History of Reader's Digest Magazine Part 2

About the major reference guide the Reader's Digest magazine, history of the company's growth in publishing.

The Story behind READER'S DIGEST

Volume 1, No. 1, was sent to some 5,000 brave readers who had been willing to risk the $3 subscription fee, and who were in turn exhorted to show the new magazine to their friends. Fillers throughout the issue emphasized its usefulness: "Knowledge means power; the well-informed man is the strong man." One article described Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and David Lloyd George as men who read and asked questions in a never-ending search for facts. It was soft sell, but sustained soft sell. It was also desperately necessary, for most of the Wallaces' capital had been absorbed by the first issue, what was left would be plowed into the second, and unless additional funds came in immediately, DeWitt and Lila Bell's great venture would fail.

But it did not fail. The little magazine that could be slipped into a pocket or a pocketbook or lined up on the family bookshelves, that was quick and easy reading, and that--by offering the "best" selections from the "most important" magazines--was a two-bit bargain to boot, started on an upward spiral of success that has done nothing but escalate for more than half a century. Which is not to say that it became a conglomerate right away. The young editors, who transported their operation from New York City to a garage-apartment-plus-pony-shed in Pleasantville, N.Y., the first year, divided the editorial duties between them. They also wrote their own promotional copy, and themselves addressed, stamped, and carted it all off to the little Pleasantville post office.

By the fourth year, the Wallaces were forced to employ a business manager (their first full-time employee) and abandon the pony shed. They rented space above the post office. The payroll grew, and they rented two floors above a bank; then three more floors above yet another bank. Circulation doubled, redoubled, doubled again.

Shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, DeWitt Wallace implemented the first major departure from his original plan--he placed the Digest on newsstands. This move set him in more direct competition with his source periodicals, and inspired two more modifications. First, he contracted with his major source publications for exclusive rights to reprint, say, one article a month, at a blanket fee; and second, he initiated the practice of creating original material for his publication. This in turn led to yet another interesting development employed frequently since and viewed with suspicion by the journalistic world: that of assigning a full-length article on a particular subject, arranging for it to be published in another publication, and then condensing it for the Digest--and footing the entire bill.

The 1930s saw the arrival of various Digest feature departments, such as "Toward More Picturesque Speech" and "Drama in Real Life." Reader participation began with the submission of humorous fillers and "Most Unforgettable Character" stories. Book condensations began to appear. But the big change of the decade was one of which probably many Digest readers were quite unaware--the move from crowded little Pleasantville to the large new red-brick structure built (under Mrs. Wallace's direction) in colonial Williamsburg style 7 mi. to the north. Surrounded by 80 acres of farm and woodland, the three-story building was imposing on the outside, bright and spacious inside. An extensive, if hastily assembled, art collection--mostly the French Impressionists and more recent artists--graced the halls and reception rooms; the offices of the editorial upper echelon were paneled and furnished with costly antiques. The landscaping, too, was a model of proficient management; full-grown oaks and beech trees (sprayed with paraffin to prevent moisture loss during transplanting) appeared overnight, and what was an empty knoll one day was an apple orchard the next. It was all rather like a Digest success story come to life.

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