August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
E.G. Lewis decided that a strong man could liberate American women and make money doing it
THE CELEBRATION began even before the opening gavel of the First American Woman’s League Convention. As the thousand arriving delegates made their way out Delmar Boulevard to University City, a new suburb of St. Louis, storefronts hung with flags and bunting greeted them. Trolleys, wagons, and even a railroad train made a kind of procession to a camp of gay circus tents, complete with a hospital. The delegates had come for what they believed would be a turning point in the lives of American women.
For three mild June days of 1910, even the erratic St. Louis weather seemed docile. The events of the Convention unfolded with convincing effect. Promenading in a spacious aisle between rows of tents, listening to speeches, singing, the visitors absorbed an elusive atmosphere, half carnival, half army bivouac. Hearts stirred, spirits lifted, and hope spread among the assembly, mostly women from small towns and villages, more from the Midwest than the two coasts. The good cheer was almost universal, for the delegates had fallen under the complex influence of a master of the grand gesture.
Edward Gardner Lewis had conceived the American Woman’s League at one of the many low points in his career. An entrepreneur and promoter of remarkable resilience and imagination, he had suffered a series of setbacks. His combative nature had immediately seized on the one resource that still might save him. The million or more readers of his The Woman’s Magazine and Woman’s Farm Journal had often proved their loyalty and fortitude. Now Lewis determined to transform them from mere subscribers into an organized power, with himself as their leader, and to match his purposes with theirs.
Lewis had always loved risks. Born in 1869, the son of an influential Episcopal minister from Connecticut, he launched his first unsuccessful project before he had outgrown knee pants. It was a newspaper, which Lewis wrote, printed, and sold from his father’s rectory. It failed, and he had to sell his billy goat to repay subscribers. At Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he promoted first cigars, then a cure for the evils of tobacco, which he had developed himself. During the years after he left Trinity (without a degree), he hawked watches and patent medicines across a territory that stretched all the way to Memphis. At every stop he eagerly poured out more money for advertising than he took in from his customers. It was a perilous course, and one that never became profitable.
By the time Lewis arrived in St. Louis, just before the boom preceding the 1904 World’s Fair, he was ready for a change. He had married Mabel Wellington of Baltimore; Mabel was sickly, and Lewis had found himself in desperate need of money. In St. Louis he unearthed a nearly defunct advertising circular that vainly paraded as a magazine. Perhaps the title appealed to him: The Winner . He bought it for credit and promises and finally began collecting the kind of money he previously had been spending. When The Winner became The Woman’s Magazine , Lewis was on his way. He had found the appropriate audience for his kind of enthusiasm.
Lewis’s detractors often harked back to these early days to prove his craftiness and expediency. The women who gathered at University City in 1910 saw something entirely different, for beyond the tents where they slept, Lewis had created a remarkable stage set as headquarters for his publishing empire.
On a scruffy hillside overlooking a racetrack and a summer theater, he had superimposed a system of boulevards and plazas with the proportions of Beaux-Arts Paris. Bordering them he had constructed an impressive phalanx of monuments, each made grander by its splendid isolation. Lewis had copied an Egyptian temple to house his bank and a lavish, miniature Versailles for his People’s University; had erected two massive limestone pillars topped with a male and a female lion to guard his new “residence section"; and had built a domed, octagonal tower garlanded with flowers and angels as headquarters for his publishing company. With as much modesty as he could summon, he had accepted the office of mayor over a town he mostly owned himself. The place inspired confidence. No one had protested when he called one of his latest, and most unpredictable, periodicals The Woman’s National Daily . In Lewis s mind it was the country’s only daily paper for women, even though it appeared once a week.
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.)
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.
The league offered something rare and desirable, a cross between the security of a family and the power of a trade association. Rae Lyttleton, a member in Marshall, Texas, expressed the situation shared by most of the league’s members when she wrote to Taxile Doat, the former head of the Sèvres Works in France, whom Lewis had recruited for his own pottery department. She had been doing some ceramic work and wanted Doat to fire it for her, as she had heard he had done for other women. “There is no place near here to have it fired,” she said, “so I get very despairing at times.” Hers was a practical piece, she indicated, a design for a pocket electric light. “You have no idea how anxious I am to get the work done—so please, please— pretty please—say you can fire it for me. And down here, you know, when anyone says ‘ pretty please,’ nobody can refuse.”
“I am just a little thirteen year old school girl who loves art,” wrote Viola Myers of Pensacola, Florida. “I think I would like to paint dishes because I like to paint flowers best. Can a girl with one hand do that kind of work? Will it take much money to learn and how shall I begin? I am what the world calls poor. My mama has read about you in the Woman’s National Weekly which comes to us every week.”
By 1910 Lewis was claiming his first hundred thousand members. Clearly it was time to celebrate, to gather as many of the founders as possible at the national headquarters in University City.
It is no wonder that the thousand women who packed the Dehnar Garden Theater were open to Lewis’s promises. They tolerated, even welcomed, his absolute control of the league. And if the money flowing from the league endowment—which Lewis projected at over a million dollars for each year to eternity—went right back into Lewis properties, there seemed no reason to object because, at the end of five years, Lewis vowed to transfer everything to the league at a price set by an independent appraiser. By then there would be money enough for everyone forever.
So when Lewis got up to speak at the convention, he received an ovation. The delegates saw a short, elegant man, so radiant with energy that his eyes bulged from his face and his voice had a tendency to slip up an octave. His opening was somber; he had borne his troubles steadfastly but for so long, he said, that eventually “a blackness of night” had settled over his spirit. Enemies had lain in wait on all sides, counseling defeat. But Lewis had resisted because he alone heard a “voice that has come forward to every man since the beginning of the world and which has made him do everything that is worth doing—the voice of woman.” He had reached the refrain of his message: “I tell you, you are sitting here today at the signing of a new Declaration of Independence [applause]—the independence of woman … if better things are going to come in this land or any other land they have got to come through woman [applause].”
As the waving of flags and handkerchiefs subsided, a group of women from the New York delegation began to sing an old hymn. Voice after voice took it up until the whole auditorium rang out:
The American Woman’s League Convention was a glorious moment for Lewis. At that time, he later wrote to a friend, he was on the verge of forming a great publishing trust, nothing less, yet one that touched the heart as it enriched the pocket. It was to be the “biggest subscription machine that was ever devised by a human brain. … Back of it as its active power has got to be sentiment, as it is the only thing that will drive it. Next door to it has got to be a bank, and an awfully big bank, and with this equipment I think we … will have gained a monopoly and a foothold. … If it succeeds, and I believe it will, it will be the biggest single handed power in this or any other Nation.”
For a brief time everyone did pull together, as Lewis kept admonishing, and the results seemed to fulfill all of Lewis’s hopes. He did actually build thirty-eight chapter houses, although not the seven hundred he once promised. They are substantial buildings, most of them still standing in such places as Corning, California; Kissimmee, Florida; and Avon, Montana. Their cottage-style design repeats a vision of the ideal suburban home that Lewis extolled in his magazines. The women who gathered in them enjoyed quite a few of the advantages that Lewis promised.
Yet Lewis got little chance to enjoy his real accomplishments: his problems had already begun to close in on him. The league, which he had thought would save him, proved to be his undoing. Doubts began to surface about what had seemed his almost miraculous power of selfrenewal. A rival publication, The Rural New Yorker , attacked him. Reaching for the same market as Lewis, it sought flaws in his plans and had little trouble finding many and inventing more: Lewis’s past record proved him untrustworthy; not all of the affiliated correspondence schools would honor Lewis’s claims to represent them; league members would never get their money’s worth. Lewis must have been furious to find himself attacked on the one front where he really was delivering most of what he claimed.
But the attack was effective because enough was going wrong elsewhere in his empire. Worst of all, the money being collected for subscriptions was not always finding its way to the publishers. Subscribers were not receiving their magazines. The Eastern publishers who had been a chief support of the league convention demanded a reorganization. In April 1911 Lewis agreed. Less than a year after his moment of greatest triumph, he relinquished all possessions and offices except the presidency of the American Woman’s League.
Although bankrupt, Lewis still seemed to think that women could be his salvation. As receivers moved in to assume control, Lewis reorganized the executive committee of the league into the Regents Publishing and Mercantile Corporation. With more borrowed money he repurchased his old buildings and equipment. The Art Academy became the University City Pottery Works, making sets of dishes and ornaments for tasteful homemakers to be sold by mail catalog and “delivered free to your door.”
The league became the American Woman’s Republic, with Mabel Lewis, his wife, as president. She was formally installed by Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 had run for President of the United States on the Equal Rights ticket, the first woman ever to make such a run. Mabel Lewis swore to uphold a constitution that began, “We, the Women of the United States…” and rested on a Declaration of Equal Rights that proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men and women are free and equal…”
It was a brave show, but a doomed one. There was no money, and the third of the government’s so far unsuccessful legal attacks on Lewis was moving toward a trial. In the courtroom, during his mail fraud trial of 1912, Lewis doodled an ideal community that he called the Valley of Peace—something he surely needed by then. It would be in California; the women of his Republic were to be its core.
The sketch shows a large central plaza surrounded by public buildings. Residential streets radiate from the center, and a highway leads to nearby railroad tracks. The doodle now hangs in the historical museum at Atascadero, California, the new town that Lewis created in 1913 out of a dry Salinas Valley hillside. Some people there still remember the spirit of the man they once referred to as the “father” of their town and who himself called it a “colony.” They remember that his energy inspired them to come there. They think his greatest exaggerations merely revealed his visions, and they have good reason to think that Lewis’s courtroom doodle, made at a time when Atascadero was no more than live oaks and salamanders, provides to this day a fair outline of their town.
THERE WAS INDEED something oracular about Lewis. Yet like most oracles, he was a little careless about details. When, in the mid-twenties, the Post Office and the Justice Department renewed their twenty-fiveyear pursuit, they finally found him vulnerable. He could no longer summon the encouraging support of a thousand vocal women. And the complaint of an aggrieved widow who had lost a mere few hundred dollars in Lewis enterprises finally brought him down.
Lewis’s prison sentence, five years, beginning in 1928, was unusually harsh for a first conviction on mail-fraud charges. His struggle for parole was bitter and, ultimately, unsuccessful.
Yet he served his time so enthusiastically that he made the warden a personal friend and won the freedom of the jail. He always maintained that the jury had confused him with a notorious swindler, recently convicted, who happened to have the same name.
When an old friend named Hallie Garrity went to visit him in 1950, a week before he died, he was broke and nearly blind but still sure of himself. She still felt the pull of his confidence, even though she had worked in his California office long enough to know better. Lewis had promised his buyers to plant almond trees on their land and to send them their own almonds to prove how their investment flourished. It was Hallie’s job to fish almonds from a sack in Lewis’s closet to satisfy anyone who insisted on the letter of the bargain. A few stale almonds and a florid explanation could prevent disaster, Lewis thought. On that last day Hallie saw him, he still thought so. The two sat in silence for a long time on his porch. When the old man finally spoke, she wasn’t sure exactly what he had been thinking about. It could have been anything. “Well, Hallie,” he said, “we almost made it.”