DeWitt Wallace

DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981), American publisher, was the founder of Reader's Digest, one of the world's largest-selling magazines.

DeWitt Wallace was born on November 12, 1889, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father was on the faculty (and later president) of Macalester College. DeWitt attended Macalester from 1907 to 1909 but, finding life there too confining, transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. He returned to St. Paul in 1912 and was hired by a publishing firm specializing in farming literature. Much of the company's information was provided without cost by federal and state agencies. Wallace compiled a list of the available public documents, added his own comments, and published the result in 1916 in a pamphlet entitled Getting the Most Out of Farming. Acting as his own salesman, Wallace sold nearly 100,000 copies, primarily to rural bankers who offered it to their customers as a promotional device.

When America entered World War I Wallace enlisted in the Army, was sent to France, and in 1918 was seriously wounded in action near Verdun. Wallace passed the hours in a French military hospital editing superfluous words from magazine articles, preparing himself for his next publishing venture—Reader's Digest.

For six months in 1919 Wallace was a constant visitor to the periodical room of the Minneapolis Public Library. He pored through a host of magazines, seeking out those articles that still retained general interest even ten years after publication. The chosen few were then carefully condensed. By January 1920 he had prepared a sample issue of the Reader's Digest," 31 Articles Each Month From Leading Magazines, Each Article of Enduring Value and Interest, In Condensed and Permanent Form." The sample contained all of the essential elements that would make the Reader's Digest a world-wide success. Unlike most magazines of the day, the Digest contained no fiction, for it was envisioned as a service for busy readers who wanted hard facts conveyed quickly, clearly, and concisely. Wallace edited the Digest to speak directly to the concerns of the average reader, skillfully blending stories of human interest, down-to-earth advice, and good-natured humor. The Digest frankly acknowledged the world's problems but remained ever-confident of their eventual solution.

Wallace's initial plans for the Reader's Digest were, in retrospect, quite modest. He offered to give his idea to any publisher who would make him editor of the new magazine. But even on those generous terms no one was interested. So, as a last resort, he decided to publish the Digest himself. A small office was rented in New York City's Greenwich Village and hundreds of circulars were sent out to potential subscribers. His sole partner then, and in the years to come, was Lila Bell Acheson, the sister of a Macalester classmate. The couple were married in October 1921. When they returned from their honeymoon some 1,500 orders awaited them.

The first official edition of Reader's Digest appeared in February 1922. Most magazine publishers readily granted re-publication rights, for they considered a credit in the Digest a form of free advertising for their periodicals. In its early years the Digest itself carried no advertising and was sold solely by subscription. On that basis the magazine grew slowly, but steadily. In 1922 Wallace was able to move the company to its permanent headquarters in Pleas-antville, New York. Three years later the Digest had a circulation of 20,000 copies. The real growth of the Reader's Digest did not come until it was sold on the nation's newsstands, but Wallace did not take that step until 1929. He feared that other magazines, sensing new competition, would no longer grant reprint rights. Most of the major periodicals, however, continued with the Digest (some for a fee), and by the end of 1929 circulation had climbed over 100,000.

Wallace constantly adjusted his editorial product to meet the needs of his rapidly growing readership. For example, in February 1933 the Digest began presenting signed, original articles. In time the magazine would produce over half of its own material. As the Digest grew in size and influence it inevitably attracted its share of critics. Some scorned the Digest's brand of condensed English; others objected to its alleged conservative political bias.

Yet the Reader's Digest did have its crusading moments. It was one of the first major periodicals (in 1954) to link cigarette smoking and cancer, and it frequently attacked unfair business practices. The Digest's most famous article, "…And Sudden Death," published in August 1935, graphically portrayed the hazards of reckless driving. It became the most widely reprinted article in magazine history, with four million copies in circulation.

By the end of the 1930s Reader's Digest was moving into the international market. A British edition was produced in 1938, to be followed by editions in Spanish (1940), Portuguese (1942), Swedish (1943), and, eventually, most of the world's major languages. The foreign editions carried advertising from their inception. The American edition followed suit in 1955, but only after Wallace, in typical fashion, had first surveyed the likely reaction of his readers. Wallace, meanwhile, was reaching out into other areas of publishing, usually successfully. The Reader's Digest Book Club, for example, offered its members quarterly volumes of condensed books, primarily current novels. When the club started in 1950 it had 183,000 subscribers; in four years there were two and a half million.

Wallace gradually began to withdraw from the active management of the company in the mid-1960s, although he remained as chairman of the board until 1973. He died on March 30, 1981. At the time of his death over 30 million copies of Reader's Digest were being sold every month to readers in 163 countries.


Further Reading on DeWitt Wallace

The biography of DeWitt Wallace, a man who long shunned publicity, is inseparable from the story of his great creation, Reader's Digest. James Playsted Wood, Of Lasting Interest: The Story of the Reader's Digest (1967) was written with the cooperation of the magazine's management. Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr., The Condensed World of the Reader's Digest (1977) is a sometimes critical insider's view of Wallace and life at the Digest.

Additional Biography Sources

Heidenry, John, Theirs was the kingdom: Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the story of the Reader's digest, New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.