A Signal Piece of Constructive Work: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 21

The influence of his grandfather and the injunction of his grandmother to her sons that each “should make the world a better or a more beautiful place to live in” now began to be manifest in the grandson. Edward Bok was unconscious that it was this influence. What directly led him to the signal piece of construction in which he engaged was the wretched architecture of small houses. As he travelled through the United States he was appalled by it. Where the houses were not positively ugly, they were, to him, repellently ornate. Money was wasted on useless turrets, filigree work, or machine-made ornamentation. Bok found out that these small householders never employed an architect, but that the houses were put up by builders from their own plans.

Bok felt a keen desire to take hold of the small American house and make it architecturally better. He foresaw, however, that the subject would finally include small gardening and interior decoration. He feared that the subject would become too large for the magazine, which was already feeling the pressure of the material which he was securing. He suggested, therefore, to Mr. Curtis that they purchase a little magazine published in Buffalo, N. Y., called Country Life, and develop it into a first-class periodical devoted to the general subject of a better American architecture, gardening, and interior decoration, with special application to the small house. The magazine was purchased, and while Bok was collecting his material for a number of issues ahead, he edited and issued, for copyright purposes, a four-page magazine.

An opportunity now came to Mr. Curtis to purchase The Saturday Evening Post, a Philadelphia weekly of honored prestige, founded by Benjamin Franklin. It was apparent at once that the company could not embark upon the development of two magazines at the same time, and as a larger field was seen for The Saturday Evening Post, it was decided to leave Country Life in abeyance for the present.

Mr. Frank Doubleday, having left the Scribners and started a publishing-house of his own, asked Bok to transfer to him the copyright and good will of Country Life—seeing that there was little chance for The Curtis Publishing Company to undertake its publication. Mr. Curtis was willing, but he knew that Bok had set his heart on the new magazine and left it for him to decide. The editor realized, as the Doubleday Company could take up the magazine at once, the unfairness of holding indefinitely the field against them by the publication of a mere copyright periodical. And so, with a feeling as if he were giving up his child to another father, Bok arranged that The Curtis Publishing Company should transfer to the Doubleday, Page Company all rights to the title and periodical of which the present beautiful publication Country Life is the outgrowth.

Bok now turned to The Ladies’ Home Journal as his medium for making the small-house architecture of America better. He realized the limitation of space, but decided to do the best he could under the circumstances. He believed he might serve thousands of his readers if he could make it possible for them to secure, at moderate cost, plans for well-designed houses by the leading domestic architects in the country. He consulted a number of architects, only to find them unalterably opposed to the idea. They disliked the publicity of magazine presentation; prices differed too much in various parts of the country; and they did not care to risk the criticism of their contemporaries. It was “cheapening” their profession!

Bok saw that he should have to blaze the way and demonstrate the futility of these arguments. At last he persuaded one architect to co-operate with him, and in 1895 began the publication of a series of houses which could be built, approximately, for from one thousand five hundred dollars to five thousand dollars. The idea attracted attention at once, and the architect-author was swamped with letters and inquiries regarding his plans.

This proved Bok’s instinct to be correct as to the public willingness to accept such designs; upon this proof he succeeded in winning over two additional architects to make plans. He offered his readers full building specifications and plans to scale of the houses with estimates from four builders in different parts of the United States for five dollars a set. The plans and specifications were so complete in every detail that any builder could build the house from them.

A storm of criticism now arose from architects and builders all over the country, the architects claiming that Bok was taking “the bread out of their mouths” by the sale of plans, and local builders vigorously questioned the accuracy of the estimates. But Bok knew he was right and persevered.

Slowly but surely he won the approval of the leading architects, who saw that he was appealing to a class of house-builders who could not afford to pay an architect’s fee, and that, with his wide circulation, he might become an influence for better architecture through these small houses. The sets of plans and specifications sold by the thousands. It was not long before the magazine was able to present small-house plans by the foremost architects of the country, whose services the average householder could otherwise never have dreamed of securing.

Bok not only saw an opportunity to better the exterior of the small houses, but he determined that each plan published should provide for two essentials: every servant’s room should have two windows to insure cross-ventilation, and contain twice the number of cubic feet usually given to such rooms; and in place of the American parlor, which he considered a useless room, should be substituted either a living-room or a library. He did not point to these improvements; every plan simply presented the larger servant’s room and did not present a parlor. It is a singular fact that of the tens of thousands of plans sold, not a purchaser ever noticed the absence of a parlor except one woman in Brookline, Mass., who, in erecting a group of twenty-five “Journal houses,” discovered after she had built ten that not one contained a parlor!

“Ladies’ Home Journal houses” were now going up in communities all over the country, and Bok determined to prove that they could be erected for the prices given. Accordingly, he published a prize offer of generous amount for the best set of exterior and interior photographs of a house built after a Journal plan within the published price. Five other and smaller prizes were also offered. A legally attested builder’s declaration was to accompany each set of photographs. The sets immediately began to come in, until over five thousand had been received. Bok selected the best of these, awarded the prizes, and began the presentation of the houses actually built after the published plans.

Of course this publication gave fresh impetus to the whole scheme; prospective house-builders pointed their builders to the proof given, and additional thousands of sets of plans were sold. The little houses became better and better in architecture as the series went on, and occasionally a plan for a house costing as high as ten thousand dollars was given.

For nearly twenty-five years Bok continued to publish pictures of houses and plans. Entire colonies of “Ladies’ Home Journal houses” have sprung up, and building promoters have built complete suburban developments with them. How many of these homes have been erected it is, of course, impossible to say; the number certainly runs into the thousands.

It was one of the most constructive and far-reaching pieces of work that Bok did during his editorial career—a fact now recognized by all architects. Shortly before Stanford White passed away, he wrote: “I firmly believe that Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man in this generation. When he began, I was short-sighted enough to discourage him, and refused to co-operate with him. If Bok came to me now, I would not only make plans for him, but I would waive any fee for them in retribution for my early mistake.”

Bok then turned to the subject of the garden for the small house, and the development of the grounds around the homes which he had been instrumental in putting on the earth. He encountered no opposition here. The publication of small gardens for small houses finally ran into hundreds of pages, the magazine supplying planting plans and full directions as to when and how to plant-this time without cost.

Next the editor decided to see what he could do for the better and simpler furnishing of the small American home. Here was a field almost limitless in possible improvement, but he wanted to approach it in a new way. The best method baffled him until one day he met a woman friend who told him that she was on her way to a funeral at a friend’s home.

“I didn’t know you were so well acquainted with Mrs. S—,” said Bok.

“I wasn’t, as a matter of fact,” replied the woman. “I’ll be perfectly frank; I am going to the funeral just to see how Mrs. S—’s house is furnished. She was always thought to have great taste, you know, and, whether you know it or not, a woman is always keen to look into another woman’s home.”

Bok realized that he had found the method of presentation for his interior-furnishing plan if he could secure photographs of the most carefully furnished homes in America. He immediately employed the best available expert, and within six months there came to him an assorted collection of over a thousand photographs of well-furnished rooms. The best were selected, and a series of photographic pages called “Inside of 100 Homes” was begun. The editor’s woman friend had correctly pointed the way to him, for this series won for his magazine the enviable distinction of being the first magazine of standing to reach the then marvellous record of a circulation of one million copies a month. The editions containing the series were sold out as fast as they could be printed.

The editor followed this up with another successful series, again pictorial. He realized that to explain good taste in furnishing by text was almost impossible. So he started a series of all-picture pages called “Good Taste and Bad Taste.” He presented a chair that was bad in lines and either useless or uncomfortable to sit in, and explained where and why it was bad; and then put a good chair next to it, and explained where and why it was good.

The lesson to the eye was simply and directly effective; the pictures told their story as no printed word could have done, and furniture manufacturers and dealers all over the country, feeling the pressure from their customers, began to put on the market the tables, chairs, divans, bedsteads, and dressing-tables which the magazine was portraying as examples of good taste. It was amazing that, within five years, the physical appearance of domestic furniture in the stores completely changed.

The next undertaking was a systematic plan for improving the pictures on the walls of the American home. Bok was employing the best artists of the day: Edwin A. Abbey, Howard Pyle, Charles Dana Gibson, W. L. Taylor, Albert Lynch, Will H. Low, W. T. Smedley, Irving R. Wiles, and others. As his magazine was rolled to go through the mails, the pictures naturally suffered; Bok therefore decided to print a special edition of each important picture that he published, an edition on plate-paper, without text, and offered to his readers at ten cents a copy. Within a year he had sold nearly one hundred thousand copies, such pictures as W. L. Taylor’s “The Hanging of the Crane” and “Home-Keeping Hearts” being particularly popular.

Pictures were difficult to advertise successfully; it was before the full-color press had become practicable for rapid magazine work; and even the large-page black-and-white reproductions which Bok could give in his magazine did not, of course, show the beauty of the original paintings, the majority of which were in full color. He accordingly made arrangements with art publishers to print his pictures in their original colors; then he determined to give the public an opportunity to see what the pictures themselves looked like.

He asked his art editor to select the two hundred and fifty best pictures and frame them. Then he engaged the art gallery of the Philadelphia Art Club, and advertised an exhibition of the original paintings. No admission was charged. The gallery was put into gala attire, and the pictures were well hung. The exhibition, which was continued for two weeks, was visited by over fifteen thousand persons.

His success here induced Bok to take the collection to New York. The galleries of the American Art Association were offered him, but he decided to rent the ballroom of the Hotel Waldorf. The hotel was then new; it was the talk not only of the town but of the country, while the ballroom had been pictured far and wide. It would have a publicity value. He could secure the room for only four days, but he determined to make the most of the short time. The exhibition was well advertised; a “private view” was given the evening before the opening day, and when, at nine o’clock the following morning, the doors of the exhibition were thrown open, over a thousand persons were waiting in line.

The hotel authorities had to resort to a special cordon of police to handle the crowds, and within four days over seventeen thousand persons had seen the pictures. On the last evening it was after midnight before the doors could be closed to the waiting-line. Boston was next visited, and there, at the Art Club Gallery, the previous successes were repeated. Within two weeks over twenty-eight thousand persons visited the exhibition.

Other cities now clamored for a sight of the pictures, and it was finally decided to end the exhibitions by a visit to Chicago. The success here exceeded that in any of the other cities. The banquet-hall of the Auditorium Hotel had been engaged; over two thousand persons were continually in a waiting-line outside, and within a week nearly thirty thousand persons pushed and jostled themselves into the gallery. Over eight thousand persons in all had viewed the pictures in the four cities.

The exhibition was immediately followed by the publication of a portfolio of the ten pictures that had proved the greatest favorites. These were printed on plate-paper and the portfolio was offered by Bok to his readers for one dollar. The first thousand sets were exhausted within a fortnight. A second thousand were printed, and these were quickly sold out.

Bok’s next enterprise was to get his pictures into the homes of the country on a larger scale; he determined to work through the churches. He selected the fifty best pictures, made them into a set and offered first a hundred sets to selected schools, which were at once taken. Then he offered two hundred and fifty sets to churches to sell at their fairs. The managers were to promise to erect a Ladies’ Home Journal booth (which Bok knew, of course, would be most effective advertising), and the pictures were to sell at twenty-five and fifty cents each, with some at a dollar each. The set was offered to the churches for five dollars: the actual cost of reproduction and expressage. On the day after the publication of the magazine containing the offer, enough telegraphic orders were received to absorb the entire edition. A second edition was immediately printed; and finally ten editions, four thousand sets in all, were absorbed before the demand was filled. By this method, two hundred thousand pictures had been introduced into American homes, and over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in money had been raised by the churches as their portion.

But all this was simply to lead up to the realization of Bok’s cherished dream: the reproduction, in enormous numbers, of the greatest pictures in the world in their original colors. The plan, however, was not for the moment feasible: the cost of the four-color process was at that time prohibitive, and Bok had to abandon it. But he never lost sight of it. He knew the hour would come when he could carry it out, and he bided his time.

It was not until years later that his opportunity came, when he immediately made up his mind to seize it. The magazine had installed a battery of four-color presses; the color-work in the periodical was attracting universal attention, and after all stages of experimentation had been passed, Bok decided to make his dream a reality. He sought the co-operation of the owners of the greatest private art galleries in the country: J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry C. Frick, Joseph E. Widener, George W. Elkins, John G. Johnson, Charles P. Taft, Mrs. John L. Gardner, Charles L. Freer, Mrs. Havemeyer, and the owners of the Benjamin Altman Collection, and sought permission to reproduce their greatest paintings.

Although each felt doubtful of the ability of any process adequately to reproduce their masterpieces, the owners heartily co-operated with Bok. But Bok’s co-editors discouraged his plan, since it would involve endless labor, the exclusive services of a corps of photographers and engravers, and the employment of the most careful pressmen available in the United States. The editor realized that the obstacles were numerous and that the expense would be enormous; but he felt sure that the American public was ready for his idea. And early in 1912 he announced his series and began its publication.

The most wonderful Rembrandt, Velasquez, Turner, Hobbema, Van Dyck, Raphael, Frans Hals, Romney, Gainsborough, Whistler, Corot, Mauve, Vermeer, Fragonard, Botticelli, and Titian reproductions followed in such rapid succession as fairly to daze the magazine readers. Four pictures were given in each number, and the faithfulness of the reproductions astonished even their owners. The success of the series was beyond Bok’s own best hopes. He was printing and selling one and three-quarter million copies of each issue of his magazine; and before he was through he had presented to American homes throughout the breadth of the country over seventy million reproductions of forty separate master-pieces of art.

The dream of years had come true.

Bok had begun with the exterior of the small American house and made an impression upon it; he had brought the love of flowers into the hearts of thousands of small householders who had never thought they could have an artistic garden within a small area; he had changed the lines of furniture, and he had put better art on the walls of these homes. He had conceived a full-rounded scheme, and he had carried it out.

It was a peculiar satisfaction to Bok that Theodore Roosevelt once summed up this piece of work in these words: “Bok is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and yet so effectively that we didn’t know it was begun before it was finished. That is a mighty big job for one man to have done.”

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 20

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