American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 14.2 (2004) 179-211
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"This is YOUR Magazine":
Domesticity, Agrarianism, and The Farmer's Wife
Janet Galligani Casey
A wise man once said that a farmer has two particularly important decisions to make if he wants to succeed in his life as a farmer. The first decision must be made when he chooses the land which he proposes to farm. The second decision, even more important, comes when he chooses a wife.
"[Recent] agricultural movements have been distinctively masculine," wrote Kenyon L. Butterfield, President of the American Country Life Association, in 1926. "The time is surely coming, however, when the farm women will demand some chance of expression for their interests as farm women."1 To be sure, Butterfield knew of what he spoke. Beginning in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt created the Commission on Country Life, attempts to revivify an agrarian ideal perceived to be dying had been decidedly male-dominated. Roosevelt's Commission consisted entirely of men, and while its recommendations for improving rural standards of living did not enjoy Congressional support, the popular organizations it spawned had a great deal of influence over agricultural reform and images of country living—all of which tended to confirm farming as an essentially male enterprise in which women played a supporting role. Even "progressive" efforts aimed at women, such as the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which led to the USDA's Extension Service and the controversial effort to teach rural women improved methods of mothering and housewifery, generated complaints from farm women that they were being patronized.2 The established perspective—from the inside or the outside— [End Page 179] concerning the needs and desires of rural Americans was overwhelmingly masculinist.
But Butterfield's prediction that rural women would find new avenues for expression overlooked the fact that they had already found at least one, and that its impact was pronounced. The Farmer's Wife magazine, a monthly published in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1905 to 1939, was the sole agricultural periodical pitched entirely to farm women,and its visibility was considerable:3 it had well over one million subscribers nationally by 1930, with readership estimates reaching as high as five readers for every copy.4 Established as the sister magazine of The Farmer, a prominent men's agricultural journal, it shared many of the same writers and editors while nonetheless maintaining a resolutely separate, feminine, identity. Its folksy, colloquial tone distinguished it from the glossier women's journals while nonetheless assuring readers that they, too, were worthy aspirants to a bourgeois respectability, a combination that is essential to understanding its uniqueness. Despite carrying its share of recipes, childrearing tips, and sentimental poems and stories—the stuff of women's magazines generally, and typical of the single "women's page" included in most farm journals devoted to men—The Farmer's Wife was exceptional in important ways within the contexts of both (men's) agricultural periodicals and more mainstream periodicals devoted to women.
This essay, based on a close reading of the magazine's entire print run, attempts not only to explore this exceptionality, but also to suggest The Farmer's Wife's value for rural sociology (a discipline that arose, notably, in response to the era's intense attention to agricultural issues).5 The recovery of The Farmer's Wife is made necessary by its relative neglect in both agricultural histories and the history of American periodicals, an oversight that is difficult to explain given its apparent popularity. The Webb Company of St. Paul, publisher of The Farmer's Wife until it was sold in 1939 to the Farm Journal (which incorporated it as an internal section, discontinuing its independent identity), appears to have downplayed the role of the magazine in its own celebrated publishing history, and standard compilations of American periodicals make only passing reference to it.6 Its cessation in 1939 was quite sudden and...