An Empire Of Women


The delegates at the convention were as impressed as Lewis intended them to be. In the pages of his publications they had been reminded frequently that they were participating in the latest of Lewis’s several miraculous recoveries. For the past six years, since 1904, the Lewis organization had been embroiled in a bitter fight with the United States Post Office and the Department of Justice. The charges had been numerous and complicated but they centered on violation of second-class mailing rules, before which every magazine publisher trembled, and on fraudulent claims for Lewis’s unique bank-by-mail scheme. There had been indictments, trials, mistrials, and retrials. Lewis weathered them all. For a brief time he had been forbidden to send or receive any letters. His correspondence, the heaviest in the entire St. Louis Post Office, piled up at the rate of fifteen hundred pieces a day. Eventually the legal proceedings collapsed in hung juries, and the interdict on Lewis’s mail expired. But what remained of his empire was awash in debt. The buildings surrounding the Woman’s League rested tremulously on their mortgages.


Despite these setbacks Lewis was a master of converting his weaknesses to strengths. He knew that his female audience understood what it was to be outnumbered. The death of Susan B. Anthony in 1906 and the snail’s pace of the suffrage movement had taught them bitter lessons of resignation. Lewis had formidable opposition, and his finances were a shambles. But, he argued, if the women of America would stand behind him, he—and they—could prevail.

To a remarkable degree the women did as he asked. His readers continued to send thousands of dollars to his bank, even after the government questioned it. Lewis told his audience that his People’s United States Bank was intended for them. Small accounts from women would be welcome, and the smallest depositor could write a check that Lewis guaranteed would be accepted in other cities, a valuable convenience for the mail-order trade that his magazines fostered and that his readers depended on. The hank’s services were attractive, no matter what the government said. The money kept coming—often in cash and once wrapped in a flannel shirt and tied with suspenders, just as it had been kept.

Ever since his 1908 retrial had ended indecisively, Lewis had been preaching the power of women united. The American Woman’s League was to be the instrument of that unity, and the linchpin was the selling of magazine subscriptions.

As an experienced publisher, Lewis knew that the greatest expense he faced was getting and keeping his subscribers. Then, as now, the cost of getting them often exceeded the revenue they generated, at least for the first year. The solution, Lewis saw, was to find an army of sales representatives dependent on commissions, who could appeal to friends, neighbors, and relatives in personal terms, as no conventional publisher could.

LEWIS PROPOSED to turn the women of small-town America into such an army. He simply hinged the sale of magazines—his own, along with dozens of national weeklies and monthlies—to membership in the league and then painted the league with an astounding array of issues and benefits. Each woman who sold fiftytwo dollars’ worth of subscriptions—or who contributed fifty-two dollars of her own money, a considerable sum at the time—became a lifetime member. One-half of the money would be devoted to the league, the other half would belong to the publisher. Members could participate in a free postal library of the latest books and phonograph records. They could earn for their town a chapter house, which Lewis promised to build free of charge wherever a sufficient number of members were clustered near one another. For the elderly and the needy, Lewis promised a loan society. For those who wanted to earn extra money from handicraft work, he promised a National Woman’s Exchange, popularly known as the “jam plan.” To the first hundred thousand members, he guaranteed “founder” status and profit sharing. The entire scheme amounted to “practical socialism,” he wrote, and only women could benefit from it fully. (For twenty dollars a man could be an honorary member, with privileges but no voting rights; Lewis wanted to be fair, he said.)

At Trinity College he promoted first cigars and then a cure he invented for the evils of tobacco.

Most ambitious of all was Lewis’s People’s University, which offered women and their children as many lessons as they wished in painting, sculpture, foreign language, and history. Its Art Academy stood imposingly a few hundred feet from his Magazine Building and was offering courses to women throughout the country. Employing a cooperative arrangement with other correspondence schools, Lewis’s institution offered a quite respectable college curriculum. Fifty thousand students were associated with it in one way or another. League revenues had jumped from seventy-five thousand dollars to a million and a quarter in just three years.