Jessie Raymond: Some things don't change

The other day at an antique shop I bought an old magazine: the May 1905 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal.

What a trip.

Times may have changed, but in general, people — and magazines — haven’t. Who would have thought that as far back as 114 years ago, women were complaining about skirts not having pockets?

Just as they do today, people fawned over the rich and famous. A pictorial in the magazine, titled “Kate Douglas Wiggin as She Really Is,” followed a normal day in the life of the glamorous Wiggin, famed author of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” (I googled her). Today, Instagram users would call her an “influencer.”

Seemingly oblivious to the camera (though she likely had to hold each pose for many seconds), Wiggin is captured, among other just-a-regular-person activities, reading her mail on her front steps and working in the garden — in a full-length, long-sleeved, high-necked, corseted white dress, an enormous hat perched atop her upswept hair.

Stars. They’re just like us.

The magazine had a reader-contributed humor section with the deceptive tagline “The Brightest Things of All Times That People Have Laughed Over.”

One example of a 1905 knee-slapper: A widower tells a henpecked male friend how hard it is to lose a wife.

“Hard?” says the poor husband. “Why, man, it’s impossible!”


Maybe people weren’t funny back then. More likely, the editors worried that if lady readers laughed too hard, they’d pop their corset stays. Safer to keep the material at the faint-smirk level. 

As is typical, there was an article on budgeting. A newlywed couple said they spent $5 a week on food. This seemed pretty low, but it turns out their weekly income was only $19. Needless to say, they didn’t have a Netflix subscription.

An article about rural women earning “pin money” over the summer included someone who had supposedly made $41 — a killing, back in the day — just by selling home-canned tomatoes. 

The catch: She sold 42 dozen jars.

Last Saturday I spent a whole day and destroyed my kitchen to can six pints, so I can’t fathom how she could have processed 504 jars in her spare time. And she probably did it while wearing a full-length, long-sleeved, high-necked, corseted white dress and humongous hat, as she imagined the fabulous but down-to-earth Kate Douglas Wiggin would.

While most of the departments focused on women’s concerns of the time — altering clothing, weaning babies, living a fulfilled life without WiFi — the advertising was even more informative.

It indicated that in 1905 people were cooking and lighting their homes with gas, eating Jell-O (and the long-forgotten “Bro-Man-Gel-On dessert jelly”) and keeping their perishables in ice-cooled refrigerators. Indoor plumbing was a novelty. 

Ads for horse-drawn buggies and carriages outnumbered those of automobiles three to one (with cars costing $1,500 or so, nearly twice our newlyweds’ annual salary), and parlor pianos were the hottest item of the day.

Refinishing wood was all the rage; every few pages, ads showed lovely young ladies, in Wiggin-inspired tight-waisted long white dresses, gaily varnishing their newel posts. (Not shown: ladies passing out soon after from a combination of noxious fumes and corset-constricted diaphragms.)

As women’s magazines tend to do, this one romanticized daily life, but not enough for me to want to go back to 1905. The opening editorial, by former president Grover Cleveland, urged women to drop all this nonsense about voting rights, which, he explained, would distract them from being good wives and mothers.

And in a poll of husbands on the ideal number of children in a family, one man casually suggested having twice as many as you wanted to end up with, what with that pesky 50 percent child mortality rate.

Good grief.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since 1905. But people are just as shallow and envious of fame as ever, and magazines haven’t stopped depicting beautiful lifestyles that don’t really exist. Still, I think I prefer 2019. 

If nothing else, I’m glad the corset has gone out of fashion. I have a hard enough time canning tomatoes as it is.

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