Reading magazines from the early 1960s can show you not only how life has changed since then, but also how magazines themselves have changed. Laura Vanderkam has an interesting story in City magazine called Journey Through the Checkout Racks that looks at how women’s magazines (Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Ladies Home Journal) have evolved. What’s particular striking is how erudite they once were.
“Flip through the weighty 50-year-old issues, and youâ€™ll soon feel, literally, a massive cultural shift in what women expect from their periodicals,” writes Vanderkam. “In 1963, consuming a magazine could take days. Early that year, Good Housekeeping serialized Daphne du Maurierâ€™s novel of the French Revolution, The Glass-Blowers, cramming much of it into a mere three issues. In May, GH ran a large portion of Edmund Fullerâ€™s novel The Corridor, a feat that required stretching the magazine to 274 text-heavy pages. Redbookâ€™s March 1963 issue featured Hortense Calisherâ€™s novel Textures of Life and five short stories, a level of fiction ambition that even The New Yorker rarely attempts now.”
And serious nonfiction was offered to readers as well. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, credited with starting a new wave of feminism, was excerpted in the pages of Ladies Home Journal. In 1963, Redbook ran a story about a doctor who decided to leave Cuba after becoming disillusioned with with the socialist revolution, Vanderkam writes. “Redbookâ€™s January 1963 issue provides further evidence that the editors of womenâ€™s magazines felt no fear of controversial topics. The previous year, actress Sherri Finkbine had famously traveled to Sweden for an abortion after learning that thalidomide might have injured her unborn child. Redbookâ€™s top cover line, HOW THALIDOMIDE TURNED A PREGNANCY INTO A NIGHTMARE: SHERRI FINKBINEâ€™S OWN STORY, pointed the reader to a lengthy article called â€œThe Baby We Didnâ€™t Dare to Have.â€ The editorsâ€™ note in that issue discussed efforts to legalize abortionâ€”following up, the editors noted, on a report in Redbookâ€™s August 1959 issue about how many doctors broke abortion laws. The magazine was trying to shape the national conversation.”
It’s a very interesting story. Vanderkam’s analysis shows us how lives have unexpectedly changed over the past half century, and contrary to our beliefs how much they really haven’t. One way readers’ priorities have changed is clear, writes Vanderkam; they no longer seem “to include spending all day reading a magazine.”