The long life and after-life of ‘Mick McQuaid’

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As previous posts have discussed, some of the Irish story papers ran for decades – in fact for well over a century now in the case of Ireland’s Own. But even aside from that astonishing instance of longevity, the Emerald ran for more than 20 years, the Shamrock for over 50 years, and Our Boys lasted for almost 80 years. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, there were also some serial stories which ran (and re-ran) for years and decades as well. All of these stories had certain common characteristics – they all featured a recurring central character whose name was always in the title of the story, and although some of them ran for many series, each story or series of stories was a self-contained episode which meant they could be read in any order. The most successful and long-running were also all strongly Irish-themed – and with a heavy reliance on village life, stock Irish ‘characters’ such as landlords, tenant farmers, gombeen men and comely maidens.

One example which would still be remembered by some readers today was the Kitty the Hare series – sub-titled ‘the Famous Travelling Woman of Ireland’, the elderly Kitty recounted her tales episode by episode, including adventures and strange tales from all over Ireland, many of them blending rural social realism with aspects of the supernatural including banshees and pookas. They were written by Victor O’Donovan Power, a popular and extremely prolific writer now almost completely forgotten, and were first published in Ireland’s Own in 1914, before moving to Our Boys (a story paper run by the Christian Brothers and intended as an Irish Catholic alternative to the very English Boys’ Own Paper) from 1924, where they continued to be printed regularly for decades – despite the fact that O’Donovan Power himself died in 1928, thus ending the supply of new Kitty the Hare stories.

Arguably even more popular and long-running however were the tales of Mick McQuaid. They were written by William Francis Lynam – a soldier, writer and editor who was born in Galway in 1833 and died in Dublin in 1894. Little is known about his background (or his military career), but by the 1860s he was living in Dublin and was – it appears – the owner and editor of the Shamrock story paper.   One of the earliest Irish story papers, it was established in 1866 as a penny weekly ‘companion’ paper to the Irishman newspaper. The Irishman, a very advanced nationalist paper, was established in 1859 by Richard Pigott – a very colourful character in Irish journalism who would acquire infamy as the forger of the damning letters supposedly written by Parnell in the 1880s. The exact editorial and proprietorial relationship between the Irishman and the Shamrock is rather murky – some sources imply Pigott owned them both, while others insist that Lynam owned the Shamrock, in which case the precise nature of their connection is unknown. Pigott and Lynam may have been actual business partners, or simply had an informal alliance.

The 1860s was of course the era of the Fenian movement in Ireland and abroad, and under Pigott’s editorship the Irishman was a very popular voice for Fenianism. If the Irishman was aimed at an adult readership seeking radical political news and commentary, the Shamrock was its more entertaining younger sibling, intended to instil a sense of national pride and identity in its boy (and occasional girl) readers. To do this, it specialised in exciting Irish historical fiction serials, set at key moments of Irish nationalist history such as the 1798 Rebellion or the Jacobite Wars, and usually centred around an ordinary Irish boy who readers could identify with as he became swept into political and military excitements and encountered historical figures such as Wolfe Tone or Redmond O’Hanlon. But as well as historical fiction, the Shamrock also published romances and vernacular tales of Irish life.

The most successful of these vernacular tales were, by a very long way, the Mick McQuaid stories. A series of comic tales (although to be quite honest the modern reader might take some convincing of that description) set in what was then contemporary Ireland, they all featured the adventures of central character Mick McQuaid – a quick-thinking, wise-cracking chancer who nevertheless usually managed to save the day and prevent the more straight-forward villainy of figures such as agents for absentee landlords, or local gombeen men. Each story saw Mick in a new role and setting, such as ‘Mick McQuaid, Money Lender’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Member of Parliament’, ‘Mick McQuaid, Detective’, and ‘Mick McQuaid, Evangelist’. Each story was long, with (overly) complex plots, many characters, comic tangents and multiple narrative threads to be resolved, so they were serialised in short instalments over several months of weekly issues. These kind of serial stories were crucial to story papers, designed to bring readers back week after week and build a loyal and regular readership, and the Mick McQuaid stories were a classic example of their type.

It has to be admitted it would be difficult to that claim the stories deserve to be ‘rediscovered’ by modern readers. They are an interesting window into popular fiction of the era, especially in terms of their representations of Irish life and society – however their plots are unwieldy, their humour has not aged well and they are written in an almost impenetrable ‘Irish’ dialect which was obviously part of their appeal in the 1860s but which is extremely difficult to read now. Instead what is most interesting about the Mick McQuaid stories is their extraordinary popularity across many decades. Lynam reportedly became bored with the stories after just a few years, and indeed replaced them with tales of another very similar ‘charming Irish rogue’ anti-hero, the Darby Durkan series, which in their turn were also fairly popular. But popular demand for continued Mick McQuaid stories forced him to write more of them (a common experience for authors of popular fiction, most famously in the case of Conan Doyle’s reluctant resurrection of Sherlock Holmes). Indeed, the circulation of the Shamrock reportedly dropped sharply when he attempted to end the McQuaid stories, so they had to be revived and reprinted. It is difficult to be sure exactly how many stories there are in total (perhaps ten or so), each one lasting up to 6 months of weekly instalments – but for a youthful audience this was enough to keep printing and reprinting them over years and eventually decades. Rather like the endlessly circulating repeats of television sit-coms in our own era, which happily rewatched by fans and watched for the first time by successive generations (Faulty Towers being the obvious example, with just twelve episodes ever made in the 1970s, but which are still being screened 40 years later) these very popular serials played on an endless loop in the story papers.

Lynam died in 1894, but his serials lived on without him. The Darby Durkan stories appeared in the Shamrock’s rival story paper the Emerald in the early 20thC, and after the two papers merged in 1912 the McQuaid stories also continued in the new paper until its demise in 1919 – and may well have continued to appear in other publications after that although I have yet to find them. Their popularity was such that in 1889 Carroll’s Tobacco company in Dundalk named a new brand of pipe tobacco after Mick McQuaid, who often smoked a pipe in the stories as he held forth with his distinctive folk wisdom. The brand was itself a great success (presumably the tobacco and the stories amplified each other’s standing among readers and smokers in ways that benefitted both), and by the 1920s Carroll’s had commissioned a cartoon version of Mick McQuaid for their packaging and advertising – the photograph accompanying this post is of a tobacco tin from the mid-20thC. So while the stories had not had significant illustrations during their 19thC hey-day, the Mick McQuaid character took visual form years after his author’s death, and in fact became one of mid-20thC Ireland’s most successful brands, only being discontinued in 2016 – a strange afterlife for a fictional character first invented in 1867.

References

Margeret O’Callaghan, ‘Richard Pigott’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Patrick M Geoghegan, ‘William Francis Lynam’, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Why Go Bald (or Grey)?: Advertising, Hair, and the Cult of Youth

The ‘Why Go Bald’ sign on South Great George’s Street in Dublin is one of the city’s most-loved landmarks. One of the few remaining examples of neon advertising, it consists of a man’s head and shoulders, in which as the lights flash on and off he alternates between a full head of hair with a big smile, and total baldness with a frown. Designed in 1962 for the hair restoration clinic which still operates underneath it today, it is an icon of design history and also a reminder that our own era’s obsessions and anxieties about hair as an indicator of youthfulness and vitality are nothing new. In fact, advertisements for hair restorers, hair dyes, hair ‘food’ and even hair removal techniques were among the most frequent and visible examples of modern advertising, from the end of the 19thC.

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Hair products were a very distinct sub-group of heavily-branded ‘personal grooming’ products, and the range and frequency with which they were advertised was striking. It is also noticeable that although some products simply claimed to clean, style or perfume hair, far more were focused upon eliminating the twin horrors of baldness and greying. Where baldness was concerned this was where, in an era of almost unregulated advertising, hair products intersected with quack medicine. A range of ‘hair restorers’ promised men (and sometimes women) that their thinning hair would be revived and grow like new. This was often accompanied by pseudo-scientific claims to have discovered the cause of thinning hair, and found a solution to it. Capsuloids, for example, claimed that hair loss was caused by ‘harmful germs’ in the hair roots – their product would not only kill these germs, but ‘…so nourish the hair roots that two hairs will grow from each root where only one hair grew before’. Their adverts often included a diagram of the scalp and hair root drawn at dramatic magnification, in order to demonstrate exactly where the harmful germs were lurking prior to taking Capsuloids. By contrast, their competitor Harlene Hair Drill claimed to have made an ‘Appalling Discovery Which Affects Your Hair. National Danger of Baldness’. Rather than germs, Harlene identified ‘scurf’ as the cause of hair loss, sternly warning that ‘no hair can withstand the insidious attacks of this loathsome scurf’ and illustrating the point with ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings of baldness cured. In other adverts Harlene, obviously keen to let no hair restoration possibilities pass them by, also promised that their product was ‘unequalled for promoting the growth of the Beard and Moustache’, and even ‘Curing Weak and Thin Eyelashes’. Capsuloids and Harlene were advertised with British addresses for the placing of postal orders, but some enterprising Irish firms produced their own products, such as Boyd’s Oriental Hair Restorer, which also claimed that it would prevent baldness by curing dandruff, and could be purchased from their premises in Mary Street, Dublin.

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If hair loss was perhaps the greatest concern to be exploited by the purveyors of patent cures, then going grey came a close second. If the adverts in papers and magazines are any indicator, both the men and women of early 20thC Ireland were routinely dying their hair, presumably with varying degrees of skill and subtlety. In 1911 the front wrapper of an issue of Ireland’s Own contained no fewer than 4 separate advertisements for pharmacies selling hair dye. These included J Leonard & Co on North Earl Street Dublin, who assured readers that ‘There Is No Need to Look Old’ and JJ Fitzgibbon of Kingstown who chose the more imperative ‘Don’t Look Old’. The alarmingly-named Necroceine hair dye made the highly unlikely claim in its advert that it ‘restores colour to the root, making detection impossible’.

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If the loss of hair or hair colour was one age-related anxiety to be addressed through patent cures, then the appearance of hair in the wrong places was another. By the start of the 20thC, there were plenty of electrolysis practitioners advertising their services in Ireland – and here perhaps we might pause to contemplate just how painful and downright dangerous early 20thC electrolysis probably was – to those keen to remove ‘unsightly hair’.

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Mrs Pomeroy, who had a beauty salon on Grafton Street and sold her own range of ‘skin foods’, offered it, as did the city’s most upmarket hair salon, Maison Prost on St Stephen’s Green (which sometimes advertised itself as being ‘coiffeur, parfumeur, etc to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant’, and remained in business until the 1960s). Alternatively Miss Hulbert of Ballsbridge regularly advertised her electrolysis service, and Miss Read of Dawson Street offered electrolysis and facial massage. Most alarmingly of all, in 1907 readers of Irish Society were invited to purchase a ‘Tensfeldt Apparatus’ in order to perform electrolysis on themselves in the privacy of their own homes. Amazingly, no accounts of fatalities appear to have been recorded!

 

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As was discussed here in an earlier post, the development of branded products (of which hair restorers and dyes were examples) led not only to an increase in the quantity of advertising in order to embed the brand in customers’ memories, but also to a more important shift in tone of that advertising. The move was from an ‘informative’ tone which emphasised the availability and nature of products customers were already looking for, towards an ‘emotive’ tone which sought to create markets for products customers did not yet know they wanted by highlighting a need or problem which only that brand could solve. Inevitably this change of tone meant that advertising increasingly played upon people’s fears and anxieties (‘psychoanalysis in reverse’, as Leo Lowenthal would famously describe the profession in the mid-20thC). It was therefore no coincidence that products promising to make people look younger and better-looking were those suited to this new style of advertising, and upon which the modern advertising industry was built. Aggressively branded, with wildly imaginative names and logos, their advertisements developed some of the first uses of an appeal to emotions, aspirations and fears in order to convince customers that their product – and only their product – could make them happier, healthier and more successful. This had an obvious logic to it – it is not particularly difficult to invoke fear and anxiety in most people regarding their health, youthfulness and physical attractiveness, and this is why products such as soaps, quack medicines and beauty products were those which pioneered this approach to marketing. Soap advertising is often credited with effectively pioneering the principles and techniques of modern advertising, and with good reason. A product easily mass-manufactured cheaply and on an industrial scale, and also one which was small, simple to package, transport and sell cheaply, it was an obvious vehicle for mass advertising and in Ireland as elsewhere the pages of every newspaper and magazine were dominated by soap adverts by the end of the 19thC. Not only were these often lavish, full-colour illustrations such as the famous use by Pears Soap of Millais’ painting ‘Bubbles’, but they were also pioneers of brand-names, advertising slogans and images which sought to play on the emotional possibilities of their product – promising sunshine (‘Sunlight’ soap), brightness and health versus grime and disease without them. In a world which still had high levels of infant mortality, medical care of limited effectiveness, and few of the labour-saving devices we consider necessary to clean our homes, our clothes or ourselves, people had good reason to fear dirt and disease and advertisers rapidly learned to prey upon those anxieties. While the international brands such as Sunlight and Lux were the dominant advertisers, an Irish brand called McClinton’s soap (manufactured in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone) achieved considerable success as a luxury brand which was heavily (and inventively) advertised using a fake Irish village called Ballymaclinton, and images of Irish ‘colleens’ whose soft complexion was attributed to their use of McClinton’s soap.

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Then as now advertisements were often a revealing indicator of the anxieties of a particular cultural moment. The frequency of advertisements for hair restorers and dyes – and the fact that they appeared across an enormous range of Irish publications – suggested that what all of these potions, tablets and treatments had in common was their ability to prey upon the anxieties of a population keen to appear young and vigorous. The prices, style of adverts and range of publications they appeared in demonstrate that this quest for youthfulness crossed class, gender and other demographic lines. While electrolysis was only advertised in the upmarket publications (and offered at upmarket salons such as Maison Prost) and was presumably an expensive treatment, most of these brands were cheap, a shilling or less per bottle, so apparently fears about personal appearance (and aging) were pretty much universal across otherwise significant divides of class, gender and location. The cult of youth we often associate with post-World War One (with its flappers, jazz babies and dramatically more adolescent-looking beauty ideals for women) had actually begun to manifest itself much earlier. The ‘new woman’ who became the subject of so much discussion and agonising from 1890 onwards took various forms, but perhaps most frequently was a very young woman who challenged social conventions about work, dress and relationships as she first reached adulthood. In America this emphasis upon female youthfulness was particularly evident in the early 20thC fascination with that beguiling creature the college ‘co-ed’, often depicted in the style of the famously vigorous ‘Gibson girls’. While Ireland did not share the ‘co-ed’ phenomenon, its leading women’s magazine, Lady of the House, did make reference to changing conventions of female beauty in 1907 by citing the ‘Gibson ideal’, suggesting that it was an internationally-understood concept by that point. Less light-heartedly, a widely-pervading sense of anxiety about being ‘left behind’ was clearly evident in the wider culture of the early 20thC, in a society increasingly framed by a sense of competition. For women, this took the form of concerns about being left ‘on the shelf’, as the popular press frequently stoked fears about the declining marriage rate, alternatively blaming ‘new women’ for being poor wife material, or blaming men for not wanting to take on the responsibilities of marriage – at one point the Irish Packet even discussed a proposal (made in all seriousness) for a ‘bachelor tax’ to resolve this problem. Either way, in a world in which marriage was still the primary ambition for most women for both cultural and pragmatic reasons, the fear of being an ‘old maid’ overtaken by younger competitors on the marriage market was real. For men, the fear was of being thrown ‘on the scrap heap’, especially for working-class or lower-middle-class men at the mercy of employers who could almost always find a younger and cheaper replacement. Those doing manual labour had an obvious incentive to wish to appear young and strong, but the rapidly-expanding army of clerks and other low-ranking office workers also had reasons for anxiety about being seen as over-the-hill and expendable. The combined effects of these all of these cultural currents then, was a market of both men and women apprehensive about visible signs of aging – and therefore receptive to the promise that their youthfulness could be regained for the price of a shilling bottle of hair restorer.

References

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Do You Ring? Or Are you Rung for?”: Mass Media, Class, and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland’, in New Hibernia Review, 18/4 Winter, 2014.

Stephanie Rains, ‘The Ideal Home (Rule) Exhibition: Ballymaclinton and the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition’, in Field Day Review 7, 2011.

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.

Money Matters: the cost of books, newspapers and magazines in early 20thC Ireland

In the very first post on this blog, I discussed the defining characteristic of mass media – that it conceives of its audience as a ‘mass’ to be segmented according to income and demographics in order to target them as potential customers for products, rather than understanding them as a group of complex individuals to be addressed with ideas. The products they are targeted with include not only the publications themselves, but also the other products which those publications advertised, since by well before the end of the 19thC most commercial publications were more dependent upon their advertising revenue than upon their cover prices, just as they are today. As a result of this, most publications targeted a particular demographic of reader – by tempting them with material they wanted to read – in order to deliver those readers to advertisers targeting that particular demographic. This mechanism involved a number of careful calculations and manoeuvres by both publishers and advertisers as they chased the ever-moving target of reader demand. From the readers’ point of view, calculations were also necessary, as most people had a finite amount of money to spend on either news or leisure reading, so would have put some thought into their spending decisions. The entire structure and content of the mass media in Ireland during the late 19th and early 20thC was therefore determined by financial considerations for everyone involved, just as it is today, however different the media landscapes are in other ways.

It is therefore useful to think carefully about money and prices, in both absolute and relative terms. This will not only help us to better understand Ireland’s historical mass media market as its owners, editors and journalists understood it at the time, but will also help us to better understand some of the attitudes and behaviours of readers as they allocated their pennies and shillings to particular publications. Since cover prices are some of the most readily-available figures still available to us, they’re a good place to start. The cost of newspapers and magazines declined steadily throughout the 19thC, following the abolition of government stamp duties on printed material, and the increased economies of scale available to the publishing industry as mass literacy led to ever-greater readerships. This led produced the ‘penny dreadful’ paper aimed particularly at working-class boys, and the subject of one of the very first mass media moral panics as they were accused of glorifying crime and criminals, and leading young readers astray. From then on, a penny became the standard cover price of all publications aimed at younger and poorer readerships, superseded only by even cheaper papers for halfpence (sometimes nicknamed ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’). Ireland didn’t produce any real penny dreadfuls, but its cheap story papers such as the Shamrock and Ireland’s Own were its slightly more respectable equivalents at the same price. In fact by the end of the 19thC most weekly publications were a penny each, even those whose intended readership was considerably older and wealthier than that of story papers. Even the rather august Irish Society, firmly aimed at the elite world of Dublin’s fashionable society, cost only a penny per weekly issue, as did other ‘society papers’. The Irish media market couldn’t produce the economies of scale (in readership and therefore also in advertising revenue) to support halfpenny periodicals of the kind which existed in the British market by the start of the 20thC. However, William Martin Murphy’s revamped and populist Irish Independent was a halfpenny newspaper from its inception in 1905, and this was one of its most important features. Its ruthless efforts to become the most widely-read daily paper in Ireland included the use of ‘new journalism’ styles such as more photography and a more intimate tone of address to readers, but its cost was probably its single most significant factor. Its key rival – which it had pursued to extinction by 1924 – was the Freeman’s Journal, which was never able to lower its cover price from a penny (the same cost as the Irish Times). While neither price was high, as a daily outlay the difference between a penny and halfpenny may well have been decisive for the large number of less well-off readers the Independent was courting. The Independent also pioneered the verification of circulation figures in order to both emphasise their growing readership and entice more advertisers with that readership.

More expensive publications, especially monthly magazines, cost a shilling. These included Lady of the House (although as explained in an earlier post here, account holders with Findlaters’ grocery chain received a free copy with their deliveries) and also Irish Life, another glossy monthly launched in 1912 and dedicated to reports of hunting, shooting and fishing on country estates, as well as expensive new hobbies such as car ownership. These more expensive monthly publications were not only aimed at more prosperous readerships, but by the early 20thC they also tended to include quite a lot of photographs (Irish Life had photographs on almost every page, including some in its advertisements) which in turn necessitated glossy paper, both of which were more expensive to print than the sparsely-illustrated story papers printed on cheap paper.

It was often alleged, in early 20thC, that the Irish did not buy books, or at least not by comparison to the British and some other nations. It is difficult to verify the truthfulness of this claim in precise terms, but there does appear to be some basis for it. By contrast, newspapers and periodicals were extremely popular. There may be a number of reasons for the relative lack of popularity of books in Ireland, but by far the most likely explanation is the simple one of cost. The shift from three-volume to single-volume novels in the last decades of the 19thC meant that they cost less to produce and therefore to buy. Accompanied by an expanding market of literate readers and the economies of scale created by that and ever more efficient printing technologies, in global terms books changed from fairly luxury items in the mid-19thC to being cheap mainstream commodities for many people by the start of the 20thC. However, cheap is always a relative concept, and the already small Irish market differed from the British one in having a much larger working-class who had little or no disposable income. By the start of the 20thC most of this class was literate – and in many cases were keen consumers of leisure reading – but were still largely priced out of even the cheap book market.

Then as now, the actual price of books varied, according a range of variables. New works by acclaimed or fashionable authors cost more than out-of-copyright reprints or the efforts of an unknown newcomer. Leather and gilt bindings cost more than cloth, and as with magazines and periodicals, the quality of the paper also affected the price (as did the number of pages – not unreasonably, long books cost more than short ones). In the middle and lower end of the market, by the start of the 20thC fashionable new novels often cost 2 or 3 shillings, while older or less acclaimed novels in simple cloth bindings were typically sixpence. These, as some of the cheapest novels available to younger and poorer Irish readers, included MH Gill’s cloth reprints of ‘stirring Irish tales’ such as Galloping O’Hogan or The Insurgent Chief, both of which were advertised in the 1907 Christmas issue of the Emerald magazine, and were reprints of stories first published earlier in the 19thC. Historical melodramas of a broadly nationalist (and wildly romantic) flavour, they fashioned fictional narratives out of the real events of the 1798 Rebellion, and other key moments in Irish history. Nationalist historical fiction was in fact something of a bestselling genre in Ireland during the late 19thC and early 20thC, appearing on an almost weekly basis in the penny papers as well as in cheap books. Aimed at younger readers and those with a more rudimentary education, it can be seen as an important (and probably more influential) parallel form to the literary fiction and poetry of the Celtic Revival.

Other sixpenny books included the burgeoning self-help and social advice market of the era. One of the ways in which working-class and lower-middle-class people used their relatively new-found literacy was to seek advice and information broadly related to ‘self-improvement’ and social aspiration of various kinds. In 1911 for example, Ireland’s Own was regularly advertising (as part of its ‘Book Department’ column) publications from Saxon’s Everybody’s Series (published in London by the American writer May French Sheldon), which included Everybody’s Book of Jokes, Everybody’s Book of Correct Conduct, Everybody’s Letter Writer, Everybody’s Guide to Good Conversation, Everybody’s Guide to Public Speaking, Everybody’s Book of Parlour Games, and Everybody’s Guide to Carpentry and the Doing-up of the House.  The Irish popular press also occasionally produced books based on their more popular serials. One example of this was Ireland’s Own’s long-running serial featuring the detective Dermot O’Donovan (a fascinating series of short stories with a central character referred to as ‘the great Irish detective’ and best described as an Irish Sherlock Holmes), whose two longest series, entitled ‘The League of the Ring’ and ‘Torn Apart’ were published together in book format in 1913 for the price of 6d. For those of us interested in Irish popular culture of the time, it is worth noting that none of these books sold by Ireland’s Own – from the advice on public speaking to the novelisation of its own detective series – have survived in the Irish archives, presumably because when they were new they were deemed to low-brow to be worth collecting or preserving in libraries. While these individual volumes are not necessarily an important loss, their absence does raise tantalising questions about how many more cheap publications aimed at working-class or lower-middle-class Irish readers have been lost, and what those volumes might tell us about the tastes and interests they catered to.

International bestsellers in cheap bindings were also sometimes available. The printer and publisher Ernest Manico (who appears to have had a distribution agreement with the London publishing magnate George Newnes, as discussed in a previous post here) sold a range of ‘copyright novels for Sixpence’ issued by Newnes, and including novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and Grant Allen. By the early 20thC, one of Dublin’s largest newsagents and booksellers, J Tallon of Grafton Street, was advertising Sixpenny Editions of similarly well-known authors again including the best-selling Conan Doyle as well as Dumas and (a little surprisingly considering his popular association with French debauchery) Emile Zola. Tallon’s advertisements for these cheap editions demanded ‘Why buy expensive editions to lend or cast aside when read?’, a question which presumed the sharing of books among readers. Book publishers were necessarily resigned to this practice, but those producing newspapers and magazines were not so sanguine. The fact that, for example, entry to the popular press’ almost constantly-running competitions required the inclusion of a coupon cut from the relevant issue, was an attempt by editors to prevent readers from sharing one copy of a weekly or monthly paper amongst a group of two, three or more. Such a practice was of course a logical method by which readers could maximise the number of publications they had access to, and was probably especially popular among younger and poorer readers, such as those who bought penny weeklies. For editors however, every shared copy was a penny lost, a fact they even felt the need to point out to readers occasionally. In 1905 a reader of the Irish Packet wrote to the paper to express his enthusiasm by revealing that ‘’I am buying your paper since it first came to Kilrush, and am the first to your newsagent every Wednesday. I give it to seven persons every week as soon as I have read it, and am trying to increase its popularity.’ This prompted the editor, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, to respond with obvious exasperation, ‘May I venture, will all deference, to suggest to my correspondent that if he could induce some of his seven friends to purchase the paper instead of borrowing it it would prevent the protracted postponement of their pleasure, and – which is, of course, a minor consideration – be the means of increasing the circulation of the Irish Packet’. The number of people sharing copies of papers like the Packet is largely unknowable at this distance, of course, but if seven readers per copy was anything approaching typical, then it has some significant implications.

The first of these is that the appetite for reading – of all kinds, but especially perhaps of the short and serial fiction which constituted most people’s principal leisure activity until it was overtaken by radio and film – was even more insatiable than official publication and circulation figures already suggest. Readers sharing multiple copies of story papers (as well as women’s magazines, hobby papers and perhaps the cheaper newspapers) among groups of friends, family and neighbours, had the opportunity to read both extensively and variously, albeit sometimes rather belatedly. This in turn suggests that the contents of these publications were more widely influential than would be presumed simply from their circulation figures. And finally, it also underlines the extent to which even the 1d or ½d price of these very cheapest publications was still an expense which many readers had to consider with some care. Copies circulating through these informal networks of readers must have moved rather slowly at times, an especially frustrating experience if you were waiting for the latest instalment of a serial. Those who could have bought their own copies of all their reading matter therefore probably would have done, and sharing of individual copies among groups as large as seven suggests that even cheap reading matter was rationed for many people. For modern readers looking back at this era of mass media, and who will inevitably be struck by the sheer abundance of publications (even in the small Irish market), this is a useful reminder that for most readers at the time, each purchase was a considered allocation of scarce funds, and might well be part of a network of readers sharing those purchases.

References

Tony Farmar, “An Eye to Business: Financial and Market Factors, 1895-1995” in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.209-243.

 

Clare Hutton, ‘Publishing the Irish Cultural Revival, 1891-1922’ in The Oxford History of the Irish Book, Volume V, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000 (2011: Oxford UP, Oxford), pp.17-42.

Questions and Answers:Advice and Information Columns

If the term ‘information society’ has any useful meaning as a way to describe 21stC life (and of course it generally doesn’t, especially in the way most politicians use it), then it is in the way it captures the extraordinary availability of apparently limitless factual information. Only a generation ago, a person finding themselves in need of a particular date, definition or explanation was entirely reliant upon reference books of some kind or another – most likely the print editions of encyclopaedias which have now largely been replaced by Wikipedia and its more sophisticated but pay walled competitors. Even the condensed single-volume editions of publications such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica were expensive, and a full set of encyclopaedias was so costly that companies sold them via long-term hire-purchase schemes. This was such an embedded feature of aspirational working-class life in many countries until the later 20thC that door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen frequently occur as stock characters in movies, novels and comedy sketches. The fact that so many families could be persuaded to make a significant financial investment in these rarely-used and rapidly dating books was a testament to the value – economically and culturally – of the information they contained. The queries we check on our phones while waiting for a train, or the information we receive in daily Google alerts as we sit at our desks, were until very recently expensive and scarce commodities, with entire industries and professions constructed around their gathering, publication and distribution. Because reference books were so expensive, most ordinary people would have relied upon libraries in order to consult them, and for many working-class readers whose formal education had ended early by necessity, Carnegie Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes opened up a world of auto-didacticism which was often life-changing.

But even these resources were not available to many people – libraries can be intimidating spaces for those without much formal education, and throughout much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries many people did not live within easy reach of a well-stocked library anyway. While there was a flurry of library construction within Dublin during the first decade of the 20thC, rural Ireland was a very different story, and in 1911 it was estimated that only 28% of the population had access to a library. Even where they were built, lack of funding (and civic enthusiasm) often meant that they had few books. Mary Casteleyn has argued that, “in many areas the Carnegie building was used for everything except library purposes. Village bands practised there, temperance meetings were held in them, and they were vandalised. In one library the enterprising caretaker had resorted to burning the books to save himself from being bothered by persistent would-be readers!”. This meant that many people had no practical access at all to reliable or detailed factual information. What they did have increasing levels of access to however was the mass media, and it is therefore not surprising that many publications aimed at a popular readership recognised that providing the various forms of factual information requested by their readers would help them to build and maintain their market share. Indeed, one of the most powerful media empires in Britain was originally founded upon providing exactly this service to readers. Alfred Harmsworth – who established the Daily Mail in 1896 and would go on to be one of the most powerful press barons of the early 20th C – began his publishing career in 1888 by producing Answers to Correspondents (which soon became known simply as Answers). The paper, which became the only serious rival to George Newnes’ Tit-bits magazine in terms of circulation, was based upon the most simple of ideas – readers could write in with their questions, and the papers’ staff would respond with answers. The more interesting of these would be published, and although the paper did contain other material, this provision of answers to queries was the simple but effective basis of its success. That simplicity – and the extent of its success – is in itself an indication of just how difficult it was for many ordinary people to find basic factual information. By contrast, journalists, especially those working in major publishing centres such as London or Dublin, had access to major libraries as well as networks of experts for advice and information.

Ireland did not produce – and probably could not have supported – an entire paper dedicated to answering readers’ queries. But many Irish publications did, over the years, run successful columns answering wide-ranging questions from their readers, or dedicated to providing an advice and information service on particular topics. Tips and advice for everyday activities – especially for domestic tasks – were also prevalent, and constituted a particularly significant feature of the women’s columns run by many papers. In an era without many labour-saving devices, many of these questions and answers revolved around advice on cleaning. How to remove stains from various fabrics without damaging them, how to maintain kitchen ranges, and how to clean household objects ranging from Venetian blinds to ostrich feathers, were all discussed on a more-or-less weekly basis, not only in women’s magazines such as Lady of the House, but also in more general magazines such as Ireland’s Own or the Shamrock, most of which ran household columns (which were of course always targeted at the ‘lady readers’ who were presumed to be naturally interested in such matters). Generalised advice columns giving information on health, beauty, cooking and household management were quick and easy to produce – indeed, in many cases they were one of the easiest types of copy to syndicate, and there are numerous examples of Irish publications printing advice and information columns of this kind which show signs of having been bought in – occasionally even their typeface differed slightly from the rest of the paper, suggesting that such syndicated pieces may even have arrived fully-typeset.

The prevalence of columns giving both factual information and advice in so many publications is also what allowed the boundaries between editorial and advertising to be so blurred, however. With no regulations to control this, there was nothing to prevent publications from using their information and advice columns to endorse specific products, without acknowledging that in many cases they were being paid to do so. For example, Irish Society ran a column entitled ‘Beauty and the Toilet’ which answered readers’ pseudonymous queries on these topics. In 1902, one such reply, to a reader using the name ‘Ideal’, assured her that ‘…it is satisfactory, therefore, to know that fresh air, cleanliness and good food are the best beautifiers, and that the knowledge of how to make the best of oneself can be obtained free from Mrs Pomeroy, of Grafton Street, and that when actual blemishes have to be removed she will do this in the best manner possible, and at moderate charges’. A few pages further on in the paper, a paid advertisement appeared for Mrs Pomeroy’s salon, offering electrolysis for 10/6 per sitting – and in fact the salon was one of Irish Society’s most frequent advertisers. Other readers’ queries were answered with recommendations for products which were also regularly advertised in the paper. Obviously in such cases, it is most likely that the queries themselves were also written by the paper – a possibility never to be discounted in any advice column. However, although faking the questions allowed publications to push products they were being paid to advertise, by definition it didn’t involve real interaction with readers, and from the publications’ perspective, this was the main purpose of such columns, as Harmsworth had so profitably understood when he established Answers.

Among Irish publications, the closest equivalent to this form was in columns such as the Shamrock’s regular ‘A Conversazione’ column. Like many others of its type, it did not print the original queries, merely addressing the answers to correspondents’ pseudonyms (which in some cases leaves the reader intrigued about the context or details of the question asked, an effect which was no doubt deliberate). So in April 1900 for example, just one column included factual information on the history and manufacture of screws, the history and use of siphons, and detailed geographical information about Lake Superior. More intriguingly, it also advised a reader known only as ‘Mona’ that ‘a young lady possessing true dignity of character will never take further notice of a gentleman who has once openly slighted her, much less seek or endeavour to court his society…we would advise you to leave the letter unanswered’, which presents a number of tantalising possibilities as to the slight Mona had suffered. A few years later, the Shamrock’s rival the Irish Emerald introduced a slightly different format into their own advice column, by enlisting readers to assist in answering queries. This was done by printing numbered questions in one part of the column, and then adding numbered answers (always a week or two behind the questions) in another. The magazine explained that, ‘the object of the Correspondence Page is to enable our Readers to keep in touch with, and be of use to, one another, by giving information of questions of general interest and by helping others to procure articles etc which they may require.’ Operating like a (very) nascent social media platform, this column allowed readers to answer each other’s queries as well as arrange exchanges of items such as sheet music and books. The advantage for readers was, obviously, that they could use these columns to seek information which was genuinely difficult to find for most ordinary people without easy access to expensive reference books. The advantage for magazines such as the Irish Emerald was that it was another way of encouraging readers to write back to the publication, the early 20thC version of interactivity upon with ‘new journalism’ depended. In this way, advice and information columns functioned for publications in the same way as letters columns and the wildly popular competitions most of them ran regularly – by providing a channel for readers to correspond with their paper, feel a sense of ownership of it, and thus deepen their brand loyalty, ensuring future sales. To this end, magazines were eager to provide platforms for whatever kind of interaction readers were likely to respond to most enthusiastically and consistently, even if this meant supporting wildly varied requests. So where in March 1907 ‘Clogheen Reader’ wrote to the Irish Emerald that he ‘would be much obliged if some reader would or could tell him if Mr WB Yeats is a Nationalist’ (sadly I never spotted any response to that tricky question), in September of the same year a query about the size of the human head received the following reply from another reader:

“the average adult head has a circumference of fully 22 inches. The average adult hat is fully six and three-quarters size…and the professors of colleges generally wear seven and one-eight to seven and three-eights sizes….and according to an authority, ‘no lady should think of marrying a man with a head less than 20 inches in circumference’. People with heads under 19 inches are mentally deficient, and with heads under 18 inches invariably idiotic”.

As well as encouraging readers to measure their heads (and admit it, you’re thinking about it), both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald also provided more practical advice for young readers keen to make use of their intellect. From the last quarter of the 19thC, all branches of the United Kingdom Civil Service (including central government departments as well as organisations such as the Post Office and Police Service) introduced entrance examinations open to anyone who paid the relatively modest fee to sit them. While these examinations – covering grammar, composition, mathematics, languages and accountancy, depending upon the posts being recruited for – obviously favoured those who’d had the opportunity of a proper secondary education, they were nevertheless the single most dramatic mechanism of social mobility ever introduced into British or Irish society, and they loomed very large in the lives of ambitious school-leavers, especially perhaps those for whom a clerical job of any kind was a significant economic and social aspiration compared to the work available to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. And those were precisely the young readers appealed to by the popular penny papers, so it is not surprising that some of the information and advice most consistently offered by these publications related to entrance examinations – not just announcements of their timing and location, but assistance with the quite intense academic preparation required for them. Well before the end of the 19thC, both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald ran weekly columns (usually entitled ‘Our Students’) providing an astonishing level of information and even one-to-one support for readers planning on sitting examinations for jobs as various as Post Office Sorters, Third Division Clerkships in the Indian Civil Service, Dublin Police Court Clerkships or Girl Typists. A full account of each posts’ requirements and their pay and progression was given – for example in 1901, Police Court Clerkships in Dublin were open to entrants aged 17-25, with Second-class clerks receiving £80pa rising by £5 a year to £150, while First-class clerks got £180, rising by £10 a year to £300 (an enormous sum for those from a lower-middle class background, and probably unachievable for most). As well as this information, the columns – which were often ‘managed’ by the owners of correspondence colleges specialising in preparing candidates for entrance examinations – advised readers where to buy text books for exam preparation, set practice essay titles and mathematical problems based on past papers for each level of examination, and even invited readers to post in their practice efforts to be individually ‘marked’, the feedback and suggested mark being printed in subsequent weeks. These columns, whose longevity suggests they were very popular with readers, were obviously regarded by the owners of correspondence colleges as useful advertising for their businesses, but their usefulness for the Shamrock and Irish Emerald was even greater – the columns occasionally even described readers who had been successful in examinations with their support as ‘Shamrock boys’. This phrase managed to fuse the concept of ‘school spirit’, which was so central to the wildly popular school stories of the era, to the relationship between a penny paper and its readers.

References

Mary Casteleyn, A History of Literacy and Libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree (1984: Gower Publishing, Aldershot).

Stephanie Rains, ‘Going in for Competitions Active readers and magazine culture, 1900–1910’, Media History, 21 (2015) :138-149

Paying the Bills: Irish mass media and the advertising industry

Long before the start of the 20thC, advertising was financially essential for mass media in Ireland as elsewhere. As competition for readers grew more and more ruthless, and the target demographic for many publications stretched down the socio-economic ladder, fewer and fewer publications could afford to support themselves principally by their cover price. The penny and even halfpenny weeklies (as well as halfpenny daily newspapers like the Irish Independent), which appealed to a broad readership, could not cover their costs at that price and so were increasingly dependent upon advertising just to survive. At the same time, advertising itself changed dramatically during the late 19thC, as branded goods became the norm for many kinds of commodity, especially relatively cheap household products. The development of branding meant that goods such as tea and soap, once bought from a trusted retailer who measured them out by weight and wrapped them in his own packaging, were instead now asked for by product name. This required the invention of modern packaging, brand names and logos, but above all else it required advertising in order to establish the brand sufficiently for customers to remember it, recognise it and ask for it in shops. The effect of this was to shift advertising conventions away from mainly informational announcements by retailers of new stock or improved premises, and towards the promotion of individual brands by their manufacturers. Along with this the style of advertising changed too – it became less wordy, and more focused on the brand name and logo of the product in order to embed it in customers’ imaginations. This kind of advertising also needed to be more frequent, in order to maintain brand recognition, and as time went on the adverts themselves became even less informational and more focused on the impact the product would have on customers’ lives, promising abstracted effects such as happiness, confidence and self-fulfilment, rather than just the practical qualities of the products themselves.

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All of this combined to create a symbiotic relationship between the popular press and advertisers. The press needed advertising revenue to survive, and advertisers needed access to their readerships, all the more so as different publications appealed to different demographics, who could then be targeted by advertisers keen to reach specific potential markets for their products. The result of this was that the number of advertisements in all kinds of publications had increased dramatically by the start of the 20thC, as did the size and visual impact of those ads, as they began to use more white space and illustrations, larger and more elaborate typefaces, colour and (eventually) photographs in order to draw the reader’s eye. The other important change was behind the scenes, to the business of advertising itself. Until the very late 19thC, advertising ‘agencies’ as we understand them, did not exist. Instead ‘placing agents’ bought space in newspapers and magazines and then sold it on to companies looking to advertise – this was a much more limited service, and did not include the planning of campaigns nor (usually) the provision of design services or any kind of market research. This gradually changed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as some placing agents expanded their firms and the services they provided. The most famous (if fictional) representative of Irish advertising, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, was an advertising ‘canvasser’ for the Freeman’s Journal, and as has been pointed out by several critics, was by 1904 a very marginal kind of figure in the rapidly-developing landscape of ‘full service’ agencies.

 

In Ireland, one of the first advertising companies to begin that change was Wilson, Hartnell and Co., established in 1879 by Crawford Hartnell. As discussed in a previous post here, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. developed an innovative business model during the 1890s, when they established an entire publication, Lady of the House, on behalf of their clients, the upmarket grocery chain Findlater and Co. A women’s magazine aimed primarily at the suburban middle-classes who might well have a monthly account with Findlater’s, it published stories, fashion columns and household tips, as well as discussing a surprising range of social and economic issues for a publication of its type. Distributed free to those who did have a Findlater’s account (and costing a shilling per month for other readers), it also included the grocery chain’s full monthly price list in its back pages and was, despite appearances, primarily a platform for their advertising. Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had other accounts as well however, and with an impressive circularity, used Lady of the House to place advertisements for those too. They held the Irish advertising accounts of several big English household brands, most notably Mazawattee tea (then one of the most widely-recognised brands), for whom advertisements appeared in almost every issue of Lady of the House. If the magazine itself operated as an extended advertisement for Findlaters and Co., it also provided a useful platform for Hartnell to place advertisements for other products likely to appeal to a middle-class Irish readership.

 

An enormous range of products were advertised in Irish newspapers and magazines by the early 20thC, but some categories of goods were especially dominant in advertising – for example almost no publication ever appeared without advertisements for soap, or for some of the apparently infinite range of patent medicines. Soap was one of the products which first became branded and heavily advertised, and with its connotations of cleanliness, health and freshness – all especially powerful in a world without either antibiotics or many labour-saving devices, and when dirt was a constant and dangerous presence in people’s lives. Soap was heavily promoted in campaigns which helped to invent the modern form of advertising itself, with its reliance upon connotation and associative qualities. Sunlight Soap, Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, Pears Soap and Lifebuoy Soap (‘makes health infectious’) all took regular illustrated whole page advertisements in publications as varied as Lady of the House, Ireland’s Own and Irish Society, and they were the pioneers of lavish illustrations (including some of the earliest full-colour advertisements) which were intended to associate their products with sturdy children, rosy-cheeked young women and cheerful, bright homes. Indeed, these large weekly soap advertisements may have been the principal financial support of penny papers such as Ireland’s Own by the start of World War One.

 

Far less respectable (and often less lavish), but at least as numerous, were the many ‘patent medicines’ being sold in an unregulated market in which it was perfectly legal to advertise pills or potions which claimed to simultaneously cure impotence and migraines, despite the fact that they often consisted mainly of entirely inactive ingredients (for which customers should perhaps have been grateful). Some of these products barely skirted the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, others simply traded upon people’s health problems or personal insecurities. Pills claiming to cure haemorrhoids, restore thinning hair or cause dramatic weight loss proliferated across all kinds of publications. While many (especially those offering barely legal products) were small and relatively discreet, their sheer quantity and frequency provided valuable income for newspapers and magazines. And some of the more successful used full-page illustrated advertisements every bit as eye-catching as the ads for Sunlight Soap. Holloway’s Pills (which promised to cure ‘indigestion, feverishness, dizziness, loss of appetite and energy’) and Beecham’s Pills advertisements were especially lavish – and in Beecham’s case were the medically-dubious but very profitable foundation of the pharmaceutical giant which still uses the Beecham name today to market cold and flu medications. The recurring themes, styles and promises of these advertisements tell us a great deal about the culture and preoccupations of the era, and some of them will be the subject of more detailed blog posts here in the future. In broader economic terms, however, the important point is that more frequent and more lavish advertisements became the financial underpinning of the entire mass media industry, from daily newspapers to monthly magazines, allowing them to sell copies below cost-price, and thus expand (and maintain) their readership.

 

As advertising grew and became more sophisticated, more and more agencies opened in Dublin. By the start of the 20thC, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had competition from the Parker agency established in 1888 on Dame Street (just down the road from the Hartnell offices), and in 1892 they were joined by Kevin J Kenny’s agency which opened on Amiens Street and initially traded under the truly wonderful name of ‘Multum in Parvo’. Others would soon follow, including the legendary McConnell’s agency which was founded (with timing its founder was very proud of) during Easter Week 1916. Some of these agencies would go on to be among the dominant forces of 20thC advertising in Ireland, at least one of them lasting into the 21stC. For all the enormous changes their industry continued to see during that time – including the ascendancy of new media platforms such as radio, television and the internet – it was the late 19thC and early 20thC era which established the structures of modern advertising, its shift from an informational to an emotive form of address to consumers, and its absolutely inextricable economic links to mass media.

 

References

Matthew Hayward, ‘Bloom’s Job: the Role of the Advertisement Canvasser in Joyce’s Dublin’, Modernism/modernity, Vol.22, No.4 (2015), pp. 651-666.

 

Hugh Oram, The Advertising Book: the History of Advertising in Ireland, MO Books: Dublin, 1986.

 

Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, Stanford University Press: Stanford CA, 1991.

 

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.

Ireland’s Own, 1902 – present

In 2002, to mark the magazine’s centenary, RTE broadcast a documentary about Ireland’s Own (the programme is unofficially available here on YouTube). Using interviews with the editorial staff, contributors – including Maeve Binchy, who began her writing career with Ireland’s Own – and devoted readers, the portrait it paints is of a publication which is traditional, conservative and an unlikely survivor in the ruthless world of 21stC print media. As Binchy describes it, Ireland’s Own represents all that is unchanging in Irish life, and is ‘like a big warm cup of tea’. All of which is true….as far as it goes. However none of it was true back in 1902 when the first issues of Ireland’s Own were produced. While many aspects of the magazine’s format have remained oddly unchanged over the course of a century, much about its tone and content have changed significantly.

When Ireland’s Own first appeared in November 1902, it was a story paper (of the kind discussed in a previous post here) aimed primarily at younger male readers, though clearly intended as ‘family’ reading more generally as well. Largely intended for the working-class or lower-middle-class readers who had left school by 14 and become office boys, messengers or ‘shop girls’, it needed to compete for their attention with other penny weeklies, especially those being imported from Britain, such as the Boy’s Own Paper or the Gem, and to do that it needed to publish material that those readers wanted to read. Begun in Wexford by John Walsh (who also owned the Wexford People newspaper), Ireland’s Own positioned itself carefully as a wholesome and patriotically Irish alternative to its imported competition, while actually providing a lively and interactive publication which privileged popularity over wholesomeness, something which probably helps to explain why it has survived so long.

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Story papers focused upon short and serial fiction, and these stories tended to be highly generic and often sensational. Ireland’s Own was by far the most successful Irish story paper, and this was probably because of both the quantity and style of the fiction it published. These varied from romances to adventure stories, almost all set in Ireland or featuring Irish protagonists, and a large number of them were contributed by readers, just as happened in other story papers – each week the first couple of pages of Ireland’s Own would be given over to the winning Prize Story, the author receiving £1 payment and of course the honour of having their story appear, complete with their full name and address. Remarkably the paper continues this tradition of publishing unsolicited fiction more than a hundred years later, which is how Maeve Binchy had her first stories published. Aside from stories sent in by keen amateurs, much of Ireland’s Own fiction was contributed by authors now largely forgotten but who were part of a thriving landscape of popular fiction in early 20thC Ireland. Of these, perhaps the most famous was Victor O’Donovan Power, author of the apparently endless (but in reality just endlessly reprinted) ‘Kitty the Hare’ stories. The stories followed Kitty, described as a old ‘travelling woman’ as she travelled the roads of Ireland. They are, for the modern reader, almost completely unreadable (I have tried) but were enormously popular for several generations of Ireland’s Own readers. The ‘Kitty’ stories would probably have met with the approval of the social purists who scrutinized the popular fiction of the era for sensationalism, sexualisation or violence, but other fiction in Ireland’s Own was much harder to distinguish from that which was condemned as a corrupting influence on young Irish readers. For example, in 1906 they published ‘The Millions of a Mill Girl’ by Catherine J Hamilton, a successful writer who had published the best-selling book ‘Notable Irish Women’ in 1904. This serial story set in Belfast opened with its heroine accidentally witnessing a quarrel between another mill girl and her fiancé. He has accused her of flirting with other men, and when she stands up to him, ‘…the next minute he had thrown her on the ground; he had taken the hatpin out of her head, and was digging it into her brain with his full force.’ Other stories featured wives bricked into secret chambers by Bluebeard-style villainous husbands, and an alarming number of young heroines on the brink of forced marriages to older men who held the mortgages on their family farm, often with the connivance of their indebted fathers, which added a sinister edge to the stories. Even the comic tales often betrayed a bleak vision of Irish life, especially as it related to marriage, property and the connections between the two. In 1909 Ireland’s Own published a topical tale about the introduction of the universal Old Age Pension that year, the story focusing on an old bachelor who has become the target of a local spinster’s marital ambitions now that she knows he qualifies for a pension. He and a friend conspire to deter her by concocting a false claim that pension claims are disqualified by any previous period of time spent in a workhouse – the ‘joke’ of the story being that the spinster had had to enter the workhouse in the past. Another supposedly humorous story tells of a ‘merry widow’ who remarries, to a man not much older than her own son, both bride and bridegroom motivated mainly by a desire to claim ownership of each other’s property, and both being condemned to a miserable marriage as a result. As well as these decidedly stark comedies, Ireland’s Own rather specialised in detective stories – so much so that I’ll post some separate discussions about some of their more long-running series – and while most of these were fairly innocuous, they did include forced marriages, villains who poisoned themselves in front of the detective to evade arrest and even one in which the culprit turned out to be a vampire bat which drained its victims’ blood. With the exception of the story featuring death-by-hatpin (and maybe the vampire bat), none of these stories would have qualified as ‘pernicious literature’ as defined by organisations such as the Irish Vigilance Association. On the other hand, they were hardly the ‘pure, and ennobling in the lessons it conveys’ fiction Ireland’s Own had promised in its initial editorial in 1902, either.

While the fiction was sometimes more sensationalist than the stricter guardians of Irish morals would have preferred, the content in Ireland’s Own which emphatically would not have pleased them was mainly to be found in the advertisements. Apparently the magazine no longer accepts advertising (which may be its most remarkable feature given how dependent most 21stC publishing is upon such income) but in its early years it not only accepted the adverts common to most papers of that era, such as those for soap and branded household products, but also ones which sometimes barely conformed to the advertising decency laws of the time. The more dubious adverts printed by Ireland’s Own during its first decade were mainly for quack medicines of some kind, along with a few get-rich-quick schemes and other deceptively ‘free’ offers. In the early 20thC landscape of unregulated and often ineffectual medicine, quack products, claiming to cure everything from alcoholism to rheumatism, were one of the most lucrative industries, and they relied heavily on advertising in the popular press. The fraudulent patent medicines business was so lucrative in fact that HG Wells made it the subject of his 1909 novel Tono-Bungay. Ireland’s Own was hardly alone in taking ads from manufacturers making outlandish claims for their pills and potions, and many quite august publications regularly advertised medicines which would these days result in prosecutions for fraud. In fact, by 1900 the British Medical Journal was already valiantly attempting to expose and even prosecute the more egregious cases but to no great avail, and the industry continued to thrive and advertise.

Of the more startling – to the modern reader – products Ireland’s Own advertised, one of the single most common were electric or magnetic belts. These apparatuses, which were mainly marketed to men, claimed to revitalise and rejuvenate ‘weaklings’ so that they might regain the lost ‘vigour’ of their youth. Even if readers had not immediately grasped that it was sexual vigour the belts were promising, the drawings illustrating these adverts underlined the point by showing bolts of lightning coming from the groins of men wearing them. One of the earliest adverts of this kind published by Ireland’s Own (in October 1903, when the paper had been running for less than a year) was for the Dr McLaughlin Company’s ‘Electro-Vigour’ belt, which promised that ‘…it rejuvenates, animates sluggish circulation, stimulates the brain into activity and fills the body with life, ambition and endurance. In one day’s use it will make you feel as if born anew.’ This was one of the relatively few companies successfully pursued through the London courts by the BMJ – although they were only able to secure a conviction because one of its salesmen was representing himself as a doctor after he had been struck off the medical register following a conviction for rape. In response to anxious queries from the judge the BMJ’s representatives in court assured him that no customers would have been harmed by the belt because (predictably) their tests suggested it actually transmitted no electric current at all. The most frequent belt advertised however was the ‘Magneto Belt of Life’, marketed by the Ambrose Wilson Company and promising that the ‘vital power you need will be poured into your system’. Wrapped only around the waist rather than the groin, and complemented by the ‘Magneto Corset’ for women, the ‘Magneto Belt’ nevertheless made bold claims for its curative and restorative powers, which included, ‘Rheumatism, Nervous Debility, Loss of Vital Nerve and Muscular Strength, Disordered Liver, Gout, Constipation, Loss of Willpower, Want of Self-Confidence, Lack of Mind Concentration, Involuntary Blushing etc’. These whole page ads, often accompanied by drawings of a shirtless strong-man wearing the belt and towering over punier men who gazed admiringly up at him, had begun appearing in Ireland’s Own by 1911 and continued regularly, often on a weekly basis, well into World War One and indeed appeared in the issue distributed during the week of the Easter Rising.

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This concern with vigour (sexual and otherwise) and the appeal of a ‘superman’ figure, was tied to many early 20thC concerns about masculinity, ranging from very specific fears which were common at the time about the debilitating effects of masturbation, to the more general fears of a physical and moral ‘degeneration’ caused by urban life and indoor employment. For those who want a more detailed discussion of this crisis of masculinity and male potency in an Irish context (and who wouldn’t?), I’ve written about this at length here. Ireland’s Own was far from unusual in taking such advertisements – they were widespread at the time and the magazine actually published fewer of them than many other publications. But given that even Oliver St John Gogarty (not one of the more puritan figures of the era) had once, in an article in Sinn Fein, condemned ‘hideous advertisements of patent ways of recovering from indulgence’ as being an especially loathsome features of the crass commercial culture which was contaminating Irish mass media, it is surprising that the magazine did not appear to attract any attention from the genuinely fierce campaigners for social purity.

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But quite aside from promises of restored vigour, advertisements for other pseudo-medical products proliferated on the pages of Ireland’s Own as well. Some were merely obvious (but entirely legal) frauds, such as one headlined ‘I Enlarged My Bust 6 Inches in 30 Days’ and offering to sell a booklet explaining how this was done using ‘no glass or wooden cups with vacuum appliances, neither dangerous drugs nor massage, but a simple, harmless method’ which readers could discover if they bought the booklet – these kind of advertisements, which always involved sending away for a pamphlet or book, which were very common and were the early 20thC equivalent of our contemporary ‘one weird old trick’ online advertisements. Non-medical frauds proliferated as well, especially in the form of fake competitions, often offering large prizes and usually claiming to be free to enter (these were a long-established con, in which hopeful entrants would receive letters confirming they had successfully progressed to another round of the competition but that this now required a payment) and other get-rich-quick schemes. In 1913, readers were invited to write to a London address for a booklet entitled Money-making Opportunities in the Mail-Order Business whose author claimed that ‘with an idea and £2 to start I made £5,000 in Two Years’. The combined effect of advertisements for magnetic belts, fraudulent self-help books, and many, many quack medicines, does rather undermine the magazine’s claim in its first issue that its purpose was ‘…to instruct, to elevate…’ and to counteract the influence of ‘objectionable literature from abroad’. This, combined with their frequently sensationalist fiction, meant that their overall tone and style was not that different from many of their British rivals – which of course was probably one of the reasons that they were the story paper which survived, as this was what their readership actually wanted. Advertisements were vital to the success of commercial publications, probably more so than the cover-price paid by readers. It is clear that the publishers and editors of Ireland’s Own understood this very well, and their willingness to publish advertisements for electric belts and dubious reader competitions may well have been key to the initial success which would eventually become one of the longest-running publications in Ireland.

References

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Do You Ring? Or Are you Rung for?”: Mass Media, Class, and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland’, New Hibernia Review, 18/4 Winter, 2014.

‘Ireland’s Own: One Hundred Years’, True Lives, RTE 2002.

Lady of the House, 1890-1923

Lady of the House magazine was a curious publication. Begun in 1890, it claimed to be the first Irish women’s magazine, and its initial issue announced that ‘The want has long been felt of a high-class Irish Journal solely devoted to Fashion, the Beautifying of the Home and Person, Scientific Cookery, the Toilet, the Wants and Amusements of Children, the Garden and Conservatory, and the hundred-and-one matters which interest educated women. This want, we repeat, has been felt, but has not hitherto been filled, except by the English Ladies’ Journals which enjoy an immense circulation in this country’. The magazine, which was published monthly, did indeed cover all of these topics, and from a specifically Irish perspective – reporting on Irish fashionable society, Irish products and shops, and developments in social issues as they affected Irish women. Many of the stories were illustrated with photographs, as readers of more up-market publications were coming to expect by the 1890s. Priced at one shilling per issue, Lady of the House appeared every month for more than 30 years, until shortly after Irish Independence when following a brief flurry of name changes, it became Irish Tatler, a publication which continues to this day.

All was not entirely as it seemed, however. Lady of the House was published by the firm of Wilson, Hartnell and Co., and its editor was the owner, Henry Crawford Hartnell. But Wilson, Hartnell and Co. were not journal or magazine publishers – they were in fact one of Ireland’s first advertising agencies, having been established in 1879 (and will be the subject of separate blog post at some point in the future). Lady of the House was actually an extended advertisement for one of the agency’s largest clients, Findlater & Co. Findlater’s was a wine merchant and grocery business with several branches in Dublin (including ones in Rathmines and Howth as well as Upper Baggot Street and South Great George’s Street in the city centre). They were expensive, and were grocers to the middle and upper-middle classes of the city. Each issue of the magazine ended with about 10 pages of that month’s price list for Findlater’s, showing the cost of wines, sherries, and grocery items. The first issue of Lady of the House had a 20,000 print run (which was very large for an Irish magazine) and was free to Findlater’s account customers. In other words, the first 40 pages of articles, photographs, short stories and readers’ letters were merely the window-dressing for a grocer’s price-list. If it is a truism of commercial media that its object is not to deliver content to audiences, but to deliver audiences to advertisers, then Lady of the House was an early and extreme example of an entire publication being a thinly-disguised advertisement.

This was certainly a very novel approach to advertising, and also a very innovative business plan for a women’s magazine. The magazine itself, in design, content and tone, was in every other respect a fairly typical turn-of-the-century women’s magazine – deeply concerned with fashion, childcare, and romance as well as the more serious ‘women’s issues’ of the era such as employment and education. Nevertheless, its position as an advertising vehicle for Dublin’s largest wine merchant was used against it in an 1892 attack by the Dublin Figaro, a particularly bad-tempered and very conservative society magazine (which I’ll also write about in a future blog). The editor of the Figaro sarcastically commented that, ‘I am afraid that the readers of Lady of the House have to take too much drink with their literature. The wine list attached is voluminous enough to intoxicate the entire staff…It is impossible not to sympathise with the ‘gentlewomen’ who have to write in such close proximity to a monthly price list so suggestive of a gigantic public house’.

The Figaro’s sarcasm was motivated by a number of factors. Firstly, that Lady of the House was real competition in the fairly ruthless Irish publishing market. It may have begun purely as an extended price list, but it rapidly became a great deal more than that. It is very clear from both the longevity and content of Lady of the House that it quickly acquired a community of readers who – perhaps even to the surprise of its own editor and publisher – enjoyed it and actively engaged with its letters columns and competitions. This made it competition to other magazines not only in terms of readers themselves, but also for the advertising copy which paid the bills of all publications, as those advertisers sought out popular publications in order to reach their readers. The second reason for the Figaro’s vitriol was indicated in their sly reference to the ‘gentlewomen’ writing it. This was in part a comic acknowledgement that like most women’s magazines of the era, it was probably written mainly by men, either anonymously or using female pen-names. But the Figaro may also have had doubts that the readers of Lady of the House were quite ‘gentlewomen’ either, at least by its own deeply-conservative and upper-class standards.

At first glance, Lady of the House appears to be fairly ‘posh’. It had advertisements for expensive department stores like Switzer’s, short stories set in titled high-society and columns advising on social etiquette. And of course, very many of its readers were account customers with Findlater’s, whose liveried delivery vans were something of a status symbol in the leafy south Dublin suburbs. This combined with its enthusiastic coverage of charity bazaars and tennis competitions indicate that most of its readers were women from the Protestant middle-classes. However, more careful reading indicates that the magazine was actually pitched for the precariously-privileged. By the standards of poverty common in Ireland in the late 19thC and early 20thC, these readers were indeed prosperous, but these things are all relative, and it is obvious that Lady of the House was aimed less at the upper-middle-classes than at the more ‘ordinary’ middle-class readership, who could just about keep up the necessary appearances of middle-class status, but for whom budgets were tight, sometimes perhaps desperately so. This is clear, for example, from the large number of articles giving advice on household management – these included advice on ‘fancy’ cookery or even the cleaning of ostrich feathers. These might seem a mark of privilege us as modern readers (who probably own very few ostrich feathers), but what it actually reveals is that Lady of the House readers had to do such tasks themselves rather than having sufficient servants to do it for them. This was very common in the less-wealthy middle-classes – while there was one servant to do the basic cooking and cleaning, the women of the household had to do a great deal of very ungentile labour (discreetly and behind closed doors) in order to maintain any kind of middle-class standard of living. Advice columns on cleaning or housework of any kind are therefore an indication of its readers’ experience of domestic labour, rather than of their wealth. Even more revealing of the sometimes precarious class position of Lady of the House readers were its frequent articles on ‘acceptable’ ways by which middle-class women could make money, sometimes even after marriage. While unmarried middle-class women were increasingly entering the workforce by the 1890s (something which Lady of the House strongly supported), it was still a crucial marker of class identity that ‘gentlewomen’ did not work after marriage. But as early as 1893, Lady of the House was running articles on ‘pursuits for gentlewomen’ which included activities such as bee-keeping and ‘poultry for profit’, both of which could be discreetly engaged in by married women whose household budget was under strain. And by the following year, the magazine encouraged readers to contribute to a debate in their pages on the question ‘Should Married Women Augment Their Husbands’ Income?’, making it clear from the start that they supported the proposal.

This was in line with the magazine’s general tone and editorial position on women’s issues of the day. One of the most noticeable, and rather startling, features of Lady of the House throughout its decades of publication was its progressive stance on many social issues. It steered aggressively clear of the party and national politics of the era, using and reusing the phrase ‘…writing no politics, for we profess none’ whenever it skirted an issue connected to party politics or the ‘national question’. On social issues however, the magazine took a consistent and sometimes surprisingly progressive line. They were firmly in favour of women’s education, including to university level, and frequently celebrated women who achieved it. They took a similar approach to women’s entry into the professions, publishing admiring profiles of ‘lady doctors’ and ‘lady lawyers’. Many articles about other employment possibilities – such as typing, nursing or even agriculture – appeared each year, always encouraging women to train, acquire skills and qualifications, and to undertake paid work. They also supported women’s participation in sport, as well as defending that classic icon of the ‘new woman’ movement, the female cyclist. They were careful not to declare a position on the very divisive topic of women’s suffrage, but the fact that for many years they ran a discussion column (in which a topic would be proposed for debate and readers’ responses would be published the following month) called ‘Women’s Parliament’ indicated tacit support for it. The ‘Women’s Parliament’ column tackled many controversial topics over the years, including ‘Is Independence Good for Women?’, ‘Is Vegetarianism Right?’ and even ‘Would Associated Housekeeping Be a Desirable Step?, which debated the extent to which communal neighbourhood kitchens would liberate women from domestic labour and therefore allow them to enter more into public life. The magazine was progressive rather than radical – it was bourgeois and determinedly respectable, unlike the feminist paper Shan Van Vocht of the same era, for example. But where Shan Van Vocht ran for only a couple of years and would have had a tiny readership, Lady of the House reached tens of thousands of women over several decades, and its progressive politics were sometimes more far-reaching than we might have predicted.

This is especially true considering its origins as an advertising vehicle for Findlater’s wine and grocery chain, and this is what makes Lady of the House a curiosity in Irish media history. How did what was essentially an extended grocer’s price-list become a widely-read publication for several decades, let alone one which consistently expressed support for women’s higher education as well as their legal and employment rights? To some extent this must have been driven by the views of the editor, Henry Crawford Hartnell, the founder of the advertising agency which operated the magazine. Given its inherently commercial original purpose, however, it seems unlikely that Hartnell would have pursued such progressive positions over many years if they had been unpopular or even controversial with his readers. Instead, we must conclude that these positions broadly reflected the views of many of his readers – women who were predominantly Protestant, middle-class (but not always very wealthy) and mainly if not entirely concentrated around Dublin. Like the magazine itself, few of these women were actively involved in suffrage activism, or any of the other radical politics of the era. And yet, the consistently progressive politics of Lady of the House, especially with regard to women’s work and education, point towards interests and aspirations among its readership which went well beyond ‘beautifying of the home and person’, and all under cover of an extended grocers’ price list.