When I was editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, I once presented the hundredth-anniversary copy to President Ronald Reagan. “Great,” he said. “Something older than I am in the Oval Office.” Yes, this little anecdote acknowledges Reagan’s spontaneous self-deprecating wit, but it also shows that at one time the president of the United States would take time in his busy schedule to salute America’s oldest women’s magazine. That’s because Ladies’ Home Journal, which will cease monthly publishing with its July issue, was then considered America’s premier women’s publication, with a circulation of 6 million.
So it’s a sad ending for the publication that was launched in 1883 by Cyrus Curtis, who also started the Saturday Evening Post. LHJ developed out of the popular women’s page in Curtis’s first publication, a periodical for farmers. His wife was the first editor, and the second, a Dutch immigrant named Edward Bok, was the editorial genius who transformed the Journal into a mass magazine for millions.
Early in the 20th century, Bok had great insight about what would interest “modern” readers. In every issue he featured the celebrities of the day, including Civil War generals, actresses, presidents, and members of the British royal family. He also crusaded against popular patent medicines — distillations of alcohol and opium — which addicted many middle-class women at the time. And he wrote shockingly straightforward editorials warning women about sexual diseases such as syphilis. Yes, Bok seemed to know, celebrities, sex and addiction would become basic subjects for the popular press.
Through the decades, reflecting the nation’s economy, the magazine had its ups and downs; however, many consider the 1940s and ‘50s to be the golden age for LHJ and the other large-circulation women’s service magazines, known as the “seven sisters.” Then at the helm was a husband and wife editing team, Beatrice and Bruce Gould, who published serious news about World War II for wives and mothers on the home front and launched the Journal’s best-known and longest-running feature, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” as a way to teach couples about the value of marriage counseling. The magazine was so prestigious, in fact, that Marilyn Monroe complained to Edward R. Murrow that while she had appeared on many magazine covers, she was unhappy because she had never been on the cover of the Ladies’ Home Journal.
In the 1970s, a group of feminists believed that LHJ was not acknowledging the importance of the incipient women’s movement and the changes happening in women’s lives. They staged a sit-in at the office of editor-in-chief John Mack Carter. Carter agreed to publish their manifesto. Afterwards he said he did it because he was afraid the women were not going to let him go to the bathroom. The Journal’s readers were not enthusiastic about the feature that was published.
I came to be editor of LHJ in the beginning of the 1980s, when the magazine was, once again, in quite serious trouble. It was up for sale only a short time after I arrived, and no major publishing company wanted to buy it. An entrepreneur finally took it over with hardly any money changing hands. But he was supportive of the editorial changes I made. I knew that LHJ was best when it was the most journalistic of women’s magazines. I sent reporters to work with Mother Theresa, locate the injured children of Chernobyl, and interview Margaret Thatcher, Marina Oswald, and Mary Jo Kopechne’s bitter parents. With the help of a talented editorial staff, a strong advertising team, and the appearance of Princess Diana, who frequently graced the cover, the magazine suddenly grew popular and profitable again. The entrepreneur sold the magazine after only a few years to the Meredith Corporation for $90 million.
In its last years, LHJ was hurt by competition from websites, a new batch of women’s magazines, and the fact that the Journal’s readers were primarily in their 50s. Advertisers don’t want baby boomers, even though boomers remain the largest and richest demographic. So editors run from their most loyal and engaged readers, and publishing companies are uninterested in them and not supportive of content aimed at them. The Journal became a generic service magazine, and women can get that kind of information both offline and online.
So, yes, it is very sad when a great magazine is gone, particularly when it is a magazine that in its best days was distinctive and distinguished, that reported on, reflected, and celebrated the lives of America’s extraordinary women. But please remember that Ladies’ Home Journal’s slogan was the most beloved of any magazine: “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman.” And even though many have called the magazine old-fashioned of late, I can practically guarantee you’ll be hearing quite a lot of LHJ’s slogan as the 2016 presidential election cycle draws near.
— Myrna Blyth is the editorial director of AARP Media. This article is adapted from an item that appeared on the AARP Blog.