(The following article originally appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of the now-defunct alternative Lower East Side weekly, Downtown. Between 2007 and its recent bankruptcy, Reader’s Digest has been owned by Citigroup board member Tim Collins’ Ripplewood Holdings’ private investment/leveraged buy-out firm. See below for parts 1 to 6 of article).
Reader’s Digest was first published in February 1922 by DeWitt “Wally” Wallace and his wife, Lila Acheson Wallace, after a $5,000 [in 1920s money] loan from Mrs. Wallace’s brother—Barclay Acheson—was obtained. The initial issue consisted of 31 articles which the then-32-year-old “Wally” had clipped from old magazines in the public library, and then condensed for his own magazine’s use.
The son of a Minnesota college president, DeWitt Wallace was from St. Paul, Minnesota and “belonged to an elite that had virtually nothing in common with the masses who were to be his future audience,” according to Theirs Was The Kingdom by John Heidenry. But the same book also asserted that during the 1920s the Reader’s Digest publisher “packed his magazine with articles pandering to the most reactionary elements among his readers” and by 1929 the adless magazine’s circulation had reached 216,000, “thanks to relentless direct-mail solicitations.” Between 1922 and the 1990s, the corporate headquarters of Reader’s Digest was always located in the Pleasantville-Chappaqua area of Westchester County, in suburban New York.
The Magazine In America: 1741-1990 reference book attributed the Reader’s Digest’s almost immediate success in attracting subscribers in part to the fact that “Wallace was offering his customers the `best’ from the periodical press, shortened to an easy length…for a bargain price.” But, according to Theirs Was The Kingdom, “a critical factor in the Digest’s…prosperity was that Wally paid nothing for the articles he selected and condensed from other publications—in other words, the entire contents of his magazine” and “Wally for years limited his direct mail promotion to points beyond a 500-mile radius of New York” so “no editor or publisher was likely to…discover that it was stealing copyrighted material wholesale.”
The same book also recalled that “for the first eight years of its existence, DeWitt Wallace took great care to hide the extraordinary success of his magazine” and “since it did not carry advertising, he did not have to submit to an annual circulation audit.” Among the articles the Reader’s Digest published during the Roaring Twenties was an article in its January 1926 issue which was entitled “The Klan: Defender of Americanism” and the magazine also exhibited “an almost rabid hostility towards immigrants and Catholics” during the 1920s and 1930s, according to Theirs Was The Kingdom. The Reader’s Digest also was profitable enough to start publishing an edition in Braille for the visually-impaired in 1928. (end of part 7)