‘How America Lives’ by Ladies Home Journal

It is a shame that it is so little remembered these days, but for two decades, Ladies Home Journal — the first magazine in America to reach over a million subscribers — ran monthly photoessays on American family starting in 1940 until the 1960s.

Launched by the editor Mary Bass, “How America Lives” series (HAL) reported on ‘typical’ families in detail: from how it raised its children, participated in community activities, and voted in elections to how it budgeted its money, made ends meet, and coped with crises such as illness and financial troubles. It hired established photographers to spend up to one week living with a family, collecting intimate snapshots and gathering data about their daily affairs. Each photographer was asked to create spontaneous, everyday scenes that readers could recognize from their own lives.

In its inaugural essay, the Journal promised:

All sections of these sea-to-sea United States will be there, all income groups, from the $1000-a-year farmer to the $25,000-a-year city big shot

Ladies HOME JOURNAL, FEB 1940

And it was true to its word.

In 1940, it profiled the wealthy Guthries of Dallas, Texas, noting that “1.1% of American families have an income of $10,000 or more”. The following month, it presented the family of a Detroit auto worker with the footnote that “17.6% of American families have an income between $1250 and $1750”. Through its pages, the magazine’s eight million subscribers got intimate looks into the life of a Supreme Court justice: William Orville and Mildred Riddle Douglas posed for the magazine in 1943. In late 1950, Edith and Roland Powers, farmers from Magic Valley, Idaho are featured back to back with Katherine and Todd Karns of Hollywood, California (Karns was a famous actor who played Jimmy Stewart’s brother Harry in “It’s a Wonderful Life”).

The Journal was not above staging scenes in their studios: it sometimes provided makeovers to homes and gave family members new clothes to wear. The Journal fixed up “their kitchens, their budgets or their personalities — whichever is in worst repair”, complained an amused Time magazine, which also skeptically noted that the families never reported to the Journal spending anything for liquor.

By modern standards, HAL was not particularly diverse, mainly focusing on white families and a handful of recent immigrant families (for instance, Italian-Americans in New York). In 1953, twelve men profiled had occupations ranging from minister to carpenter, from professional basketball player (Jack McCloskey) to cotton-field worker, but all of their wives except one were ‘homemarkers’ (the exception was one women who worked a part-time job as a substitute teacher).

But it was subversive and opinionated in its own ways. It profiled a prominent black Philadelphia family in 1942 where the father was the first black doctor to ever head a U.S. Army hospital (circulation dropped by 200,000 subscribers in the South and the magazine received thousands of angry letters). In March 1952 issue, accompanying glamorous photos of Morris Engel were words by Betty Hannah Hoffman who described the wife’s discontentment as a housewife, “the house resembles a whirling carousel of multiples of three: since the babies arrived two years ago, Arvella has practically never escaped from it.” In the October 1958 issue, a financially well-off working mother was profiled, and she stated “I work because I like to – not because I have to. Does that mean I’m not a good mother? Some of my friends think so.”

Many essays which ran in the magazine were memorable. This post features two of them, both with photos by Fons Ianelli.

From March 1947: Profile of a soft coal mining family in Harlan County, Kentucky. Five days a week, 54 year old Jim Perkins folded his 5’11″ body into a space scarcely 34 inches high at Yokum Creek Coal Company’s mines. Jim called it “brutish work,” and lamented: “I been crawlin’ in those mines for forty-two years now. I’m all broke up.” His wife Alice and their seven children resided in a decrepit shack without running water. Neither parent made it past fifth grade, and while “Jim says he would like to see his kids educated…the problem of getting them to school defeats him.”

Both Jim and his oldest son had tuberculosis, a disease so rampant in Harlan County that “two in
every hundred school children have active tuberculosis.” Jim described the life of a miner as “ a man settin’ between two hills with nothing to see but a tramcar goin’ up and down, and no entertainment or nothin’.” Fonn Lannelli’s photos showed Jim laying on his side in the dark, narrow mine, Alice hunched over washing laundry by hand, and Jim playing with his children. The story received praise from United Mine Workers Journal for revealing “by all odds the best picturization of life as coal miners are forced to live that has ever appeared in a magazine of national importance.”

From March 1948: profiling Tom Sullivan, an industrial worker, and his wife, Dorothy, and their four children, under the omnious and touching headline: “The Sullivan Struggle”. The caption under the lead photo read: “Here are Dotty, Patsy, Karen from what might be called a cobblers-eye view. These bottoms-up present six reasons why the Sullivans wont get rich,” and the article noted the hand-to-mouth existence of the urban poor like the Sullivans who struggled to save with three kids in tow.

When Bass envisioned HAL in 1940, the series was supposed to run for one year. It ran for 20. It was widely admired and during the Second World War, America’s war department used local versions of the photo essays to “contextualize” the American soldiers who were coming to Europe for local residents. After the war, the magazine and John G. Morris, a respected journalist and photo-editor, would collaborate to put together “People are People the World Over,” a version of HAL on the global scale, which would in turn inspired Edward Steichen’s famed ”Family of Man” exhibition.

Hoffman started working on her first “How America Lives” assignment in 1944 and went on to over fifty HAL pieces, including that of the coal mining above. She remembered: “After a particular family had been picked, I would spend a week observing and interviewing them and then the Journal editors would arrive and redo their kitchens and yard and fences and finances.”

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34 thoughts on “‘How America Lives’ by Ladies Home Journal

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