"BLACK EYES": Popular Magazines of the Early 20th Century
by Lesley-Anne McLeod


In January of 1916, a young girl from Kindersley, Saskatchewan, code-named "Black Eyes" received the following advice in a magazine column:
"You are making too many problems of your association with young men.  Take them as they come and give them up as they go and you will have ever so much more peace of mind.  Only one ever amounts to very much, anyway, and lots of times he isn't so very much, unless it is trouble."

Black Eyes had written to "Cousin Marion" who conducted the "Talks with Girls" column of Comfort magazine.  She was among thousands who wrote every month. 
Comfort, an American publication from Augusta, Maine, had a circulation of over 1,000,000 in 1900 and continued its growth into the 1930's. It was one of hundreds of magazines available by subscription to families such as Black Eyes'.  Reading was prime entertainment in the long, dim fall and winter evenings of the early 1900"s especially in farm homes.

There was a large number of Canadian and American publications directed at the rural audience.  They all offered a similar mix of farm information, family advice, fiction, and mail order advertisements.  Comfort had something for everyone in Black Eyes' family.  In addition to "Talks with Girls", Black Eyes might read "The Pretty Girls' Club".  Her young brothers would find something to build in "A Corner for Boys".  Her father might find "The Modern Farmer" column of interest, and "Veterinary Information" was a regular feature.  There were several things for Mother.  "Poultry Farming for Women" appeared every month, as did "In and Around the Home", a fancywork page.  There were short articles with titles such as "When Baby Has Spasms".  Of interest to all were features like "Help on the Movement for Nation-Wide Prohibition"! 

The Family Herald was the Canadian equivalent of Comfort.  Publication of the Family Herald began July 2, 1869 and continued for a hundred years.  It also included features and regular departments.  Its colouring contests and pen pal column are still remembered. 

Similar columns and articles appeared in the other publications that Black Eyes' family might receive.  The Farmer's Advocate and Home Journal, out of Winnipeg, supplied suggestions in columns entitled "Horse and Stock", "The Dairy", and for the ladies, "Ingle Nook".  In 1912, The Farmers' Mail and Breeze from Topeka, Kansas, suggested in headlines "Ten Million Hogs Wanted" and predicted "An Immense Crop Loss Near".

The Omaha Daily News, with a wide circulation in the Canadian and American West, offered a 'Sunday Magazine and Story Section" which would entertain with articles such as "Ornaments for Evening Gowns" and stories like "The Strange Case of Cavendish".  In 1923, the Western Producer joined the reading list in rural homes, and continues the tradition today.

In the early years, subscriptions to these magazines and papers varied from 35 cents to a dollar a year.  Bonuses such as books were given to those who bought subscriptions, and premiums were offered to those who sold subscriptions.  The advertisements look remarkably similar to those in today's magazines.  There are complexion remedies, and cures for smokers, offers for life insurance and mail order catalogues.  Red Rose and Blue Ribbon tea are advertised in the Farmer's Advocate and Home Journal of 1920, and the latest in motor cars is exhibited in them all. These general papers, and others such as Farm and Fireside and later the Toronto Star Weekly were the most popular reading material for Black Eyes' family and countless others, rural and urban.

However there were magazines that specialized.  For the family that enjoyed rousing fiction there was Good Stories and Argosy, and for more serious literature, the Saturday Evening Post.

For Black Eyes' and her mother, there was the Home Journal called, after 1910, the
Canadian Home Journal.  Everywoman's World, which only began in 1914 had the highest circulation in Canada by 1917, but disappeared in 1922.  From the U. S. came an inexpensive alternative, Hearth and Home.  It was another publication, like Comfort, from the Vickery and Hill Publishing Company of Augusta, Maine.  In addition there were the American glossies, for those who could afford them: Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Woman's Home Companion and Harper's Bazaar.  They all carried handicraft and dressmaking  patterns, recipes and advice.  Articles on child care, and special sections for young readers shared space.  The Woman's Home Companion of February 1916 offered such diverse articles as "The Business Woman's Health", "The Housework Boycott", and "The Right Use of Books". By contrast, the 'Picture Section', a photographic feature, offered "Love Scenes from the Films".  These magazines would be passed on to Black Eyes' grandmother down the road, and then travel around the neighbourhood in exchange for other people's favourites.

Black Eyes' father could spend a great deal of time and money on reading, if he wished.  There were many publications directed solely to him.  The American Magazine, which began with a family orientation, specialized as a men's magazine from 1915 to about 1923.  There was Motor, which covered all the new wonders of automobiles, and
Everyday Mechanics which would  help him repair them.  Popular Science Monthly, which began in 1872, continued to flourish.  In June, 1924, it offered articles on an apparatus for transmitting pictures by radio and "Equipment for Auto-Camping in Comfort"!

There is one striking difference between today's publications and those of the early part of the century.  In the early magazines and papers editorials are blunt and confident.  There is no reluctance to state opinions.  Advice columns did not hesitate to point out 'errors' and offered correction without indecision. There was no vacillation or doubt about the right way of life. Patriotism and duty were clear to all and scrupulously held up for emulation in fiction and articles.  Life was clear-cut, black and white.

It all ended with the advent first of radio, and then of television.  Over 200 Canadian magazines disappeared in the 40 years after 1920.  In rural areas, waiting for electricity, it took a little longer but leisure time, once dedicated to reading, was shared with the new entertainers.  With the spread of the automobile and the telephone the world of Black Eyes and her family changed.  The hey-day of popular literature was over.

© Lesley-Anne McLeod 1988
Permission granted for personal use only. Email request for other permission.