Edward Bok & The Simple Life


FOR THE THIRTY YEARS between 1889 and 1919, Edward Bok and the magazine he edited—Ladies’ Home Journal—exerted a profound influence over middle-class American values. His message was direct: The Simple Life was joyous and good, and too many Americans, seduced by the clutter and false values of Victorian materialism, had drifted away from it.

Bok is best known today as an example of the “rags-to-riches” success story, an immigrant youth who made good in America and then became a public benefactor and inveterate booster, telling others how to do the same. Yet Bok was far more than a typical success specialist. He was at heart an ardent moral reformer who found in simple living the key to personal happiness and social improvement. In 1900 Bok proclaimed that from “every class in American life … there comes the same cry for a simpler, more rational way of living, ” and he was determined to use his flourishing magazine to promote such enlightened restraint. In the process Ladies’ Home Journal developed into an uplifting, practical guidebook for plain living and high thinking.

Bok’s career remarkably paralleled that of Andrew Carnegie. Born in Holland in 1863, Edward William Bok arrived in Brooklyn with his destitute family in 1870. Seven years later he quit school in order to help support his struggling parents. Energetic and ambitious, he eventually became a stenographer for a publishing firm and began editing a small Brooklyn church magazine at night. At the same time, he embarked on a rigorous program of self-education. By 1886 his magazine had grown quite successful, and Bok sold it while beginning a second project—a syndicated newspaper feature. Realizing that most women were not regular newspaper readers, he sought to attract their attention by providing articles of interest to them, and soon the “Bok page” blossomed into a profitable enterprise carried by 137 subscriber newspapers across the country.

Such success caught the eye of Cyrus Curtis, the owner of Ladies’ Home Journal, and he offered Bok the post of editor in 1889. Thus, at the tender age of twenty-five, bachelor Edward Bok assumed control of the nation’s leading periodical for women, then boasting 440,000 subscribers. He later remembered (referring to himself in the third person) the irony of his selection: “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. … His boyhood days had been too full of poverty and struggle to permit him to mingle with the opposite sex.” Although Bok had little experience with women, he nevertheless felt confident in his understanding of the American home and what it needed in the way of improvement. With this curious mixture of youthful innocence and Dutch persistence, he plunged wholeheartedly into his new venture.

Bok arrived at Ladies’ Home Journal at a time when the idea of a masscirculation, general-interest magazine was just coming to fruition. The already large but rapidly growing urban middle class was eager for a cultural outlet relevant to its needs and interests. Bok recognized this fact, and he self-consciously directed his magazine at middlebrow readers, the “intelligent American woman rather than the intellectual type.” He was interested not in the patrician or the parvenu classes but rather in those families with annual incomes from twelve hundred to twenty-five hundred dollars. The “class with incomes of perhaps from $3000 to $5000,” Bok explained, would receive “supplementary attention, but the other classes above were not large enough in number to warrant specific appeal. ” The new editor promised that the Journal would provide a “great clearing-house of information” for its audience, and he quickly revised its format accordingly. After soliciting suggestions from his readers, Bok created a number of new departments covering such topics as infant and child care, sewing, cooking, religion, and civic beautification. He also published short stories by William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Rudyard Kipling, social commentary by Jane Addams,and political discussion by Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.