History of Reader's Digest Magazine Part 1

About the major reference guide the Reader's Digest magazine, history and publication of the first issue.

The Story behind READER'S DIGEST

History: Reader's Digest was conceived on a summer night in a hayfield bunkhouse in Montana when a young man by the name of DeWitt Wallace, a disenchanted "preacher's kid" and college dropout who had been scratching out a meager living by publishing an agricultural digest for farmers, asked himself why he could not do the same with general articles from leading magazines for a wider public.

The time was 1916. W.W. I intervened, but the project was revived two years later in the unlikely location of a hospital in Aix-les-Bains, France, where Sergeant Wallace spent four months convalescing from shrapnel wounds. American magazines were plentifully supplied, and Wallace devoured them eagerly. There were dozens in print at the time, but in his opinion, only half the material was worth reading, and most of that was much too long. Americans were busy people with little spare time. Surely they would welcome a publication which offered them only the most pertinent articles on subjects of enduring interest, carefully condensed so that each one could be easily absorbed over a morning cup of coffee.

Back in the U.S., the young veteran set to work. Every day for six months he went to the Minneapolis Public Library, selected a magazine, focused on one article from it, and attempted to cut that article by as much as three quarters while still retaining the substance and the author's style. Six months later he felt satisfied that he was ready to launch his trial balloon. From his practice condensations, he selected 31 with the most universal appeal--one for each day of a typical month. These he had printed up in a pocket-size format which he called, simply, Reader's Digest.

Wallace was elated with his pilot issue, but the leading magazine publishers to whom he shipped copies--in the hope they would fund the venture and hire him as editor--reacted with complete disinterest. The only encouraging reply came from William Randolph Hearst, who thought it might in time reach a circulation of 300,000--respectable, but too limited for him to consider. Fortunately for the disconsolate Wallace, however, a beautiful and talented young woman by the name of Lila Bell Acheson entered his life at this point. Wallace showed her his beloved Digest. "I knew right away," she later reported, "that it was a gorgeous idea."

The established publishers having failed him, Wallace determined to go directly to the subscribers. A mail-order circular was devised, lists of potential subscribers were compiled, and appeals were mailed. By the time DeWitt and Lila Bell were married (October, 1921, in Pleasantville, N.Y.), an office had been rented in a basement room under a Greenwich Village speakeasy, and the responses were pouring in.

The first issue of Reader's Digest, which appeared in February, 1922, was unpretentious enough; 62 pages of print (no illustrations or advertisements) with a cover of the same white paper stock used inside. DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Acheson were listed as coeditors. The lovely line drawing of a Beardsley-type woman writing on a scroll with a huge pen which adorned the cover was an ornament the printer happened to have in his case. Inside, the opening article was "How to Keep Young Mentally." This was followed by such diverse selections as "Love--Luxury or Necessity?" "Watch Your Dog and Be Wise," "Whatever Is New for Women Is Wrong," and "Is the Stage Too Vulgar?" (It was.)

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