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Edward Bok & The Simple Life
At the turn of the century, a crusading magazine editor exhorted women to seek peace of mind and body through simplicity. For a generation, they listened.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
In presenting such varied fare, Bok was careful to highlight his own clearly articulated vision of American values. The Journal to him must “be more than a mere assemblage of stories and articles.” It must stand for ideals. Bok’s own rapid success in his new country gave him a heady optimism about the nation’s distinctive moral mission, and his avid reading of Emerson as a youth had impressed upon him the virtues of simple living and elevated thinking. He frequently quoted Emerson’s assertion that “great men are they who see that the spiritual is stronger than any material force.” And like Emerson, he believed that the best way to reform a society obsessed with money and possessions was not through the manipulation of institutions but through the promotion of enlightened self-improvement. Consequently, unlike McClure’s and other muckraking periodicals, Bok’s magazine was intended not to attack “all the evils of the day” but to reveal the “tremendous influence of personal power” in correcting social problems. He was bent upon using Ladies’ Home Journal as a stimulant for self-culture, providing “uplift and inspiration” for its readers. As he told George Bernard Shaw, the Journal’s editorial pages constitute the world’s “largest possible pulpit.”
Bok saw the middle-class American woman as the crucial “steadying influence” between the “unrest among the lower classes and [the] rottenness among the upper classes.” For him the ideal woman was one who led a simple life in the home and conscientiously passed on such a perspective to her spouse and children. She was inherently “better, purer, conscientious and morally stronger” than man. Bok was no feminist. “My idea,” he wrote, “… is to keep women in the home especially as there are enough writers who are trying to take her out of it.” Perhaps because he appealed to what many traditional women wanted to be, Bok’s new Ladies’ Home Journal was an amazing success. By 1892 the number of subscribers had increased to 700,000; by 1910 they numbered 1,750,000, thus giving the magazine the largest circulation of any in the world.
Bok used his editorial pulpit to promote a variety of Progressive causes—city beautification, billboard removal, wilderness preservation, sex education, American-designed fashions, and pure food and drug legislation. He also instituted a policy of testing the products advertised in the magazine so as to ensure their quality. In 1892 Bok banned all patent medicine advertisements, even though they were a major source of revenue for the magazine. The most consistent subject of his avuncular preaching, however, was the personal satisfaction provided by simpler living.
Like many Americans at the turn of the century, Bok was inspired by the writings of Charles Wagner, a French Protestant clergyman noted for his emphasis on Christian simplicity. His book The Simple Life (1901) was widely reviewed and quoted in the American press, so much so, in fact, that President Roosevelt invited Wagner to the United States in 1904. In speaking of The Simple Life, Roosevelt said that he knew of “no other book… which contains so much that we of America ought to take to our hearts.” Wagner’s explicitly religious perspective, coupled with his reverence for a well-ordered family life, struck a responsive chord among American advocates of simplicity. Bok was especially taken with Wagner’s message. He told his readers that The Simple Life was the “sanest little book” on the subject yet published, and “in its words there are health and salvation for thousands of American women.” By emphasizing that simplicity had to do more with one’s perspective than one’s income, the French minister implicitly sanctioned the capitalist system, thereby reassuring Bok and middle-class Americans that leading a simple life required a spiritual revitalization, not a social revolution.
In the aftermath of Wagner’s American lecture tour and with the growing popularity of the Frenchman’s ideas, Bok noted that the phrase “simple life” had become quite fashionable among American journalists: “We read about the ‘simple life’ and love to talk about it, but we refuse to live it.” He attributed this failure in part to widespread confusion about the concept’s practical meaning. Too often it was associated with a “barren abode and crude living.” On the contrary, he emphasized, simplicity was not a fruit-and-nuts primitivism. There was a need for a basic sufficiency, a “healthful diet, simple, serviceable clothing, a clean, healthy dwelling-place, open-air exercise and good reading. ”
At base, Bok affirmed, the simple life was a personal state of being dependent neither “upon our condition nor our station in life.” Like Wagner’s message, his recipe for simplicity was delectably reassuring: “Make home happy; hold loved ones first in your heart; leave off fussing over fashionable ways of living; be natural, and you will be living the simple life though you ride in a motorcar, clean house by electricity, entertain at the country club, and have every convenience known to man. The quality of the individual is what determines the simple life, never his surroundings.”