Curtis Publishing Company records
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
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Cyrus H. K. Curtis (1850-1933), who came to Philadelphia in 1876 to witness the Centennial celebration, was attracted to the city and returned there to launch his career as a publisher. Curtis began publishing a weekly periodical called Tribune and Farmer, which featured a column devoted to women's interests. Curtis's wife, Louisa Knapp (d. 1910) took over the writing of this column and the column grew to become a publication in itself. With Louisa Knapp as editor, Curtis started publishing the Ladies' Home Journal in 1883. Curtis recognized that the women's field offered a great opportunity for building up circulation and advertising volume-his chief interests in publishing. In the early years of publishing Ladies' Home Journal Curtis travelled to the homes of authors whose work he wanted to publish in his then little-known magazine, but, in general, for this publication and later, with the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman, Curtis left the editorial work entirely to his editors. Louisa Knapp had great success with Ladies' Home Journal which she edited in her home while raising their only child, Mary Louise. By 1889 the Journal had half a million subscribers and Edward W. Bok (1863-1930) took over as editor-in-chief, remaining in that position until 1919.
Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis was named for his father, Cyrus, and for a close friend of his father's, Hermann Kotzschmar, who was a musician and organist for the First Parish Congregationalist-Unitarian Church in Portland, Maine for forty-seven years. Cyrus Curtis admired his namesake and taught himself to pick out tunes on the keyboard by ear. Over the years he became adept at improvising on the organ, although beyond the basics he could not read music. He retained this early love of music throughout his life, and always had an organ in his home. Years later Curtis built a magnificent organ in the Portland, Maine city hall as a memorial to Hermann Kotzschmar.
Born and raised in Portland, Cyrus began his career at the age of twelve as a newsboy. When he was fifteen, he published a boy's paper called Young America, buying a press for $2.50 in order to have control over the printing of the paper. He later worked as a salesman in the dry goods business and at the age of nineteen moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he worked in the advertising and newspaper business.
In Boston, Curtis met Louisa Knapp, a lively and intelligent woman who had worked as a private secretary with Dr. Samuel G. Howe and Julia Ward Howe. Louisa Knapp and Cyrus Curtis shared an interest in music as well as journalism. She had a powerful contralto voice and her services as a vocalist were in demand. Before they formally met, Cyrus sang in the Boston choir for the World's Peace Jubilee in 1872, as did Louisa. They were married in 1875. The partnership between Cyrus Curtis and Louisa Knapp was described by Edward W. Bok: "From the moment of their marriage they became in fact and in spirit equal partners in their determination to find a place in the sun" (Bok, 1923). Bok's marriage to Cyrus and Louisa's daughter took place in 1896, therefore he had the perspective of a son-in-law as well as that of a business partner. Mary Louise Curtis Bok founded the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1924 in memory of her mother, who died in 1910.
The Ladies' Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper (the early title) was published at 433-435 Arch Street in Philadelphia in a building erected in the summer of 1887. Due to the magazine's large and expanding circulation, Curtis became an innovator in the use of new typesetting machines and automation for the mailing list. By 1891 the business had grown to the point that Curtis formed a stock company in Camden, New Jersey, the predecessor of the Curtis Publishing Company which was organized under this name in Pennsylvania in 1907.
Once the Ladies' Home Journal was well established, Curtis began to look for new areas for expansion. In the summer of 1897 two men entered Curtis's office and informed him of the death of the owner of the Saturday Evening Post, then a Philadelphia weekly with a small circulation. Curtis offered the men $1000 for the paper, type and all. Curtis was intrigued by the genealogy of this paper which was published as the Pennsylvania Gazette by Benjamin Franklin in 1729. The paper changed hands several times and the name had been changed to the Saturday Evening Post in 1821. Curtis hired a young reporter from the Boston Post, George Horace Lorimer (1869-1936), as his literary editor for the new magazine. Lorimer was given a free hand to edit the weekly, which was initially conceived as a "men's magazine." He published the work of the top literary figures of the day including Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, Alice Duer Miller, and Owen Wister. Curtis invested over $1,250,000 in the magazine before it began to show a profit, but once the Saturday Evening Post caught on its circulation increased dramatically-by 1906 it reached one million.
For both Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post and all of his other publications to come, Cyrus H. K. Curtis insisted on a policy of refusing questionable advertising. He began this policy by refusing to publish advertising for patent medicines in Ladies' Home Journal in the 1890s at a time when these products were widely advertised with no restrictions or accountability for the claims they made. Curtis was an advocate for the Pure Food and Drug Acts and was an early innovator in testing products that were advertised in his publications. He built his publications on selling advertising and felt strongly that his advertising must be honest, wholesome, and believable. One of many examples of this policy can be found in the 1912 Curtis Advertising Code which states that no advertising for tobacco would be accepted in Ladies' Home Journal.
Curtis built a new office and printing plant for the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal on Independence Square in Philadelphia, beginning construction of the building in 1909 and completing it in 1911. Made of marble shipped from Maine, with mosaic murals in the lobby designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Tiffany, and with Tiffany stained-glass windows, it was a magnificent building, occupying a complete city block and featuring the latest equipment for printing and mailing magazines.
Realizing that with his new facility he could publish three magazines for little more overhead expense than for two, in 1911 Cyrus H. K. Curtis purchased Country Gentleman, one of the oldest agricultural periodicals. It was first published as the Genesee Farmer in 1831 in Rochester, New York. Curtis moved the publication from Albany, New York to Philadelphia, and on July 6, 1911, the first issue in its new format appeared. In support of this acquisition, Curtis Publishing Company conducted a number of marketing research studies in the agricultural field beginning with its first such study, "Agricultural Implements" (1911). Research studies were made on farm tractors, feeds and fertilizers, and the importance of rural towns as markets. The editorial content of Country Gentleman was broadened to include fiction, paintings by outstanding artists and illustrators, and a section of the magazine called "The Country Gentlewoman" devoted to the interests of farm women and girls.
The Curtis Publishing Company's establishment of a Division of Commercial Research as part of its Advertising Department in 1911 was a revolutionary step. Charles Coolidge Parlin (1898-) was selected to head the new division and invented not only the scope and technique of the new activity but also its name, "commercial research." This was the first marketing research operation in the United States. Parlin pioneered interviewing techniques-surveying consumers, wholesalers and dealers in his efforts to pinpoint the effective uses of advertising for specific products and markets. Parlin's staff analyzed the contents of pantries and studied household trash in order to get information on brand names that were being purchased. In addition to his studies on agricultural commodities and markets, Parlin's research was directed to automobiles (including women's influence in purchasing automobiles), department stores, food products, appliances, and, in later years, insurance, radio, television, and aviation.
In January 1913, Curtis purchased Philadelphia's daily newspaper the Public Ledger, and in September 1914 started the Evening Public Ledger, capitalizing on the public's hunger for news of World War I.
On June 25, 1915, the company bought the Curtis Country Club which was used for annual company picnics and for recreation for employees and their families who chose to become members. The in-house publication, Curtis Folks, documents celebrations and activities at the club during the prosperous early 1920s. Featuring human interest news about the thousands of Curtis employees, this magazine is a good source for information about working people and racial segregation in Philadelphia during this period. The country club was sold in 1925, and subsequently was acquired by the Melrose Country Club.
In 1927 Curtis's support was enlisted to head up the campaign to raise funds for a memorial to Benjamin Franklin. The project decided upon was the construction of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to which Cyrus Curtis contributed $1,985,000. This technological museum featured, among its many exhibits, an area devoted to showing the development of the art of printing from papermaking, to electrotyping, photoengraving and binding. Cyrus H. K. Curtis died on June 7, 1933, just a few months before the new Franklin Institute building opened to the public, and just a few months before the cumulative gross advertising revenue of his magazines reached the one billion dollar mark.
In 1946 Curtis Publishing Company began construction of a massive new printing plant located in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The first spadeful of earth was turned by Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist, the daughter of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, who married violinist Efrem Zimbalist (1889-1985) after her husband Edward Bok's death. The new plant contained equipment that Curtis Publishing itself had initiated and developed including the first successful four-color web perfecting, two side printing presses. In 1946 Curtis Publishing also introduced a new travel magazine, Holiday, added to the other successful Curtis publications which by this time included Jack and Jill, a children's magazine that was introduced in 1938.
With all its successes, the Curtis Publishing Company faced tremendous changes in the advertising market in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of television. In 1955 the Curtis Publishing Company sold Country Gentleman to Farm Journal, Inc., and the publication was merged with Farm Journal. Poor management lead to the collapse of the company by the end of the 1960s. Saturday Evening Post ceased publication in 1969, and Ladies' Home Journal was sold.
The story of the end of the Curtis Publishing empire is told in a number of books written by some of the key people who were involved, among these are Decline and Fall by Otto Friedrich (1969), The Curtis-Culligan Story by Matthew J. Culligan (1970), The Curtis Affair by Martin S. Ackerman (1970), and The Curtis Caper by Joseph C. Goulden (1965).
- Curtis Publishing Company
- Ladies' Home Journal
- Saturday Evening Post
- Country Gentleman.
- Parlin, Charles C. q(Charles Coolidge), d1898-
- Youker, Henry Sherwood
The Records of the Curtis Publishing Company housed by the University of Pennsylvania fall into three major categories, plus a residual category of a small amount of historical material:
- Ladies' Home Journal circa 1887-1946: correspondence, financial records, and a small amount of historical material related to the publication.
- Division of Commercial Research, Advertising Department: research reports, speeches, and statistical studies directed by Charles Coolidge Parlin, his associates and successors ca. 1911-1960
- serials: in-house publications of the Curtis Company ca. 1913-1957.
- historical material, scrapbooks, and memorabilia.
With the exception of a few items of memorabilia, the earliest material in the Curtis Publishing Company records at the University of Pennsylvania does not cover the period when Ladies' Home Journal was edited by Louisa Knapp. The financial records, books of remittances for Ladies' Home Journal date from 1889, the year Edward W. Bok became editor of the Journal. The correspondence of managing editor William V. Alexander begins 10 years later, dating from 1899-1911.
The collection contains only a few items of correspondence dated after 1911 and does not include material related to the editorial content of Saturday Evening Post or Country Gentleman. The second section of the records is the largest: the work of the Advertising Department and its Division of Commercial Research from 1911-1945. These early marketing research studies contain valuable information about the towns and cities in which the research took place. In some of the studies, Charles C. Parlin and his associates attempted to interview every household in the community. Parlin's development of interviewing techniques is of interest to sociologists, anthropologists, folklorists, and others who undertake ethnographic interviewing. The collection of Charles C. Parlin's speeches is also a valuable resource for tracing the development of advertising for specific products.
The Curtis Publishing Company produced a number of in-house newsletters and magazines for employees which offer an inside look at the company for the period 1913-1954. Of particular interest are newsletters published during World War II.
There are a few items of historic interest in the collection in the final series. These include a damaged scrapbook with dates from ca. 1880 when Curtis was publishing Tribune and Farmer to the early years of Ladies' Home Journal.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Margaret Kruesi
- Finding Aid Date
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