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Edward Bok & The Simple Life

July 2024
23min read

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.

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.


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.”

Yet, while assuring the well-to-do that they could simplify their lives without spartanizing them, Bok advised that to have “small means makes the problem of simple living really easier.” The key to simplicity was self-confident contentment. He reflected his reading of Thorstein Veblen when he stressed, “There must be no imitation of others, no reaching of fancied heights to outdo someone else: no thought of how our mode of living will be judged by others.” When Americans learned the difference between the accessories and the essentials of life, they would begin to experience better physical and mental health. “There are no nervous breakdowns in the simple life,” he counseled his readers. Contentment, discrimination, sincerity—that, Bok concluded, “is the genuine simple life—according to Charles Wagner, if you will, or according to those everlasting basic precepts and principles that were lovingly laid down for all mankind some nineteen hundred years ago.”

In this way Bok retrieved the traditional concept of Christian simplicity and made it relevant to his middle-class American audience. Some may see in his rather broad definition of simple living a rationalization for the status quo. He certainly was not calling into question the free enterprise system or the sanctity of private property. Like most Progressives, he was a moral reformer, not a social radical. But he clearly did intend his sermons to result in changed patterns of living and thinking. To this end he created a department entitled “How Much Can Be Done with Little,” devoted solely to providing practical tips for simpler living. Bok also pioneered the “how-to” journalistic technique. Articles such as “How We Can Lead a Simple Life, by an American Mother,” “How We Live on $1000 a Year or Less,” “How to Live Cheaply,” “A Lesson in Plain Sewing,” “Economical Use of Left-Overs,” “What Nervous People Should Eat,” and “A Spartan Mother” were intended to demonstrate that simpler living was a practical ideal accessible to all. In addition Bok solicited prominent Americans to express to his readers the virtues and joys of simplicity. His greatest coup in this respect was in getting President Roosevelt to participate in a series of interviews on the subject of better living habits.

To say that Theodore Roosevelt was himself a model of simple living would stretch the concept absurdly. Roosevelt, of course, defies any simple classification. A bundle of nervous energy, he could be a conspicuous dandy in spending his inherited money. He rode to hounds, played polo, loved big houses, fast horses, pearl-handled revolvers, gold-plated rifles, and fine clothes for indoors and out, despite boasting about getting by with his buckskin shirt. But Roosevelt was also a patrician who was determined not to be genteel. He repeatedly claimed to lead a life of “dignified simplicity.” In a letter to William Howard Taft in 1903, he described his way of life in the White House: “We have two maids and live as any family of gentlefolk of small means should live. When I leave the Presidency I shall not mind in the least going back to the utmost simplicity of life, and I wish to live simply as President.”

ROOSEVELT THUS fervently supported Bok’s moral program, declaring in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1907 that excessive materialism was the greatest danger threatening the country. And he agreed with Bok that the most effective antidote was a revival of republican simplicity in modern form. “The evils that have come, ” as the Journal paraphrased the President’s philosophy, “need not corrupt the world, if the old watchwords of the simpler life—virtue, loyalty, courage, cheerfulness—are made part of each individual’s life.” Roosevelt maintained that a “sane charity and simplicity” should again be taught in the home so that young Americans would learn that the “moral must permeate the material or the best in life decays. ” The American raised in such a moral household, the article stated, would find that his “good plain sense will prevent him from securing luxuries he cannot pay for, and his courage will save him from imagining that such luxuries are necessaries.”

The popular Roosevelt undoubtedly exerted a strong influence on the readers of the Journal. But it was Edward Bok himself who was the magazine’s most rousing voice on behalf of simple living. In repeated editorials he expressed the virtues of enlightened restraint in a didactic, intimate, homely way that drew its effect from his intense sincerity. “It is a hard truth,” he wrote in a typical Christmas message, “for those who have little, to believe that the greatest happiness of life is with them: that it is not with those who have abundance. ” Nevertheless, he insisted, the “more we have the less we actually enjoy it. ” As Emerson had pointed out, there is a “law of compensation” at work in life. Those of great wealth must bear the constant burden of greater complexity and concern. “The woman of simplest means,” Bok contended, “is the happiest woman on earth, if she only knew it.”

To prove this assertion, Bok cited the example of a family he knew who enjoyed an affluent income but conscientiously organized their lives and their purchases around the principles of utility and simplicity. Their furniture was of high-quality wood but of plain design, an automobile was rented for specific trips rather than bought to sit outside, and toys for the children were “fewer and simpler” than those of the neighbors. It was a family, Bok stressed, where “pleasures were made to remain real: appetites were not clogged nor jaded.” The result was contentment with the joy of life itself.

To Bok the need for such familial simplicity assumed the proportions of a crusade, and he was determined to make the middle-class household his battleground. “We have drifted away from simple living,” he charged, “and our children are suffering from it.” Hence, Bok led a highly publicized campaign for a simplified domestic architecture. He found most late Victorian homes to be “repellently ornate.” Money was “wasted on useless turrets, filigree work, or machinemade ornamentation. ” As a result, all sense of style and proportion was lost. To remedy the situation, the Journal in 1895 began publishing plans for plain, more functional, and attractive houses, many of which could be built for fifteen hundred to five thousand dollars. Many leading architects submitted designs, including Ralph Adams Cram, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stanford White. Bok offered complete blueprints for five dollars, and soon thousands of “Journal houses” began going up across the country. White maintained that “Edward Bok has more completely influenced American domestic architecture for the better than any man of this generation.” These “Journal houses” eliminated the Victorian parlor, made the kitchen more compact by using builtin cupboards, and discarded all cupolas, scrollwork, and balconies. Cram explained that his design was an “attempt to restore something of the simplicity characteristic of good colonial work. ”

If she only knew it, the happiest woman is the one of simplest means.

While promoting a plain, functional, affordable architectural style in the Journal, Bok also led a campaign for simplified home interiors. “The curse of the American home to-day,” he wrote in 1900, “is useless bric-a-brac. ” The tasteless overfurnishing in the Queen Anne style then so popular among the urban middle class, he had decided, was contributing directly to the rising nervousness of American women, for they were becoming harried slaves to the “useless rubbish” filling their parlors. Moreover, such homes were not conducive to the development of good moral character in the young. “No child,” he said, “can develop a true simplicity of nature when the home of his parents is stifled by shams.” Useless gimcracks, he insisted with Thoreau-like reasoning, only gather dust and offend the eye: “Simplicity is the only thing that ornaments.” In fact it does more than that, he continued, “it dignifies.” The most aesthetically pleasing rooms were determined not by what they contained but by what they disdained.


To show what he meant, Bok regularly published illustrations of home interiors that included examples, placed side by side, of simple and gaudy furnishings. Underneath each picture he would provide terse evaluations such as “This chair is ugly” or “This table is beautiful.” Yet Bok was convinced that simplicity as a philosophy of living transcended such aesthetic considerations. “More simplicity in our homes,” he argued, “would make our lives simpler.” If women developed a plain, functional domestic taste, they would have more time and more money to spend on things that really mattered. “It is only because we have got away from the simple and the natural that so many of our homes are cluttered up as they are, and our lives full of little things that are not worth the while.”

Bok’s assault on the needless stuffiness of Victorian home decoration and clothing provoked many candid responses from his readers. Most of them revealed a desire for such simpler living, yet some remained hesitant. As one correspondent confided: “We women want simpler lives. There’s no doubt of that. But we are dismayed by the difficulties confronting the woman who essays to ‘come out and be separate.’ ” She went on to describe the problem of finding “simple” clothes at reasonable prices. An even more worrisome issue for her was the fear of social ostracism. If she and her family modeled their domestic life according to the simplicity Bok advocated, she wrote poignantly, they would be “dropped from visiting lists.” In concluding her pained response to the editor’s “admirable” program, the subscriber raised a dilemma that has since become commonplace: “Thousands of women see clearly the force of the needs which you point out, and see them with an intensity born of defeated hopes and thwarted lives. But they find themselves helpless against the ever-increasing tide of complex and artificial standards of living.”

Like a stern father, Bok took up such objections one by one, parrying them with the skill of a fencer. He characterized the reader’s fear of being deemed eccentric as stemming from a “false notion. ” The woman who simplifies her life “will find herself of a sisterhood that numbers more votaries than she has ever dreamed of.” Besides, he asked, is not being true to one’s own values far more important than satisfying the jaded standards of society? That some friends might drop a “simple-living” couple from their “visiting list” was an indication that they were not true friends; the loss of their good graces should not be an issue of concern. “I repeat,” Bok emphasized, “our lives are what we make of them ourselves. If we are weak and accept the artificial our lives will be so. And just in proportion as we make our lives artificial we make them profitless and unhappy. ” When enough Americans displayed the courage to act on their own rather than wait for simplicity to become socially acceptable, then the country might begin to approach its original spiritual and ethical ideal. America might indeed become a nation of “real people, where each man and woman is measured by his or her own true worth, where friendships are honest and where laughs are hearty and tears are real: where lives are happiest because they are lived simplest: where the air is clear, and where people look you in the eye, and where the clothes you wear do not signify.”

BOK’S REFERENCE to clear air reflected not only his disgust at the stuffiness of Victorian home interiors but another of his beliefs—that urbanites needed to expose themselves to the purifying and exhilarating simplicities of nature. Contact with the countryside, whether the virgin wilderness, the plowed field, or the Arcadian retreat, he emphasized, meant turning away from artificiality to embrace more abiding realities. God and goodness always seemed more accessible in the woods than in the city. Moreover, the countryside offered fresh air and a stimulus to strenuous activity. Physical exertion, it was widely assumed among Progressive reformers, was crucial to moral vitality and mental alertness. And excursions into the countryside or wilderness were to be preferred over urban forms of recreation.

This was Bok’s persistent message to his urban readers. The return to nature he advocated was not that of a Thoreau or a Tolstoy but that of an Emerson or Jefferson—a comfortable home and garden in the country, within commuting distance of the city, and blessed with the amenities—but not the luxuries—of civilized living. It was vital, he believed, that the modern businessman and professional have some repose, and this was only possible “where a man lives in the country—in some suburban place, away from the actual scene of his daily grind.”

Bok spoke from experience. After marrying Mary Louise Curtis, the daughter of his publisher, Bok and his bride settled on four wooded acres near Merion, a fifteen-minute train ride from Philadelphia. There they raised their two boys, believing that the “closer we keep our children to the soil the healthier will they be physically, and the stronger will they develop mentally. ” Living in the country, Bok remarked, enabled overly busy men to see nature’s restful ways. Also, such sylvan surroundings developed in people an “interest in all things natural and simple.” And as the suburban housewife sees the “simplicity with which Nature works, unconsciously will the lesson be forced upon her and enter into her own methods.”

In advocating such commuter pastoralism, Bok bore witness to a veritable nature craze that seized the middle classes of America at the turn of the century. Country life had proven soothing to the affluent for years, and now, thanks to rising incomes and improved transportation, the middle classes could partake of it as well. Thousands of urban dwellers were swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for the outdoors, determined to recapture the nutrients deemed vital to the soul that contact with nature supposedly provided. “Country life,” one journalist observed, “is fortunately winning its way into the affections of all classes. The longing for fresh air and sweet odors and fresh fruit and a simple life all go together.”

Healthy morals can best be instilled in children where the air is healthy.

Bok was much encouraged by the burgeoning back-to-nature phenomenon. He argued in 1898 that there “would be a far smaller percentage of nervous women in America to-day if suburban life had been in vogue ten years ago as much as it is to-day. ” Nature’s “restful ways” would allow tense husbands and wives to relax, and outdoor activity and sports would promote more “robust constitutions.” In addition, Bok suggested, “healthy morals, too, are more easily instilled into a child’s mind where the air is healthy. Wholesome ideas come from a close intimacy with Nature.”

Although Bok preferred year-round country or suburban living for everyone, he realized that many people would remain in the cities. For them he proposed a variety of options intended to provide at least some of the enriching simplicity that contact with nature had to offer. If full-time living among farmers and villagers was impossible, then at least one should “go to the country in the summertime and live with them, and extract some of the wholesome lessons of simple living which their lives can teach us.” Thus, just as Jane Addams and Lillian WaId stressed to their middleclass social workers the benefits of contact with the immigrant poor, Bok saw great merit in the urban bourgeoisie rubbing elbows with rural folk. In an effort to entice his readers into the country, Bok published a series of pictorial essays entitled “Prettiest Country Homes in America,” and he regularly published inexpensive plans for summer cottages.

He saw great merit in the urban bourgeoisie rubbing elbows with rural folk.

For those unable to afford even a rustic cottage, Bok insisted upon the necessity of at least a vacation in the woods. Every woman, he maintained, “should occasionally have a respite from the thousand and one perplexities of housekeeping. That respite may be brief or long, but a respite there should be.” But Bok decried the fashionable practice of summering in posh resort hotels. Such places were too often islands of urban socializing in the midst of Arcady. He argued that whatever benefit vacationing children and mothers received by being in the country was counteracted in such hotels by “the innutritious food that is eaten, the irregular hours that are kept, the air of artificiality that is charged into their lives, and, above all, the cosmopolitan acquaintances which they make.” It would be better for families to rent a cottage in one of the “hundreds of quiet rural nooks” than to engage in the urbane and shallow social life of the resorts.

Bok was particularly concerned that the nation’s children have access to the revitalizing effects of nature, and he joined other Progressive moralists in vigorously championing the youth camping movement that began to flourish during the late nineteenth century. He was one of the early supporters of fresh-air funds that were organized in many Eastern cities to subsidize country vacations for disadvantaged urban children. In such camps, as well as others sponsored by Boys’ Clubs, the YMCA, and other municipal and church groups, sporting activities and handicrafts were integrated with cooperative living in what one writer called the “simplicity and sincerity of nature.” The counselors were supposed to be role models, endowed with “manly” physical strength and high moral values, especially courage, honesty, and devotion to an ideal. One of the most important ideals was the capacity to accept and surmount challenges, a theme of particular importance to Bok, the selfmade immigrant. Hardening young bodies in rigorous camp life would, he felt, help overcome the weaknesses of effete city youth softened by luxury and enervated by the pollution and congestion of metropolitan life.


So Bok preached the values of youth camping—fostering healthy bodies, self-confidence, civic virtue, simplicity, and a love for and knowledge of nature—to much the same middleclass audience that was devouring literature about the out-of-doors during the Progressive Era. The message was appealing to parents anxious about the degenerative effects of city life upon fragile youth. Their own supine dependence on specialists, financiers, middlemen, and servants convinced many of the need to expose their offspring to the salutary effects of summer camps and other forms of outdoor activity. And with remarkable suddenness, the camping movement mushroomed into a major activity. By 1917 the literary critic Henry Seidel Canby could remark that “more Americans go back to nature for one reason or another annually than any civilized men before them.”

The popularity of the back-to-nature movement indicated that Progressive simplicity was gaining momentum as the United States entered World War I, and Bok joined many other social reformers in hoping that the military conflict would promote even more widespread adherence to the principle of plain living and high thinking. President Wilson likewise recognized the moral benefits of war. In a speech delivered shortly after Congress approved the war declaration, he challenged the public to revive old virtues: “This is the time for America to correct her unpardonable fault of wastefulness and extravagance. Let every man and every woman assume the duty of careful, provident use and expenditure as a public duty.” Herbert Hoover, whom Wilson appointed as food administrator, similarly appealed for the “elimination of waste and actual and rigorous self-sacrifice on the part of the American people.” To encourage such frugality, the Department of Agriculture sponsored Wheatless Mondays, Meatless Tuesdays, and Porkless Thursdays and Saturdays. Edith Boiling Wilson, the President’s second wife, persuaded the cabinet members’ wives to pledge with her to “reduce living to its simplest form and to deny ourselves luxuries in order to free those who produce them for the cultivation of necessities. ”

Bok urged his readers to follow the Wilsons’ example. He called on them to contribute to the Belgian Relief Fund, organize Red Cross auxiliaries, engage in fuel and food conservation, buy Liberty Bonds, and participate in the Victory garden program. “Our dolls and playthings must be put aside,” he argued. “We have had our time for the dance and the dinner and the pretty frock. But that time is over. It is the hour for serious thought: for well-doing: for thoughts of others: for service.” To advise readers about the opportunities for patriotic simplicity, Bok instituted a regular column in the Journal entitled “The Woman and the War” that included specific suggestions for preparing meatless dishes and becoming more self-sufficient. He emphasized that the “time for wasteful housekeeping is over. … With less we can easily do. And how simply and better we can do without is a lesson that will be new to some and good for all.” By November 1917 Bok was overjoyed at the growing evidence of thrift, conservation, and voluntarism being practiced by American women and children. “We are getting into our minds at last that ideals are more important than we thought: that Life is more than meat and that body is more than raiment.”

BUT SUCH patriotic austerity was short-lived. No sooner was the war over than the mood of selfsacrifice and civic service quickly dissipated. “During the war we accustomed ourselves to doing without, to buying carefully, to using economically, ” a commentator noted in 1920. Another writer observed that when the war was over, “a veritable orgy of extravagant buying began.” Reckless spending replaced saving, and waste replaced efforts at conservation. The quick transition from public conservation to public prodigality was a stunning disappointment to Progressive idealists. The editors of The Nation maintained that “civilization certainly needs to be simplified” rather than made more complex by indiscriminate economic expansion. “We need to reduce our wants, to cut down our standard of living, to buy less, to make less, to work less, to consume less of our lives in the machinery of living. ” But alas, they recognized, the country was rushing in the other direction. Bok was equally disheartened by the postwar atmosphere. Now that the fighting was over, he sighed, people wanted to “let down” and resume their frivolous and luxurious habits.

The ideal of simple living did lose its appeal in the aftermath of the Great War. The electorate clamored for what Warren G. Harding called a return to “normalcy,” which apparently meant going back to the values of the Gilded Age—laissez-faire individualism, limited government, isolationism, and, above all, unrestricted economic expansion. “This is essentially a business country,” Harding reminded his critics. As President, he, along with his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, baldly shaped federal policies so as to promote a resurgence of corporate capitalism.

Edward Bok discovered the strength of such economic orthodoxy as he tried to carry his campaign for simpler living into the postwar era. Bok had resolved soon after taking control of the Journal in 1889 that he would retire from his post after twenty-five years. The outbreak of the Great War in Europe and eventual American involvement in the conflict had caused him to postpone his departure, but when the war was over, he announced—in January 1920—his retirement. Bok was fifty-six years old, wealthy, and in the full flush of intellectual and physical vigor. The magazine also was flourishing. Its October 1919 issue sold more than 2,000,000 copies. Nevertheless, Bok wanted out. It was time to leave the grind of business and devote his money to philanthropy and his time to social service and family.

As he began his new “play” period, as he called it, Bok wrote several articles promoting his gospel of retired activism and bemoaning the crass preoccupation with material pursuits that seemed to pervade Jazz Age America. “Money is King,” he maintained in 1924. “Business is our God. Commerce rules. ” After acknowledging the many benefits resulting from economic growth, he reminded readers that “years of unexampled industrial productivity and of the accumulation of great wealth are not bringing, and have not brought, happiness to mankind.” Poverty, crime, tension, anonymity, and despair remained prevalent in the midst of unparalleled prosperity. Bok warned businessmen that “bliss in possession does not last” and that the “fundamental things which really matter are outside the pale of the bankinghouse.” His advice for the well-to-do was to follow his own example. Those who had worked diligently enough to earn a comfortable income should “abandon the harness of business” and devote their energies to “higher” causes. “Where all a man’s thought has been centered on himself, now he turns and thinks of others.”


Although religious spokesmen and social activists praised Bok’s outlook, many among the business community were critical. His idea of early retirement coupled with public service struck Glenn Frank, editor of The Century Magazine , as a “dangerous and essentially anti-social doctrine” that threatened the “American tradition of sticking to business until one drops in the harness.” Bok, he claimed, was “advocating a new asceticism, which consists in running away from business in order to be useful to society.” Instead of being praised for such a stance, the successful editor should be “morally court-martialed for deserting his post in the midst of the battle.”

ANOTHER APOLOGIST for the modern work ethic, William Feather, was even more caustic in his criticism of Bok’s promotion of “simplicity and service.” Writing in Nation’s Business , he charged: “Mr. Bok is un-American. In proof of this I cite that he has quit work and is now attempting to Do Good, and conducting a vigorous propaganda to induce other business men to do likewise. Bok is ashamed to work. He is ashamed of profits. He regards trade as inferior. Doing Good, patronizing the stupid and weak, giving the people something they don’t want, is his idea of a worthwhile life.

“I contend that no 100 per cent American subscribes to such a doctrine. The 100 per cent American dies in harness.” At first glance, Feather’s comments could be taken as a witty satire of Ben Franklin’s work ethic gone out of control. But he was not joking. His ideal “100 per cent American” unashamedly believed in the “doctrine of selfishness” and was proudly “rich, fat, arrogant, superior.”


Such a brazen materialism was heard often during the 1920s. John Edgerton, for example, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, proclaimed that he was “for everything that will make work happier, but against anything that will further subordinate its importance in the program of life.” Another capitalist evangelical agreed that the summum bonum of life was the accumulation of material goods and pleasures through hard work. “Man’s nature could realize its loftiest aspirations only in a materialistic heaven on earth,” he said. Bok’s promotion of the Thoreauvian idea that prosperity offered a unique opportunity for Americans to devote more of their time and attention to “higher” pursuits seemed lost on those intoxicated by the promise of wealth. “You know the quality of the lads that come to this school,” the Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter wrote in 1924—“the best there are in the country. And yet, on the whole, a pretty crass materialism is their dominating ambition.”

That his gospel of simple living, early retirement, and public service generated such splenetic criticism was disappointing to Bok. Still, he did not slacken his efforts to elevate American priorities above mundane moneygrubbing. During the 1920s he wrote seven books, created and financed awards for community service activities, established the American Peace Award, anonymously subsidized the Philadelphia Symphony, and published numerous essays explaining and defending his enlightened philosophy of living. Bok died in 1930, just as the nation began to experience the severities of the Great Depression. He was buried at what became known as Bok Tower, a carillon he built in the Mountain Lake bird sanctuary near Lake Wales, Florida, where he had a winter home. On his crypt was etched, at his request, a favorite saying of his Dutch grandmother: “Make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it. ”

It was a fitting epitaph for a remarkable man. True, Bok’s crusade on behalf of simple living ultimately fell far short’of its goals. Despite his Herculean efforts, his program for middle-class domestic and moral reform did not produce the widespread and enduring change in values that he desired. The accumulated momentum of modern urban industrial life and conspicuous consumption was difficult to restrain. As early as 1906 a writer in The Outlook predicted that there was “small chance that this revolt against wealth as the supreme aim of life will go too far; the tendencies in the other direction are far too powerful, the opportunities too tempting. ”

No sooner was the war over than the mood of self-sacrifice dissipated.

Still, if the middle-class simplicity that Bok advocated did not provoke a dramatic shift from the status quo of conventional urban life, it was a significant departure for many and a genuine transformation for a few. Even in its most superficial forms, Progressive simplicity did reflect a yearning for more lasting values and enriching experiences than orthodox corporate and community life had to offer. If Bok and other propagandists succeeded in luring even a few indulgent urbanités out of their cluttered houses and “nervous” frame of mind and into the countryside and a more enlightened approach to getting and spending, they considered it an important first step in restoring balance and sanity to the American way of life. “We can never make life simple,” Bok confessed, “but we can make it simpler than we do.”

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