A longtime editor of the influential magazine The Ladies' Home Journal, Edward W. Bok (1863-1930) embodied the ideals of Progressive Era America. Espousing free enterprise, civic responsibility, and the ideals of American womanhood, Bok was one of the best-known magazine editors of his day. He also wrote a series of books which included his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok.
Ahousehold name in America during his editorship of The Ladies' Home Journal from 1889 until 1919, Edward W. Bok built the magazine into one of the most successful publications of its era. Moreover, Bok used his position to encourage a number of reforms ranging from civic beautification to sex education. He also used his pulpit to speak out on issues that included Americanization programs for immigrants, a limited role for women in the nation's political life, and the continued promise of free enterprise to alleviate the problems of poverty. In his retirement, Bok maintained his high profile by writing a series of books, one of which, The Americanization of Edward Bok, won the Joseph Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Bok was also actively engaged in philanthropic work throughout his life. In addition to endowing professorships in literature and government, he also sponsored the American Peace Prize to encourage the participation of the United States in international affairs. Bok died in 1930, but his legacy lived on through his sons, one of whom served on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, and his grandson, Derek Bok, who was named president of Harvard University in 1971.
Emigrated from The Netherlands
Edward William Bok was born on October 9, 1863 in the Dutch city of Helder. The Boks were one of the leading families of the Netherlands: Edward's grandfather served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court and his father, William J.H. Bok, was a well connected diplomatic figure in the Dutch government. Unfortunately, Bok's father lost much of the family's fortune with a series of bad investment decisions. Seeking a fresh start, the family moved to the United States when Bok was six years old. Making their new home in Brooklyn, New York, Bok and his younger brother were enrolled in the city's public schools, even though they did not speak English. Later writing of the difficulty in adjusting to his new life as an American schoolboy, Bok referred bitterly to this experience as the beginning of his Americanization.
With the constant financial difficulties of his family, Bok contributed to the family coffers by performing whatever odd tasks would bring in some money. The strain on the family became so great that at the age of thirteen Bok left school for good to work as a messenger for Western Union. As he recalled in his book Twice Thirty, "There was no choice. My father, a stranger to American ways, could not readjust himself at his age to the new conditions of a strange country. My mother had not the health to endure housework; she had not been brought up to it. There was nothing for us boys to do but to get out and help to make the domestic machinery run a bit easier." Indeed, his father, who never achieved the success he had hoped for in America, died when Bok was eighteen, leaving the two sons to support their mother. By that time, Bok had decided to enter into a career in publishing. The ambitious young man began reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle in addition to taking classes to sharpen his office skills. After working as a stenographer for the New York publishing house of Henry Hold and Company in 1882, Bok started to edit the Brooklyn Review, a magazine affiliated with the Plymouth Church of renown minister Henry Ward Beecher. Taking advantage of his connection to the famous preacher, he founded the Bok Syndicate Press in 1886 to sell feature articles that included essays by Beecher. Adding to his responsibilities, Bok also worked for another New York publishing house, one founded by Charles Scribner. Bok rose to the position of head of advertising at Scribner's; still in his early twenties, it seemed that the once poor immigrant was a true American success story.
Success with The Ladies' Home Journal
In 1889 the young advertising director was offered a position as head of the editorial and art departments at a new magazine, The Ladies' Home Journal. The magazine had first appeared as a supplement to the weekly Tribune and Farmer, a journal aimed squarely at the rural market. Its founders, Cyrus and Louisa (Knapp) Curtis, expanded the supplemental women's section into the Ladies' Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper in December 1883 and by 1889 the magazine had about 440,000 subscribers. Eventually, the magazine dropped the "Practical Housekeeper" from its name. The Curtises decided to refocus their publication away from its rural audience and appeal to the growing middle-class, urban market.
Bok's first challenge at The Ladies' Home Journal was to reshape the magazine into a far more prestigious publication than it was perceived to be. He actively solicited advertisements for luxury products while gradually purging the pages of solicitations for products such as patent medicines of dubious medical value. Bok and the Curtises also attempted to link the magazine with the wealthiest families in urban centers across the United States in their presentations to advertisers. The efforts paid off, and The Ladies' Home Journal quickly cast off its image as a rural publication aimed at farmers' wives. Once the image makeover had been substantially completed, the publishing team worked at increasing its circulation to reach a broader urban and suburban audience. In 1891 The Ladies' Home Journal reached the 600,000 mark in paid subscriptions; the figure passed one million subscribers in 1903. By fashioning itself into an upper-class publication accessible to the mass market, the magazine became one of the first to capture a middle-class readership aspiring for upward mobility and respectability.
With the groundbreaking success of The Ladies' Home Journal, Bok became something of legend in the magazine field by the time he was thirty years old. He married Louise Curtis, the daughter of Cyrus and Louisa Curtis, on October 22, 1896. Making their home in the Philadelphia area, the center of Curtis Publications, the young couple raised two sons: William Curtis Bok was born in 1897 and Cary William Bok arrived in 1905. The elder son, who went by his middle name, eventually served on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and was the father of Derek Bok, who became the president of Harvard University in 1971.
Typified Progressive Era America
As an influential magazine editor and frequent contributor to The Ladies' Home Journal, Bok typified many of the sentiments of the Progressive Era of American history, a period that spanned the years from 1890 to World War I. At a time of explosive growth, as immigrants arrived by the hundreds of thousands, many Americans were concerned at the possible effects on the social, economic, and political life of the country. The far-reaching effects of industrialization and mass marketing also seemed to threaten the established social order. In response, Progressive Era leaders called for a variety of reforms; although few argued for a fundamental overhaul of American institutions, the period was nevertheless marked by a nationwide preoccupation with reform measures.
Considering the target audience of his magazine, Bok was especially concerned with the role of women in American life and their participation in keeping the country safe and sound in a turbulent era. Like many of his contemporaries, Bok esteemed the American woman as a source of morality and virtue in the nation's life through her role as mother and wife, a point of view that later historians described as the cult of true womanhood. Notwithstanding the moral authority of American women, however, Bok did not believe that women should play an active role in public life. He opposed extending the vote to women; as he wrote (in the third person) in The Americanization of Edward Bok, "He felt that American women were not ready to exercise the privilege intelligently and that their mental attitude was against it." Indeed, Bok favored the idea of noblesse oblige, or leadership by the privileged for the benefit of the masses, when it came to governance. Writing in Twice Thirty, Bok stated, "Those who were born under favorable conditions should be leaders of men and the doers of things, provided they take their America right and see its people truly."
Although he had become a citizen as a child at the time of his father's naturalization, Bok's attitude toward other immigrants was a contradictory one. He always took pride in his Dutch heritage, writing about it at length in his personal reminiscences. However, Bok was convinced that other immigrant groups posed a threat to American life, especially to native-born women and children. He expressed concern, for example, that foreign-born men such as Greek vendors could take sexual advantage of American women, and that Irish-born nannies did not have the innate control over their temperaments to raise American children properly. Despite these misgivings, however, Bok avoided most of the worst ethnic stereotyping of the day. Indeed, as a magazine that steered clear of the most controversial topics, The Ladies' Home Journal rarely covered inflammatory subjects such as race relations, prison reform, or poverty. One typical call for reform included demands for better labeling laws in food and drugs to assure consumers of their purity. Other appeals attempted to convince communities to undertake civic beautification drives and to reform the public schools. An exceptional reform crusade in Bok's final decade as editor was his encouraging of educators to take up sex education as a civic responsibility and to safeguard the health of women and children.
Won the Pulitzer Prize
In the wake of World War I, Bok's persistent calls for reform fell out of step with the times. With Americans retreating from international involvement after the war, many sensed that the era of domestic reform had also ended. Stepping down from the editorship of The Ladies' Home Journal in 1919, Bok's passage also seemed to mark the end of an era. However, he did not disappear from public sight once his days as an editor were over; if anything, his role as a reformer picked up pace in the last decade of his life.
In 1921 Bok published The Americanization of Edward Bok, an autobiography that topped the bestseller lists. Bok also received the Joseph Pulitzer Prize for his book, which recounted the author's many triumphs over adversity through hard work, persistence, and optimism. Indeed, the entire tome read as an homage to the free enterprise system and the ability of individuals to become successful by taking advantage of their own talents in the land of opportunity. Bok followed the prize-winning volume with another book of autobiographical sketches, Twice Thirty, which was regarded as somewhat more revealing of the author's life.
In 1923 Bok donated $100,000 to the American Peace Prize, a contest to develop a plan that would engage America in international affairs and prevent another world war. Bok also donated money to endow professorships at Princeton University and Williams College, and undertook philanthropic efforts to beautify the city of Philadelphia. He spent much of his retirement time in Florida, where he created a nature preserve in Lake Wales that opened in 1929. One year after the dedication of the preserve, Bok died in Lake Wales on January 9, 1930.
Bok, Edward W., The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1921.
Bok, Edward W., Twice Thirty: Some Short and Simple Annals of the Road, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Steinberg, Salme Harju, Reformer in the Marketplace: Edward W. Bok and The Ladies' Home Journal, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Saturday Evening Post, September-October 2001.
"Edward William Bok: Founder of Bok Tower Gardens," Bok Tower Gardens Web Site, http: //www.boktower.org/bok.html (October 23, 2001).