In 1922 DeWitt and Lila Wallace, both 32, launched a new kind of magazine. Reader's Digest published nonfiction to inform readers, unusual in a magazine market that at the time carried mostly fiction to entertain them. It was smaller than most magazines—"pocket-sized," said the founders, to make it easy to take along.
"The little magazine," as it was subtitled, carried no original content, only "serious" stories condensed from other publications. There would be no advertising, lest competition for ads cause other publishers to withhold reprint permission. Keeping Reader's Digest off newsstands would deter imitators, DeWitt reasoned, so they sold Reader's Digest subscriptions by mail order only.
Though the Wallaces had firm faith in their new venture, others gave it little chance. Two years earlier, DeWitt had printed 200 copies of a trial issue virtually identical to the new magazine. He tried to sell it to publishers, but they all turned him down. It could not succeed, they said.
DeWitt cast about for a new career but, but as he explained to Lila, nothing was as “congenial” to him as working on Reader’s Digest. Biding his time til he could sort out what to do next, he took a PR job at Westinghouse. One day he showed a colleague with mail-order experience his trial copy. “You could sell this by mail!” the fellow told him.
When he was fired in a business recession in the spring of 1921, DeWitt went home and wrote a circular to solicit subscriptions. For four months, he mailed his circular to member lists he obtained from professional organizations. Remittances trickled in. Along with money borrowed from family or saved, the couple scraped together enough cash to print and mail 5,000 copies of the first issue in February 1922.
In the second issue, Lila wrote, somewhat optimistically, that the Reader’s Digest was “successful beyond all anticipations.” By the mid-1930s, the Digest’s success was confounding publishers and delighting readers across the country. By the 1980s, when the Wallaces passed away, the Digest was selling 31 million copies worldwide in 17 languages, with 100 million readers. Only the Bible exceeded it in readership.How did the Wallaces do it? Where did the idea come from? What was the secret of their success? A new exhibit in the Wallaces’ home base of Chappaqua, NY, sheds light on these questions and more. See it at the Greeley House, headquarters for the New Castle Historical Society.
Read more about the Wallace Legacy at Great Quotes, Their Generosity, Their Beautiful Home, and By the Numbers, an amazing list of facts and figures about the Wallaces and their beloved Digest. And don't miss The Wallace Timeline, a 60-year span!