Lower Merion Historical Society

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Bok brought knowledge to women

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Edward Bok used Ladies Home Journal to educate as well as entertain

Even if Edward Bok hadn’t married the boss’ daughter, he was uniquely qualified to change the face of women’s magazines.

In fact, he married Marie Louise Curtis after he became editor of Cyrus Curtis’ Ladies’ Home Journal, having begun the process of wooing her when she was 15 years old. He also replaced his mother-in-law as editor, so he perhaps felt the need to keep the job in the family. He did move, with his wife, to a new house in Merion. The Curtis estate in Cheltenham was perhaps just far enough away for people who worked together all day, since his father-in-law remained his publisher.

In addition to raising sons √ź Curtis and Cary, contributors to society in their own rights – Marie Louise started the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924. Music was important to her, and since she was quite important to Philadelphia, with two notable names, she became important to music. For example, she was good buddies with a fellow named Leopold Stokowski. With him, she founded the Institute and her husband sat with him on the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra while he was its most famous and eminent director.

That relationship resulted in the only known recording of Stokowski playing the organ. It was a birthday present for Mary Louise, an organ roll. This is similar to a player piano roll where a roll of paper with holes in it ‘plays’ the organ as it was recorded. The piece is J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor for organ. It was recorded by in 1925 as a Christmas gift for Edward and Mary Louise. Unlike phonographic recordings of the day, this roll, when placed in an organ, creates exactly the same sound as when Stokowski played it 75 years ago.

Bok, a poor and almost completely self-educated Dutch immigrant, had worked hard to end up as editor of Ladies’ Home Journal He’d been born in Holland in October, 1863 and immigrated to America in 1870. After three years of school he began working, eventually working for Charles Scribner & Sons, one of the giants of publishing then. In New York he’d begun making a name for himself, starting a magazine in 1883 called The Brooklyn Magazine. It would be better known later by another name: Cosmopolitan. In 1889 Curtis picked him to be editor of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Despite all the recognition Bok has received for creating Ladies’ Home Journal, it was really quite successful before he arrived on the scene. He succeeded Mrs. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, under her maiden name of Louisa Knapp, had edited the periodical since it was founded in 1883. She laid a solid foundation of principle and policy and the magazine had a monthly circulation of 440,000. Like most enterprises, it’s the first years that are the toughest and these had already been weathered by the editor and publisher. With man and wife as publisher and editor, they’d created a solid basis upon which Bok had only to build.

Bok’s mother-in-law had determined that Ladies’ Home Journal was to become the authoritative source of information for American women. It was designed from the viewpoint that women needed information about their domestic lives. It took the work and reasoning of homemaking to be serious business — no longer something women “just knew how to do” or were taught by their mothers. That concept had won success for the periodical from its inception. It is difficult to believe today that idea was ever revolutionary. Even harder to comprehend that this was as contentious as women’s right to vote and right to work would become in ensuing generations.

What was perhaps unusual for Bok, who had no sisters and lived with his mother, was that his wife and mother-in-law were accomplished women in their own right, with views and the power to have them heard. That wasn’t the case for the majority of women in America. Few other than the wealthy were given much education, and what they had wasonly to be used for raising children, running a home or, if a spinster, teaching school. Women did work, but not often at jobs that required an education.

In those days, as soon as a woman married, her continued occupation was proof positive of her husband’s inability to “keep” her as he should. Although it is perhaps politically incorrect to say so today, it wasn’t only the men who thought this way. Women were partners in the process of keeping women in the kitchen. One thing modern women seem to forget often is just how time consuming running a home was for the unhealthy. It was a backbreaking job of physical labor. Even religious leaders encouraged the clearly defined relationship between man and wife that had lasted for thousands of years. Men provided the economic means for women to raise their children. It wasn’t much more complicated than that, even as late as the late 19th century.

So the concept of helping women learn about issues in their lives was somewhat radical. Ladies’ Home Journal was a path-finder with the proof being how many imitators were created. Today magazines such as these are seen as conservative, and in the heyday of the feminist movement were considered part of the problem. Bok knew that he wasn’t going to be the one with insights into how women thought, or what they really wanted to know. He saw the role of a magazine editor as managerial. His job was direction. And while he didn’t understand the feminine perspective, he knew about running a home. He had struggled to keep his together, and he knew every inch of the hard road that makes for domestic permanence amid adverse financial conditions. So this was his direction — the home — and he aimed at it rather than at the woman in it.

He also knew that he needed to be very good at hiring the right staff, many of whom were female journalists. They would drive the subject matter; they would push the limits of what could be published. But he still had his editorial instinct and it was good. His first act in the editorial chair showed this to be the case. It was his view that in many families the American mother was not the confidante of her daughter. He reasoned if an inviting human personality could be created on the printed page to provide motherly advice — but not from their own mother — girls would flock to read it. Having tried several writers, without success, he wrote a sample of what he thought it should be.

This prototype accidentally ended up in the publication. When he received numerous letters seeking help, he knew he’d been right. He had called the department “Side Talks with Girls” by Ruth Ashmead, and now all he needed was someone to write under that name. He convinced Isabel A. Mallon to take over and become Ruth Ashmore, which the name had been changed to. For 16 years until her death she kept three stenographers busy answering the thousands of letters. Ann Landers and every other advice columnist in America owe their start to her.

He soon supplemented this department with one dealing with the spiritual needs of the mature woman. He hired Margaret Bottome to be the editor for this department. His words to her were a part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, published in 1921: “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,” he said, creating the title that has since become familiar wherever English is spoken: “Heart to Heart Talks.” Soon Mrs. Bottome’s department rivaled the page by Ruth Ashmore.

Another revolutionary column was assistance to young mothers on maternity. This wasn’t a topic that normally found its way into the popular press, but Bok felt that its value was worth the risk. It was soon so successful that he went one step further and mothers-to-be could get advice from physicians by mail. In spite of initial objections, the service was soon applauded by the medical community.

Bok saw that the power of a magazine might lie more securely behind the printed page than in it. He encouraged readers to write to his editors about problems. He employed an expert in many “feminine” subjects with the understanding that they were to pay particular attention to their correspondence, whether it made it into the magazine or not. Every letter, no matter how inconsequential, should be answered quickly, fully, and courteously. Bok told his editors that ignorance on any question was a misfortune, not a crime; and he wanted them letter-writers treated well. Eventually he had a staff of thirty-five editors on the monthly payroll. In the magazine he encouraged readers to write to them. He cajoled readers to see the magazine as a clearing-house of information. Before long, the letters streamed in by the tens of thousands during a year. By the time the service was stopped during WWI, the yearly correspondence totaled nearly a million letters.

His lack of educational opportunity as a boy led to another revolutionary idea -instead of the normal premiums given subscription sales contests, he began giving scholarships, first to music schools and eventually to other forms of education. A year’s tuition, plus room and board to a music school, and eventually to women’s, and then men’s colleges made this a program which created its own share of successful Americans who’d pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps when given the chance.

Bok remained editor of Ladies’ Home Journal until 1919, a full 30 years. Thousands of women had been helped by the magazine; it was no longer just a magazine, it had become a vital part of its readers lives. They explained to their husbands or fathers that Ladies’ Home Journal was a necessity. Having discovered the power in knowledge, American women continued their journey to full and independent power over themselves.