes, Miss Ashmead in your department,” was the answer.

The whereabouts of the manuscript was then disclosed, and the editor called for its return. He had called the department “Side Talks with Girls” by Ruth Ashmead.

“My girls all hope this is going into the magazine,” said the superintendent when he returned the manuscript.

“Why?” asked the editor.

“Well, they say it’s the best stuff for girls they have ever read. They’d love to know Miss Ashmead better.”

Here was exactly what the editor wanted, but he was the author! He changed the name to Ruth Ashmore, and decided to let the manuscript go into the magazine. He reasoned that he would then have a month in which to see the writer he had in mind, and he would show her the proof. But a month filled itself with other duties, and before the editor was aware of it, the composition-room wanted “copy” for the second installment of “Side Talks with Girls.” Once more the editor furnished the copy!

Within two weeks after the second article had been written, the magazine containing the first installment of the new department appeared, and the next day two hundred letters were received for “Ruth Ashmore,” with the mail-clerk asking where they should be sent. “Leave them with me, please,” replied the editor. On the following day the mail-clerk handed him five hundred more.

The editor now took two letters from the top and opened them. He never opened the third! That evening he took the bundle home, and told his mother of his predicament. She read the letters and looked at her son. “You have no right to read these,” she said. The son readily agreed.

His instinct had correctly interpreted the need, but he never dreamed how far the feminine nature would reveal itself on paper.

The next morning the editor, with his letters, took the train for New York and sought his friend, Mrs. Isabel A. Mallon, the “Bab” of his popular syndicate letter.

“Have you read this department?” he asked, pointing to the page in the magazine.

“I have,” answered Mrs. Mallon. “Very well done, too, it is. Who is ‘Ruth Ashmore’?’

“You are,” answered Edward Bok. And while it took considerable persuasion, from that time on Mrs. Mallon became Ruth Ashmore, the most ridiculed writer in the magazine world, and yet the most helpful editor that ever conducted a department in periodical literature. For sixteen years she conducted the department, until she passed away, her last act being to dictate a letter to a correspondent. In those sixteen years she had received one hundred and fifty-eight thousand letters: she kept three stenographers busy, and the number of girls who to-day bless the name of Ruth Ashmore is legion.

But the newspaper humorists who insisted that Ruth Ashmore was none other than Edward Bok never knew the partial truth of their joke!

The editor soon supplemented this department with one dealing with the spiritual needs of the mature woman. “The King’s Daughters” was then an organization at the summit of its usefulness, with Margaret Bottome its president. Edward Bok had heard Mrs. Bottome speak, had met her personally, and decided that she was the editor for the department he had in mind.

“I want it written in an intimate way as if there were only two persons in the world, you and the person reading. I want heart to speak to heart. We will make that the title,” said the editor, and unconsciously he thus created the title that has since become familiar wherever English is spoken: “Heart to Heart Talks.” The title gave the department an instantaneous hearing; the material in it carried out its spirit, and soon Mrs. Bottome’s department rivaled, in popularity, the page by Ruth Ashmore.

These two departments more than anything else, and the irresistible picture of a man editing a woman’s magazine, brought forth an era of newspaper paragraphing and a flood of so-called “humorous” references to the magazine and editor. It became the vogue to poke fun at both. The humorous papers took it up, the cartoonists helped it along, and actors introduced the name of the magazine on the stage in plays and skits. Never did a periodical receive such an amount of gratuitous advertising. Much of the wit was absolutely without malice: some of it was written by Edward Bok’s best friends, who volunteered to “let up” would he but raise a finger.

But he did not raise the finger. No one enjoyed the “paragraphs” more heartily when the wit was good, and in that case, if the writer was unknown to him, he sought him out and induced him to write for him. In this way, George Fitch was found on the Peoria, Illinois, Transcript and introduced to his larger public in the magazine and book world through The Ladies’ Home Journal, whose editor he believed he had “most unmercifully roasted”;—but he had done it so cleverly that the editor at once saw his possibilities.

When all his friends begged Bok to begin proceedings against the New York Evening Sun because of the libellous (?) articles written about him by “The Woman About Town,” the editor admired the style rather than the contents, made her acquaintance, and secured her as a regular writer: she contributed to the magazine some of the best things published in its pages. But she did not abate her opinions of Bok and his magazine in her articles in the newspaper, and Bok did not ask it of her: he felt that she had a right to her opinions—those he was not buying; but he was eager to buy her direct style in treating subjects he knew no other woman could so effectively handle.

And with his own limited knowledge of the sex, he needed, and none knew it better than did he, the ablest women he could obtain to help him realize his ideals. Their personal opinions of him did not matter so long as he could command their best work. Sooner or later, when his purposes were better understood, they might alter those opinions. For that he could afford to wait. But he could not wait to get their work.

By this time the editor had come to see that the power of a magazine might lie more securely behind the printed page than in it. He had begun to accustom his readers to writing to his editors upon all conceivable problems.

This he decided to encourage. He employed an expert in each line of feminine endeavor, upon the distinct understanding that the most scrupulous attention should be given to her correspondence: that every letter, no matter how inconsequential, should be answered quickly, fully, and courteously, with the questioner always encouraged to come again if any problem of whatever nature came to her. He told his editors that ignorance on any question was a misfortune, not a crime; and he wished their correspondence treated in the most courteous and helpful spirit.

Step by step, the editor built up this service behind the magazine until he had a staff of thirty-five editors on the monthly pay-roll; in each issue, he proclaimed the willingness of these editors to answer immediately any questions by mail, he encouraged and cajoled his readers to form the habit of looking upon his magazine as a great clearing-house of information. Before long, the letters streamed in by the tens of thousands during a year. The editor still encouraged, and the total ran into the hundreds of thousands, until during the last year, before the service was finally stopped by the Great War of 1917-18, the yearly correspondence totalled nearly a million letters.

The work of some of these editors never reached the printed page, and yet was vastly more important than any published matter could possibly be. Out of the work of Ruth Ashmore, for instance, there grew a class of cases of the most confidential nature. These cases, distributed all over the country, called for special investigation and personal contact. Bok selected Mrs. Lyman Abbott for this piece of delicate work, and, through the wide acquaintance of her husband, she was enabled to reach, personally, every case in every locality, and bring personal help to bear on it. These cases mounted into the hundreds, and the good accomplished through this quiet channel cannot be overestimated.

The lack of opportunity for an education in Bok’s own life led him to cast about for some plan whereby an education might be obtained without expense by any one who desired. He finally hit upon the simple plan of substituting free scholarships for the premiums then so frequently offered by periodicals for subscriptions secured. Free musical education at the leading conservatories was first offered to any girl who would secure a certain number of subscriptions to The Ladies’ Home Journal, the complete offer being a year’s free tuition, with free room, free board, free piano in her own room, and all travelling expenses paid. The plan was an immediate success: the solicitation of a subscription by a girl desirous of educating herself made an irresistible appeal.

This plan was soon extended, so as to include all the girls’ colleges, and finally all the men’s colleges, so that a free education might be possible at any educational institution. So comprehensive it became that to the close of 1919, one thousand four hundred and fifty-five free scholarships had been awarded. The plan has now been in operation long enough to have produced some of the leading singers and instrumental artists of the day, whose names are familiar to all, as well as instructors in colleges and scores of teachers; and to have sent several score of men into conspicuous positions in the business and professional world.

Edward Bok has always felt that but for his own inability to secure an education, and his consequent desire for self-improvement, the realization of the need in others might not have been so strongly felt by him, and that his plan whereby thousands of others were benefited might never have been realized.

The editor’s correspondence was revealing, among other deficiencies, the wide-spread unpreparedness of the average American girl for motherhood, and her desperate ignorance when a new life was given her. On the theory that with the realization of a vital need there is always the person to meet it, Bok consulted the authorities of the Babies’ Hospital of New York, and found Doctor Emmet Holt‘s house physician, Doctor Emelyn L. Coolidge. To the authorities in the world of babies, Bok’s discovery was, of course, a known and serious fact.

Doctor Coolidge proposed that the magazine create a department of questions and answers devoted to the problems of young mothers. This was done, and from the publication of the first issue the questions began to come in. Within five years the department had grown to such proportions that Doctor Coolidge proposed a plan whereby mothers might be instructed, by mail, in the rearing of babies—in their general care, their feeding, and the complete hygiene of the nursery.

Bok had already learned, in his editorial experience, carefully to weigh a woman’s instinct against a man’s judgment, but the idea of raising babies by mail floored him. He reasoned, however, that a woman, and more particularly one who had been in a babies’ hospital for years, knew more about babies than he could possibly know. He consulted baby-specialists in New York and Philadelphia, and, with one accord, they declared the plan not only absolutely impracticable but positively dangerous. Bok’s confidence in woman’s instinct, however, persisted, and he asked Doctor Coolidge to map out a plan.

This called for the services of two physicians: Miss Marianna Wheeler, for many years superintendent of the Babies’ Hospital, was to look after the prospective mother before the baby’s birth; and Doctor Coolidge, when the baby was born, would immediately send to the young mother a printed list of comprehensive questions, which, when answered, would be immediately followed by a full set of directions as to the care of the child, including carefully prepared food formula. At the end of the first month, another set of questions was to be forwarded for answer by the mother, and this monthly service was to be continued until the child reached the age of two years. The contact with the mother would then become intermittent, dependent upon the condition of mother and child. All the directions and formula were to be used only under the direction of the mother’s attendant physician, so that the fullest cooperation might be established between the physician on the case and the advisory department of the magazine.

Despite advice to the contrary, Bok decided, after consulting a number of mothers, to establish the system. It was understood that the greatest care was to be exercised: the most expert advice, if needed, was to be sought and given, and the thousands of cases at the Babies’ Hospital were to be laid under contribution.

There was then begun a magazine department which was to be classed among the most clear-cut pieces of successful work achieved by The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Step by step, the new departure won its way, and was welcomed eagerly by thousands of young mothers. It was not long before the warmest commendation from physicians all over the country was received. Promptness of response and thoroughness of diagnosis were, of course, the keynotes of the service: where the cases were urgent, the special delivery post and, later, the night-letter telegraph service were used.

The plan is now in its eleventh year of successful operation. Some idea of the enormous extent of its service can be gathered from the amazing figures that, at the close of the tenth year, show over forty thousand prospective mothers have been advised, while the number of babies actually “raised” by Doctor Coolidge approaches eighty thousand. Fully ninety-five of every hundred of these babies registered have remained under the monthly letter-care of Doctor Coolidge until their first year, when the mothers receive a diet list which has proved so effective for future guidance that many mothers cease to report regularly. Eighty-five out of every hundred babies have remained in the registry until their graduation at the age of two. Over eight large sets of library drawers are required for the records of the babies always under the supervision of the registry.

Scores of physicians who vigorously opposed the work at the start have amended their opinions and now not only give their enthusiastic endorsement, but have adopted Doctor Coolidge’s food formula for their private and hospital cases.

It was this comprehensive personal service, built up back of the magazine from the start, that gave the periodical so firm and unique a hold on its clientele. It was not the printed word that was its chief power: scores of editors who have tried to study and diagnose the appeal of the magazine from the printed page, have remained baffled at the remarkable confidence elicited from its readers. They never looked back of the magazine, and therefore failed to discover its secret. Bok went through three financial panics with the magazine, and while other periodicals severely suffered from diminished circulation at such times, The Ladies’ Home Journal always held its own. Thousands of women had been directly helped by the magazine; it had not remained an inanimate printed thing, but had become a vital need in the personal lives of its readers.

So intimate had become this relation, so efficient was the service rendered, that its readers could not be pried loose from it; where women were willing and ready, when the domestic pinch came, to let go of other reading matter, they explained to their husbands or fathers that The Ladies’ Home Journal was a necessity—they did not feel that they could do without it. The very quality for which the magazine had been held up to ridicule by the unknowing and unthinking had become, with hundreds of thousands of women, its source of power and the bulwark of its success.

Bok was beginning to realize the vision which had lured him from New York: that of putting into the field of American magazines a periodical that should become such a clearing-house as virtually to make it an institution.

He felt that, for the present at least, he had sufficiently established the personal contact with his readers through the more intimate departments, and decided to devote his efforts to the literary features of the magazine.

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 15