Information from the Past and into the Present, Part 1

(Historical perspectives of the Reader's Digest)

The Beginning of the Reader's Digest

At its peak in 1984, more than seventeen million readers in the United States subscribed to the publication, which reached another eleven million readers through its nineteen foreign-language editions.

Since its beginning, Reader's Digest has adhered to a simple formula of appealing to time-pressed readers by reprinting condensed versions of articles that have appeared in other publications.

The formula for this monthly magazine has remained unchanged for eighty years: approximately thirty condensed articles each issue (one for each day of the month), together with short, humorous stories contributed by readers in such departments as "Life in These United States," "Laughter Is the Best Medicine," and "Humor in Uniform."

During the Cold War (1945¨¢89), articles often denounced the evils of communism and criticized groups; such as, the National Council of Churches for being too liberal, even radical.

Over the years, Reader's Digest published serious yet simplified articles about important medical and social issues like venereal disease, cancer, the dangers of cigarettes, and unsafe driving.

Founders of the Reader's Digest

Reader's Digest was founded by William Roy DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981), a salesman; and his wife, Lila Acheson (1887-1984), who established the "Reader's Digest Association" in 1921 in the New York City suburb of Pleasantville, where its headquarters is still located.

No advertising appeared in the magazine until 1955, when surveys indicated that readers would prefer ads to an increase in subscription fees. The magazine has never accepted tobacco advertising and ran its first liquor advertisement only in 1979.

Not until 1921, did Dewitt Wallace have an opportunity to get into the business of reselling U. S. magazine material condensed to about a quarter of its original length.
—David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace

By the late 1990s, the magazine's domestic circulation had fallen to 12.5 million. Its publishers were forced to initiate cost-cutting measures that included layoffs of employees and a redesign of the magazine.

Not until 1921, when Westinghouse let onetime Sergeant Wallace out of a press agent's job, did he have an actual chance to get into the business of reselling U. S. magazine material condensed to about a quarter of its original length.

The first issue of Reader's Digest, which appeared in February, 1922, was not all that outstanding; 62 pages of print (no illustrations or advertisements) with a cover of the same white paper stock which was used inside.

DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Acheson were listed as coeditors and inside, the opening article was "How to Keep Young Mentally." This was followed by such diverse selections as "Love—Luxury or Necessity?" "Watch Your Dog and Be Wise," "Whatever Is New for Women Is Wrong," and "Is the Stage Too Vulgar?"

The first office of Reader's Digest was in Manhattan and the first staff consisted of Publisher Wallace and his wife.

Their magazine promptly prospered beyond the Wallaces' wildest hopes, moved in 1923 to suburban Pleasantville, N. Y. where it flourished further.

Such success was made possible by the original willingness of U. S. magazines to grant Publisher Wallace reprint rights in return for a Reader's Digest credit line.

Later, Wallace started to pay something for his material in money as well as publicity as soon as he started to make some income for himself.

—Compiled from information located in
The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. History and
Reader's Digest History, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online and
DeWitt Wallace, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

For other sources of Information from the Past and into the Present,
see this Information Index page.