Is Founded

By condensing high-quality articles and information from a variety of sources, Reader’s Digest carved a niche in the highly competitive media market and became the world’s most widely read periodical.

Summary of Event

Several high-quality magazines and newspapers were published in the United States prior to World War I, but the majority of Americans lacked the time to read and the money to purchase the wide variety of publications available to them each month. In addition, a number of magazines were unavailable to the general public, as they were obtainable only in libraries. Believing that American readers could benefit from access to scaled-down versions of such publications, DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila Bell Acheson, founded Reader’s Digest, a magazine that grew to become the world’s most widely read publication. Magazines;Reader’s Digest[Readers Digest]
Reader’s Digest (magazine)[Readers Digest]
[kw]Reader’s Digest Is Founded (Feb., 1922)[Readers Digest Is Founded (Feb., 1922)]
Magazines;Reader’s Digest[Readers Digest]
Reader’s Digest (magazine)[Readers Digest]
[g]United States;Feb., 1922: Reader’s Digest Is Founded[05550]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Feb., 1922: Reader’s Digest Is Founded[05550]
Wallace, DeWitt
Acheson, Lila Bell

Wallace began a hobby of clipping and editing (or “digesting”) articles from magazines while in college. He read through numerous publications looking for interesting articles and then edited the material down to highlight the main points. He found that he could retain the theme or main point of an article while eliminating many of the details. After college, Wallace entered the publishing business, going to work at the Webb Publishing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. World War I cut short any plans Wallace had for pursuing his career, however. Later, while recovering from shrapnel wounds incurred in combat in France, he dove into his dream. He wanted to start a monthly magazine designed to highlight, in condensed, digested form, the wealth of information available to readers. He used his time in the hospital to select and edit articles from numerous publications, aided by the fact that many publishers provided free copies of magazines to soldiers. He looked for articles with inspirational and constructive content, reflecting his Presbyterian background, and selected those that contained elements of “lasting interest.”

Upon his return to the United States, Wallace devoted himself to finding a publisher for his digest, hoping that when he did, the publisher would keep him on as editor. He created a dummy issue of Reader’s Digest dated January, 1920, that included articles from Woman’s Home Companion, The New Republic, and Vanity Fair and then canvassed the publishing industry. He received only one positive comment, that the magazine might make a profit of five thousand dollars per year. No publisher, however, would back his efforts.

Undaunted by this lack of support, Wallace continued to digest articles and look for means to get his idea out to the public. He compiled numerous mailing lists and sent circulars to friends as well as to teachers, nurses, and others, hoping to sell charter subscriptions for his time-saving and economical magazine. He targeted working women because he believed they would appreciate the time-saving quality of the magazine. On October 15, 1921, Wallace married Lila Bell Acheson. In one last effort to launch the magazine, the couple mailed more than one thousand circulars on their wedding day. They returned from their honeymoon to find fifteen hundred charter subscriptions at three dollars each. Reader’s Digest was born.

Volume 1, number 1, of Reader’s Digest was dated February, 1922. It opened with “How to Keep Young Mentally” and contained, as it stated, “An article a day from leading magazines in condensed, permanent booklet form.” Printed on cheap paper, it had no color, no illustrations, and no advertisements. Subscription holders became charter members of the Reader’s Digest Association, with the magazine provided as a “service” to them. Wallace and Acheson headed the publication as cofounders, coeditors, and co-owners. Acheson kept her maiden name on the masthead until 1938.

The magazine’s subscription base grew dramatically. Continued mailings of circulars and word-of-mouth publicity increased the demand for the magazine throughout its early years. Wallace worked at the New York Public Library to save money on the magazines that provided material. The couple lived and worked in a small apartment over a garage in Greenwich Village. By the end of 1922, their work on the magazine had become too big for their apartment, and they moved to Pleasantville, about forty miles north of New York City.

Wallace remained aware that his magazine relied on material that was produced in other publications. He wrote to publishers and editors, asking for permission to reprint from their magazines. Many publishers saw the publicity benefits of this use of their material and gladly gave their permission. One reluctant voice came from George Horace Lorimer Lorimer, George Horace of the Saturday Evening Post, which had a standing order that reprint permission was not given for article excerpts of more than five hundred words. Wallace, undaunted by the challenge, made a personal visit to Lorimer and so impressed him that Lorimer made an exception to the rule. Reader’s Digest was able to grow and profit because of the generosity of the editors and publishers who allowed Wallace to condense their works free of charge. He never forgot that generosity. By the 1930’s, as the magazine began to show a profit, he started sending money to surprised editors for the articles he used.

This friendly relationship with other publications stemmed from the fact that Reader’s Digest was available only through subscriptions sold as a service to members; the source magazines were not in direct newsstand competition with it. Increased competition in the industry, however, led Wallace to arrange for S-M News Company to sell single copies of Reader’s Digest at retail outlets beginning in 1929. This led some magazine publishers to resist having their contents reprinted. Wallace quickly turned the situation around by emphasizing the publicity the source magazines received. His efforts resulted in exclusive reprint rights from thirty-five leading American magazines.


Following World War I, numerous new publications began disseminating a flood of information across the United States. Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and Fortune, for example, started soon after the war. It was during this period of growth that Reader’s Digest was founded. By the 1930’s, the digest was well established, with circulation reaching almost 2.5 million by 1937.

The early editorial staff of Reader’s Digest came from a variety of disciplines. It was not until 1930 that the first professional editors came on board. After that time, editors included Ivy League graduates and former editors of such publications as American Mercury and The New Republic. Original articles, rather than only condensed versions of previously published articles, began to appear in 1933. At the same time, special departments, which later became regular features, developed from reader materials. These included “Life in These United States” and “Drama in Everyday Life.” The Wallaces expanded the magazine to 128 pages and added condensed books to their publications a year later. By 1939, the magazine’s staff had grown to fill a new $1.5 million office building in Chappaqua, New York.

The successful digest format used by the Wallaces was imitated throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. Titles such as Negro Digest, Catholic Digest, and Children’s Digest appeared. Reader’s Digest set the standard for editing, and these other magazines found success by targeting their articles to specific groups.

In addition to setting a standard within the publishing industry, Reader’s Digest also set standards as an employer. Writers received a monthly stipend to keep them on retainer, and editors were consulted about the future of the magazine. Employees were paid well and received good benefits, such as vacation time, profit sharing, and medical insurance. Retirement programs were a key benefit. Added compensation in these forms was unusual in a country facing the Great Depression. The Wallaces, however, sought to create a positive working environment in terms of both benefits and aesthetics. Lila Wallace decorated the grounds of the office building to be soothing to the eye, and the corporate offices featured artworks by the masters.

The editorial policy that Wallace established for himself when he was first choosing articles remained intact as the magazine grew. Articles for consideration should be quotable, applicable, and “of lasting interest” to readers. Material was edited with the average reader, not a specialized audience, in mind. Jokes, at first used only as filler, became an integral part of the publication. Although Reader’s Digest contained no editorial pages, within its covers attacks were waged on expansive government, big business, and advertising. Wallace, although an avid smoker himself, recognized the importance of public awareness concerning the dangers of cigarette smoking. Reader’s Digest therefore spoke against the practice. The magazine also had the power to persuade positively—an article about a Connecticut housewife and her baking helped Pepperidge Farms to enter the food market.

Perhaps the most phenomenal effect ever brought about by a magazine occurred with the August, 1935, issue of Reader’s Digest, which included an original piece by J. C. Furnas titled “—And Sudden Death.” This graphic and realistic depiction of highway accidents spoke to American readers. The article was reprinted in whole or in part in virtually every large U.S. newspaper. Radio programs and civic groups devoted entire events to the topic, and a short motion picture was made concerning highway safety. A comic strip geared toward young drivers appeared, and reprints of the article were given to motorists at tollbooths and at driver licensing bureaus. Most important, transportation agencies established task forces and committees to work for improved highway conditions. How Americans drove was brought to their attention; one study concluded that accidents fell by 13 percent soon after the article appeared in Reader’s Digest. Within three months, the article went through more than four million reprints. This article began the magazine’s reputation for public service. Later articles on medical and employment issues, among others, also called for action.

Taking the American success of Reader’s Digest to other countries and into other languages proved to be another important move for the publication. Barclay Acheson, Acheson, Barclay Lila’s brother, guided Reader’s Digest as head of the international editions until his death in 1957. He helped move the magazine beyond American borders as foreign editions developed. In 1938, a British version became the first foreign edition. In 1940, a Spanish-language edition was published, and others followed in French, German, Italian, Arabic, and Chinese.

By the 1980’s, more than 160 countries and sixteen languages were represented by various editions. These editions stimulated the economies of the countries in which they were published, through the business they provided editorial and printing facilities, while they also served as interpreters of American life. Through its pages, Reader’s Digest displayed the morality, hopes, and concerns of the American public to the rest of the world as an unofficial ambassador. In addition, Braille editions (the first in 1928) and talking records opened the magazine’s pages to the blind and visually impaired.

Despite their successes, the Wallaces worked within the publishing industry and so were subject to its problems. During the 1940’s, circulation of Reader’s Digest had climbed to more than nine million, with the cover price still at twenty-five cents, the 1922 cost. Paper, printing, and postal expenses, however, had skyrocketed. In 1954, the magazine faced a deficit of more than a million dollars. The options were to increase the cover price or to accept advertising. Wallace took the debate to his “members,” the readers, and more than 81 percent favored the acceptance of advertising. In April, 1955, Reader’s Digest began including thirty-two pages of advertising in each issue, with strict rules against ads for liquor, tobacco, and medical remedies. Charging $31,000 for a full-color page, the highest ad rate of any magazine, the Wallaces expected marginal sales. Instead, they sold several million dollars’ worth of ad space, proving that the magazine could maintain its integrity concerning certain practices. As a result, the magazine expanded to 216 glossy pages with full-color illustrations.

The Wallaces were not content to work solely on the monthly publication, and they expanded their business throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, even as other publications such as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post succumbed to competition. In 1950, they began the Condensed Book Club, Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club[Readers Digest Condensed Book Club] drawing more than five million subscribers. Records, textbooks, and school readers as well as dictionaries and almanacs with the Reader’s Digest name also appeared in the 1950’s. A complete history and geography, These United States, came out in 1968 after the Reader’s Digest Association purchased Funk & Wagnalls in 1965. The 1960’s also saw the introduction of the successful Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes. Other publications made money by selling their subscription lists to outside businesses for promotions, but the Wallaces maintained strict control over their lists and used them only for internal purposes and promotions. This practice stemmed from their initial stance that subscribers were members of their association and the magazine was a service to them.

By the 1960’s, the Wallaces turned their attention to the coming decades. Advancing age left them with the task of finding a successor to oversee their successful publication. In 1964, Hobart D. Lewis Lewis, Hobart D. filled the newly created position of president; he later became the magazine’s first editor in chief, in 1969. The Wallaces left the publication in the early 1970’s, turning it over to Lewis’s direction. They maintained their ties to Reader’s Digest throughout their later years, however, as they continued their philanthropic work in support of education and the arts, especially New York City’s Metropolitan Museum.

Reader’s Digest maintained its position as the most-read magazine in the world throughout the twentieth century. By the early 1990’s, more than nineteen million copies were coming off the presses each month. International editions increased the total to more than twenty-eight million. Only TV Guide and Parade, two weekly publications, had monthly totals that were higher. Readers remained loyal, with a subscription renewal rate that fluctuated from 64 to 80 percent, almost double the industry average. Although in subsequent years readership in the United States declined, to about twelve to thirteen million copies per month in the early 2000’s, Reader’s Digest remained the most popular general magazine published in the United States. Unlike the majority of American magazines, which rely on specific readership bases, Reader’s Digest cut across socioeconomic boundaries for its success. Historians have referred to Reader’s Digest as the “common denominator” of American life. Magazines;Reader’s Digest[Readers Digest]
Reader’s Digest (magazine)[Readers Digest]

Further Reading

  • Abrahamson, David. Magazine-Made America: The Cultural Transformation of the Postwar Periodical. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1996. Focuses on changes in the American magazine industry since World War II, particularly the 1960’s. Examines the reasons for the decline of general-interest publications and the rise of specialized periodicals aimed at narrow audiences.
  • Bainbridge, John. Little Wonder: Or, The Reader’s Digest and How It Grew. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946. Expanded version of a 1945 article that appeared in The New Yorker discusses the history of Reader’s Digest during its first twenty-three years. Amusing account analyzes the magazine’s methods, subject matter, and format and concludes that its stupendous success resulted from the optimism and dogmatism of Wallace himself.
  • Cheever, Benjamin H. “Bad Days in Pleasantville.” The Nation 250 (May 7, 1990): 628-631. Laments the change in Reader’s Digest since 1984, when the original owners died and the organization was taken over by George Grune, who slashed worker benefits and gave himself an enormous salary, all in the name of running a profitable business in the savage style of the 1980’s.
  • Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964. The standard history of U.S. magazines. A well-researched and detailed look at the popular magazines on the market. An excellent reference work.
  • Rovit, Earl. “Modernism and Three Magazines: An Editorial Revolution.” Sewanee Review 93 (Fall, 1985): 540-553. A study of Wallace and Reader’s Digest, Henry R. Luce and Time, and Harold Ross and The New Yorker. Argues that all three magazines sprang from a common 1920’s impulse that contradicts the notion that the “lost generation” writers were emblematic of the period.
  • Schreiner, Samuel, Jr. The Condensed World of the “Reader’s Digest.” New York: Stein & Day, 1977. Former Reader’s Digest editor labels the magazine’s optimism excessive and its style bland. Asserts that Wallace ran the magazine in a paternalistic manner and criticizes some of the magazine’s practices, such as the ghostwriting of articles for famous people. Also praises the magazine for its professionalism and commitment to accuracy and the Wallaces for their philanthropic endeavors.
  • Sharp, Joanne P. Condensing the Cold War: “Reader’s Digest” and American Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Examines how Reader’s Digest, with its vast readership, influenced the thinking of the American public in regard to the threat of communism during the Cold War period.
  • Taft, William H. American Magazines for the 1980s. New York: Hastings House, 1982. A well-researched look at the magazine industry as it entered the 1980’s and faced increased competition from other media. Categorizes magazine titles by interest and genre and discusses the entire industry’s advertising, publishing, and distribution networks.
  • Tebbel, John, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America, 1741-1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Provides a good understanding of the effect the magazine industry has had on the American public. Discusses how magazines have changed with the times and why some have succeeded while others have failed.
  • Wood, James Playsted. Magazines in the United States. 3d ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1971. Considered to be one of the definitive studies of the magazine industry. Provides social and economic information on magazines and follows the industry’s leaders. Chapter 18, “Common Denominator,” presents a detailed history of Reader’s Digest.
  • _______. Of Lasting Interest: The Story of “Reader’s Digest.” Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. An outgrowth of forty articles in the Christian Science Monitor written with the full support of Reader’s Digest. Highly laudatory and colorful account examines many different facets of the magazine, including its founding, original articles, editorial research and process, subject matter, international editions, advertising, and circulation. Includes photographs.

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