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.