If I thought of them at all, I thought of magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping as light reading in a doctor’s waiting room, an occasional source of recipes. I never thought of them as Progressive Era forces for social reform, alongside the movements for prohibition and suffrage.
Middle-class women around 1900 organized to protect home and family. They battled corruption that threatened health, safety, and sanitation. Women’s magazines pioneered investigative journalism to inform and promote these efforts.
Unscrupulous vendors peddled quack remedies promising to cure every ailment. In response, in 1892 the Ladies’ Home Journal became the first magazine to refuse medical advertising. It compelled Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to reveal its ingredients and eliminate the morphine. The editor published the ingredients of other patent medicines and hired a journalist-lawyer to investigate abuses. Other periodicals followed suit, building public pressure to regulate drugs.
No law required labeling the contents of packaged foods. Good Housekeeping published articles about hazardous food colorings and preservatives, such as formaldehyde in infant formula. It opened an experiment station in 1900 (later called the Good Housekeeping Institute) to test products and issue consumer alerts. The magazine campaigned for a national pure food law and advised readers how to add their voices.
Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Women’s magazines had been laying the groundwork for years.
5/10/2021 09:56:08 am
Thanks for the very interesting history lesson. It puts a whole other view of "women's magazines" compared to purely for entertainment and fashion.
5/10/2021 05:01:20 pm
Yes, Dennis. I'm a little embarrassed by how thoroughly I have tended to belittle them over the years.
Very interesting, Sarah! I'm curious whether the campaign was led by readers, by a writer for the magazine, or the magazine itself. Could be all of the above, I suppose. I'm glad the mags were daring enough to print the articles. Sounds like they were influential!
5/11/2021 08:11:24 am
The lead came from the magazine editors, who were male. (Those were the days when men ran women's colleges, most businesses targeted to women, etc.) However, their women readers built up interest among the men (e.g. husbands) who could vote. Some general interest magazines such as McClure's took up the crusade too, but the women's magazines started it.
5/15/2021 06:10:25 am
Fascinating, Sarah! I confess that I never even browse through the women's magazines at the check-out counter. Do they still feature some investigative journalism similar to what you describe here?
5/15/2021 06:40:27 am
Must confess I don't browse through them either, except occasionally in a doctor or dentist waiting room. It seems they do less than in the early to mid 1900s, perhaps driven by ads. Good Housekeeping still does product testing. But there is also a bias against women's magazines that can push people who want serious journalistic careers to steer clear of them.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.