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When 'Good Housekeeping' Was Almost A, Well, Social Movement

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Vol. 3 of 'Good Housekeeping,' May 15, 1886 to October 30,1886
Holyoke Public Library
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How different did the United States map look in the late 19th Century? Galveston was the biggest city in Texas. Providence was larger than Atlanta—and Holyoke, Mass. was more populous than San Antonio, Seattle and Los Angeles, growing from 3,000 people when it was founded in 1850 to 22,000 in 1880.

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Holyoke circa 1885
Holyoke Public Library

Driving this boom in population—and wealth—was paper. Two hundred tons a day were being produced in Holyoke by 1880. As a result, an active publishing industry had sprung up, attracting folks like New York-born Clark W. Bryan.
 
Today, if you spotted at the grocery store checkout aisle, among the latest issues of People, Vogue, and The National Enquirer, a shiny edition of Good Housekeeping, it would probably come as no surprise to you. What might surprise you is that magazine’s provenance. It’s been in publication for well over a century, longer than The New Yorker, National Geographic—even Readers Digest. And unlike those venerable periodicals, it didn’t launch in New York City or Washington, but in Holyoke.

"Bryan was a major publisher," said Eileen Crosby, archivist and head of the History Room at the Holyoke Public Library. "He had several publications, including trade journals for the paper industry and then these more popular publications."

On May 2, 1885, Bryan launched a new endeavor: Good Housekeeping. A bi-monthly family journal, part “private enterprise,” part “public duty,” with a mission to “perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household,” he heralded its arrival with an announcement in the local paper, clarifying what it wasn’t …
 
"It is not to be a bi-monthly cook book," the ad read.
 
… and what it was:
 
"There are other duties to be performed and other achievements to be attained in household life of as much if not greater importance to the higher life of the household than cooking."
 
At the Holyoke Library History Room, Crosby pages through some of their bound copies of the earliest issues of Good Housekeeping.
 
It’s not a purely commercial endeavor, I don’t think, because there’s very little advertising in the early Good Housekeeping," she said. "The articles are very long—that’s one thing that strikes you."
 
Despite Bryan’s claims, Crosby says the are still plenty of recipes. But perusing the pages she also sees much of Bryan’s pursuit of the household’s “higher life.”
 
"There are articles on methods of cleaning, small pieces on child rearing with an emphasis on girls, there’s some sociology in here really, this article is about housekeeping in Honduras," she said. "There are sections on home remedies, and chapters on caring for the sick, on physical well being, on healthy food."
 
It was a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and changing women’s roles in society. And in this artifact of the times, Crosby sees evidence of all that, and an effort to—as she puts it—professionalize housekeeping.
 
"What keeps coming to the surface is instruction that is backed up by science or research," she said. "We can’t say really if there was a demand for instructions on dusting the house or if the writers believed that people needed instruction in this, that women needed instruction, right?"
 
Still, the magazine sold. And within a few years, Bryan moved operations to Springfield and sold out to a publisher who doubled down on his mission, launching the Good Housekeeping Institute in 1900. Here, all products featured in the magazine—including those of advertisers—were extensively tested and given a full money-back guarantee, the famed Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
 
As for the man that started it all, little is really known about him. At the library are two obituaries which note his accomplishments, and his tragic end. Following the death of his son and wife, he committed suicide. On his body was found a hand-penned poem:
 
"Weak and weary, heavy laden / sad and lonely, sick and sore / Heath and strength both surely failing / Life with me had best be o’er."
 
But his journal still lives on—albeit a wholly different publication for a different time. Still, says Crosby, there’s much to be learned looking back through the dusty old pages of these century old magazines.
 
"It’s not remotely obsolete," she said. "In fact, I think it’s more important to bring history alive for people, because they can get information about the past on their computers, but they can’t really feel it. There’s a tactile dimension to experiencing history that’s very powerful."

If you have a tale of hidden Massachusetts history—or there is something that you’re just plain curious about—let us know. Email curiositydesk@wgbh.org. We might just look into it for you.

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