Early in the twentieth century a midwesterner named LaRue Brown, doubtless speaking for many young men of his day, commented disparagingly on the distance between reality and the images presented in contemporary popular media. He announced in a letter to his sweetheart, Dorothy Kirchway, that he "greatly preferred to marry a human woman and not an abstraction from the Ladies' Home Journal." 1 This sentiment certainly makes sense in its personal context. Who would choose to marry an abstraction? But probing beneath the surface of Brown's pronouncement reveals questions of fundamental importance in our culture today.
Is it indeed possible, for example, to make a clear distinction between a "human" or "real" person and the "abstractions" that media convey? What exactly is the content of the gender abstractions conveyed by magazines like the Ladies' Home Journal? How do commercial media images affect the gender construction of women and men in a given culture or time? Is gender construction a significantly different process for women than for men? Just how is gender construction negotiated in everyday life?
This study explores these complex and critical issues by attending first to a more straightforward question. Why would a young man like LaRue Brown refer specifically to the Ladies' Home Journal when bemoaning abstractions about womanhood? The answer is clear: the Ladies' Home Journal, founded by Cyrus Curtis and Louisa Knapp Curtis in 1883, was a magazine of undisputed importance from its earliest days. Originally conceived as a newspaper supplement designed to appeal to women, the Journal developed in a few short years into the largest-selling magazine in the United States. It served as a prototype for other commercial magazines with its low price and heavy reliance on advertising for revenue. In 1903 the Journal became the first magazine in the world to surpass a million in paid circulation. The magazine's producers estimated, not unfairly, that by the 1910s one in every five American women was reading the Journal.
LaRue Brown therefore in all likelihood singled out the Ladies' Home Journal for comment because it was a familiar and enormously popular periodical in his day. The Journal's popularity takes on a larger meaning for the historian, since it served as a forerunner and prototype of the female-targeted mass-circulation magazines that continue to thrive today. Exploring the reasons for the success of the Ladies' Home Journal goes a long way toward explain