Still Here

This last year found me doing something I don’t usually do—namely, working on a couple of projects that aren’t set in the 19th century (gasp!) One of those projects is a story set in the United States in 1917, just as the country has entered World War I on the Allies’ side.

Now, the cool thing about working on a story set in the 20th century is that there’s even more of a wealth of research material than there is for the 19th, my beloved Ackermann’s Repository notwithstanding. My favorite research medium for details of everyday life in other times is magazines. As with any historical source, one has to be careful. Magazines often portray life in an idealized manner—how their readers want to see themselves and their lives rather than how they really are. But even so, they’re a rich source of the kind of details of everyday life that it’s hard to find elsewhere.

So I’ve accumulated a tidy stack of back-issues of several magazines from the summer of 1917. Mostly they’re magazines that would have appealed to a female audience: I’ve got issues of McCall’s Magazine, Today’s Housewife, The Modern Priscilla (lots of needlework patterns), Women’s World, The Delineator, Ladies’ World, Needlecraft, Collier’s, The Literary Digest, and The Independent. The Delineator is an especial delight with very high production values and many pages of fashions for each month, many in color. Most of them have short stories or serialized stories, and I’ve enjoyed reading some of these. But most of all, I think I love the ads. Especially this one, from the July 1917 issue of McCall’s:

Yes, Keds were introduced to the world in the summer of 1917. I totally had to have my heroine wearing a pair of her new, deliciously lightweight shoes in their honor…and who would have guessed that the Keds brand has been around for nearly a hundred years? By the way, check out the fashions in the illustration: oh, those risque bathing suits!

What has surprised and delighted me is how many products from this era are still on the market today…though, perhaps, their advertising campaigns are a little different. For example, there’s Lifebuoy Soap…but thank heavens “typhoid” and “cholera” are no longer words frequently seen in product advertising.  (Harper’s Weekly, February 22, 1902):

And the Ouija Board. What I would like to know is just what tests the United States Patent Office ran to prove the board’s “efficacy!” (Metropolitan, June 1917):

Also in the “words that are better off not appearing in print ads” department is this ad for Black Flag. It begins with INFECTION in large, ominous letters…discusses killing multiple types of bugs, assures us that it isn’t poisonous, and ends by suggesting consumers write for a free fairy story book. Uh huh. (The Delineator, May 1917):

Aren’t these fun? I’ll bring you a few more in a future post.



About Marissa Doyle

Marissa Doyle originally planned to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted. At long last, after an unsurprisingly circuitous path, she ended up writing historical fantasy for young adults (the Leland Sisters series) and contemporary fantasy for slightly older ones, most recently By Jove from Book View Cafe. She is obsessed by the Regency period, 19th century stuff in general, and her neurotic pet bunny. Visit her at


Still Here — 12 Comments

  1. Oh, I love old magazines!

    Have you ever seen the publication that Jane Austen’s brothers published during their university years?

  2. When asked how I became an historian I generally answer, “In my grandmothers’ basements, where I spent hours listening to them, at my request, tell about their own childhoods, going through the photograph albums — and reading those old, old, old magazines, the illustrations of which utterly enthralled me — so like those of greeting cards, of which there were troves of saved one reaching back generations in the basements as well.

  3. I love these magazines too! I’ve started my husband collecting antique boating magazines, which often include delightful writing among the beautiful photographs and architectural drawings.

    Sherwood, I’d heard about that but have never seen it. Is it on line anywhere?

  4. For my own pet interests of lacemaking–even though my hands won’t tolerate much of it anymore–does the Priscilla have tatting patterns? I love the intricacy of the lace from that era. Workbasket–which lasted until the 1980s always had at least 1 tatting pattern tucked in with all the knit and crochet and embroidery designs.

    • Phyl, I’ll check the issues I have…

      What I’m finding are a LOT of crocheted lace patterns and embroidery. I did find an article on “Tatted Medallions and Simple Edges Applied to Household Linens” in The Modern Priscilla (April 1917) and another of “Tatted Edgings in Variety” (it calls itself “modern tatting”) in the August 1917 Needlecraft magazine.

  5. This reminds me of a classic science fiction novel I have where there are actually cigarette adverts inserted into the book. Not at the beginning of the book or the very end of the book (where forms to buy more books from that publisher are common), but right, smack in the middle.

  6. I still have a few issues of Scribners and Century magazine that came out of my grandmother’s attic. I poured over them as a teenager. I remember being fascinated by a long article about traveling across Russia – pre-revolutionary Russia that would be.
    And yes the advertising is fascinating.