Tag: Lady of the House

Mass media, High Society and the invention of Celebrity

These days a great deal of the popular press is locked into a reciprocal and lucrative relationship with a wide variety of celebrities. The press needs stories (and above all else, photographs) of celebrities in order to sell their publications, while most celebrities need press coverage in order to maintain the public profile without which they would not be celebrities. In recent years this closed loop has reached its logical conclusion, resulting in complaints about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’, apparently having no public life or career beyond the pages of tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines.

Celebrity is a complex cultural concept (there is for an example, an entire academic journal, Celebrity Studies, dedicated to it), which takes different forms at different moments. However, in all its forms it has a specific history, and one which is inherently tied to the development of mass media. Celebrity in any recognisable form requires a mass media in order to create fame and instant recognition, as there can be no celebrity without an audience. Equally, before mass media and its creation of that audience, there was no real need for celebrities – they were an invention of the popular press and its need to appeal to segmented audiences who must be persuaded to buy each new issue. Celebrities whose star personae were carefully tailored to a particular audience proved to be an exceptionally successful and long-lasting way to attract regular buyers.

Late 19thC mass media – in Ireland and elsewhere – provides an opportunity to watch modern celebrity develop, as publications, advertisers, readers and the proto-celebrities themselves negotiated its form and purpose. The earliest category of famous individuals whose names (and later photographs) could sell newspapers were of course aristocrats. This was entirely logical, as they already possessed many of the characteristics which would later become associated with the celebrity format – they were drawn from a demarcated group whose very names, in the form of their titles, differentiated them from ordinary readers in a parallel fashion to the way that very famous modern celebrities’ very names are also brands. Aristocrats also lived lives of barely imaginable glamour (at least in theory, on the pages of newspapers and magazines), in castles and palaces, with carriages, servants, jewels and other luxuries. Perhaps most appealing of all to those following their lives in the press, they lived a life of permanent leisure. If the earlier Victorian period had struggled with the moral implications of leisure (and how it might be differentiated from idleness, which in the more religious times of the mid-19thC was of course a sin), then the late 19thC had fully resolved that struggle in favour of leisure as something to enjoyed at every opportunity. This could be seen in the rise of music halls, department stores, day-trip tourism and of course the media itself, which were all forms of entertainment which required leisure-time to enjoy. The reality for most people however was that their opportunities for leisure were still extremely limited. The majority of the population left school by 14 at the latest, the working week was typically still 6½ days, paid holidays were unusual, and the old age pension wasn’t introduced until 1909, so even retirement wasn’t a common experience. So fin-de-siècle culture was saturated with leisure activities which most people had a very limited chance to enjoy. The aristocracy’s life of total leisure, only emphasised by the ways they invented to fill it – moving from their country estate to their town-house and then on to the south of France according to the season, and attending court, country house parties, racing meets, grouse shooting or regattas as they went, all the while changing their clothes several times a day – was therefore a source of fascination in itself to over-worked readers of the popular press.

Women’s magazines and society papers, not surprisingly, were the most avid reporters of aristocratic celebrity. In Ireland, these included Lady of the House and Irish Society, among others. The two papers were different from each other in many respects – Lady of the House was more firmly positioned as a women’s magazine, and one which often expressed quite progressive social views, as well as catering to a slightly broader readership. Irish Society’s name probably speaks for itself – it focused entirely upon the activities and interests of the social elite, although it would have been read more broadly too, and that broader readership would have been specifically attracted by the high society lifestyles and individuals it reported on. Both magazines participated in the use of the aristocracy as proto-celebrities however, devoting considerable column inches to news of their lifestyles, fashions and travels. Although the activities of British (and even sometimes continental European) royalty and aristocrats featured fairly regularly, the Irish press tended to give much more attention to Irish aristocrats and the other upper-classes, with much of the narrative centring around the social life of Dublin Castle. In February 1903, for example, Lady of the House reported on the opening of that year’s ‘season’, which always began with the presentation of debutantes at the Castle. Under the headline ‘The First Dublin Drawing Room of the Season’, they printed a double-page photo spread of debutantes in their regulation white ball gowns. In the same issue there were reports of some of the ancillary social events of the season, including the information that ‘Mrs Garrett-Walker gave a ball at her residence, 38 Fitzwilliam Square. She is a daughter of Canon Leeper.’ Often there were minute descriptions of the precise gowns and jewels worn by each of the most important guests at these parties, along with general fashion commentary such as ‘The old-fashioned cut-work, which formed such an important Irish industry during the 1850s, is once more a la mode, and placed more prominently en evidence than of yore’. As the season wore on, and high society marriages were arranged, magazines such as Lady of the House and Irish Society covered those too. In January 1902, Irish Society informed its readers that ‘Miss Kathleen Blake Squires, youngest daughter of Mr WA Squires, of 61 Dartmouth Square, was married on Thursday last, the 2nd, to the Rev FC Day-Lewis, BA, senior curate of Stradbally, Queen’s County…’. As well as these local (and less illustrious) announcements, the magazine concerned itself too with events in the very highest circles, such as its announcement in the same issue that the Marquis of Bute was expected to come into his fortune (estimated at £6m, an immense figure) in that year.

Castle Season

Although publications which gave importance to high society would have actively monitored events such as the presentation of debutantes at the Castle court, it is worth noting that most of the information they published giving details of private parties or engagements and marriages – let alone formal photographs of debutantes and socialites in ball gowns – were supplied to the editors by the subjects themselves. Not that long before the end of the 19thC, the upper echelons of Irish (and British) society would have resisted publicity of this kind, especially for women, and seen it as a severe failing of etiquette and good breeding, but by the start of the 20thC it was becoming increasingly common for members of the upper class to be profiled in magazines, or even to endorse specific products in advertising. In women’s magazines in particular, profiles of and interviews with ‘notable women’ were a regular and popular feature. For example Lady of the House opened the new century with a series of aristocratic profiles under the remarkable title ‘Some Men’s Wives’, and just a few years later in 1904 produced an article on ‘The Ladies of the Guinness Family’, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Lady Gwendoline, Lady Evelyn and the Hon Mrs Ernest Guinness, all of whom frequently appeared in press as a result of their social position and philanthropic activities. Indeed, the increased public profile of many upper-class women by the turn of the 20thC was often predicated on their involvement in heavily-publicised charity events to raise money for good causes – another aspect of contemporary celebrity culture which can be traced to this era. In the 1890s a series of grand-scale ‘charity bazaars’ were held in Dublin in order to raise money for a range of hospitals in the city. These were lavish affairs (mainly held at the RDS) with music, performances, cafes and above all else, stage-set ‘villages’ in which each house was a stall selling souvenirs and goods, all of which were managed and staffed by society girls in full costume. Of these the most famous is the ‘Araby’ bazaar held in 1894 and immortalised in James Joyce’s story of that name. Staged over a week and attended by 80,000 people, ‘Araby’ was a significant popular event in the city from numerous perspectives, but at the time there is no doubt that most of the enormous free publicity it received from magazines such as Lady of the House was a result of its very public display of marriageable young women from the upper-middle-classes and aristocracy. The magazine covered ‘Araby’ obsessively, profiling each stall and its ‘lady stallholders’ in the run-up to the bazaar’s opening, and afterwards published many photographs of them in costume. Given that ‘Araby’ attracted a great many members of the public to buy tickets and attend it, it is not surprising that the press was able to use the bazaar’s proto-celebrity society girls to sell magazine copies.

Interviews with well-known women were also common in both women’s magazines and society papers. In 1902 Irish Society published a series of interviews collectively titled ‘Gentlewomen at Home’, including one with Lady Nixon, who was the wife of Sir Christopher Nixon, then the president of the Royal College of Physicians. Defined primarily by her husband, Lady Nixon was nevertheless interviewed also as the mistress of her grand home at 2 Merrion Square, and praised for her roles as a hostess, mother and philanthropist, the interview mentioning in some detail the charities whose committees she was a member of. An interviewee such as Lady Nixon was beyond reproach as a paragon of upper-class femininity, but many magazine interviews with ‘notable women’ were keen to emphasise their ladylike qualities – all the more so if the women were active beyond the domestic sphere. This tension, between the need to create a public profile for aristocratic women in order to mobilise their celebrity for sales, and the competing concern that publicity and a public life might undermine their respectable femininity, became more and more visible as the years went by and the categories of female celebrity expanded beyond the real aristocracy, whose rank alone provided considerable protection to their reputations.

As a result of this, many interviews with and profiles of famous women worked hard to emphasise their domesticity and traditional femininity. Subjects were typically interviewed in their own homes during ‘afternoon tea’, which prompted the commonly recurring headline for female celebrity interviews, ‘Over the Teacups’, a phrase used for decades by many different magazines to conjure a cosy domestic tone. These highly-staged domestic interviews not only worked to underline their subjects’ femininity, but also allowed readers a pleasing glimpse into their homes. This concern about the effect of a public life upon the private reputation of female celebrities was especially evident in 1892 when Lady of the House included Maude Gonne in a society news column called ‘What Women Are Doing’ and added rather anxiously that, ‘Whatever may be said against Miss Gonne’s politics and methods…no man or woman can otherwise breathe a word against her…she has never been known for a moment to lose or jeopardise her self-respect as a woman’.

As time went on, the categories of women profiled and interviewed in women’s magazines expanded to include more and more non-aristocrats. As women began (very gradually) to enter higher education and the professions, relatively progressive magazines like Lady of the House began to profile some of them, and interviews ‘over the teacups’ appeared with ‘lady graduates’ and ‘lady doctors’. Stage performers such as Lillie Langtry or Nellie Melba also achieved a very modern form of celebrity in the pages of popular magazines, as their glamorous lives were profiled and ever-more photographed. Famed now for their beauty, talent and lifestyles rather than for their birth and breeding, they slowly began to edge out the aristocratic celebrities, a process which was rapidly accelerated by the arrival of film as the dominant leisure culture which would create ‘stars’ of actresses who no longer needed to emphasise their domesticity or traditional femininity. New publications dedicated to film star news, photographs and gossip had begun to emerge by the end of World War One, the forerunners of today’s magazines dedicated to celebrity culture.

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Deserters and White Slavers: Emigration in the Irish popular press

In August 1912 Julia Curran, a young Irish woman from Kilkenny, was brutally murdered in a New York brothel. Later that year the case would become a significant scandal when it emerged that corrupt police had tried to help the brothel cover up her death as being from ‘natural causes’, but long before then the story was widely reported in the Irish press. The victim (frequently described as being from a ‘good family’ and having worked as a governess in aristocratic homes in Ireland) had been travelling in America as a lady’s companion to a wealthy family when she made the acquaintance of a ‘foreign’ man and abruptly left her employment to travel to New York with him. She was later seen arriving at the brothel in his company in a visibly ‘drugged’ condition, her body being found in their room the following day (she had been strangled), her male companion having disappeared.

the-inside-of-the-white-slave-traffic-poster

This grim story would have seemed eerily familiar to many readers of the Irish press, where it was avidly reported in papers from the Kerry Reporter to the Strabane Chronicle under headlines such as ‘New York Horror’ and ‘Irish Girl’s Fate, Pretty Governess Murdered’. It read like an exact real-life example of the tales of ‘white slavery’ they had been hearing for years, but with a particular intensity around the time of Julia Curran’s death. ‘White slavery’ was the deliberately emotive term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to warn young women of the reputed threat they faced of being seduced, tricked or even kidnapped into prostitution. These threats were, it was argued, especially great for young women who moved to big cities looking for work, away from the protection of their families and supposedly becoming vulnerable to the cunning wiles of procurers who would target them at train stations, ports and even in busy streets. As Katherine Mullin describes in her book on the Irish social purity movement, a pamphlet entitled The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes, which was published in 1912, used a photo-story reconstruction of how unwary girls could be fooled into prostitution. In the first image, a charming stranger engages the innocent young woman in conversation in a city street. In the second image, he has persuaded her to accompany him to a restaurant where ‘the smooth-tongued villain tells of his affection and undying love for her’ while, of course, drugging her food. And in the final photo, she is seen dazedly following him into a building, now ‘incapable of self-control and is easily led to her ruin. Awaking she will find herself in a house of shame’. The following year not one but two films on the topic, Traffic in Souls and The Horrors of the White Slave Trade, were released into the increasingly-popular movie theatres. The international campaign to ‘rescue’ unwitting girls from the clutches of ‘white slavery’ was of course a close relative of the broader social purity movement which was previously discussed here on this blog in relation to its campaigns against ‘evil literature’. In Ireland, this had actually begun as a late-19thC campaign against the brothels in Dublin’s Monto district, involving street pickets and attempts to identify and shame male customers – but from around 1900 the focus of Irish purity campaigns moved to an emphasis on popular fiction, photographs, crime and divorce reporting. However, the moral panic about innocent young women being tricked into ‘white slavery’ did have considerable resonance in Ireland as a cautionary tale of what might result from emigration, especially emigration to big cities such as London or New York.

horrors-of-the-white-slave-trade-the-mighty-crusade-to-protect-the-purity-our-homes-clifford-g-roe-1911-illustrationhorrors-of-the-white-slave-trade-drugged-and-led-clifford-g-roe-19111

The decades immediately before and after 1900 were periods of enormous emigration from Ireland – often from rural areas to the huge cities of Britain and the United States. Not only were Ireland’s emigration rates extremely high, but young single women constituted an unusually high proportion of those emigrants, and this made awful warnings of the moral dangers they faced a popular theme of anti-emigration rhetoric. Not that female emigrants were the only targets of warnings against leaving home, however. Ireland’s Own in particular maintained a steady flow of anti-emigration rhetoric through its fiction, factual articles and editorials from its earliest years, and many of these were aimed at young male readers as well as female. Ireland’s Own’s principal demographic, young working-class or lower-middle-class readers (both male and female) were of course also the principal demographic who were emigrating, and this was therefore a sensitive topic for the paper to raise. Nevertheless it did so regularly, and in ways which left no ambiguity about its editorial position on the subject. Within its first few months for example, an opinion column of December 1902 claimed that every day 108 people left Ireland ‘with much patriotism on their lips but not any in their hearts….there was a time when the word ‘emigrant’ was nearly synonymous with “martyr”. At the present day, in view of the arduous labour and risk of moral degradation that a life outside of Ireland entails and the obvious opportunities for work that await the willing hand at home, it is an abuse of the words to call deserters “emigrants”. Here emigration is painted not only as a moral risk to the individual emigrant, but also as such a significant loss to the national body politic that it can be characterised as unpatriotic or even as ‘desertion’, a highly emotive term. In another article in the same vein more than a decade later, the paper would rail against the ‘terrible drain on our resources that has been made by the constant emigration of the strong and the young to America’. Here then emigration was a betrayal of Ireland, and something of an accusation from the paper to its own readers, many of whom must have emigrated each year, or had siblings and friends who did. Perhaps aware that calls to remain in Ireland for purely patriotic reasons were unlikely to deter many potential emigrants, Ireland’s Own frequently invoked the difficulties and disappointments of life abroad, especially in the United States. This was an anti-emigration narrative particularly aimed at male emigrants, who were assured that ‘few, very few, ever earn more than a living wage’, along with warnings about the high cost of living in cities like New York, and the competition for jobs they would face from Russians, Swedes, Germans or Italians, who it was claimed were hired in preference to Irishmen and would work for less money. These points were reinforced in fiction as well, with stories about emigration gone wrong. In 1908 for example, the paper published ‘A False El Dorado’ by Thomas Geraghty, about a young man who leaves his family home in Ireland for New York, in part to search for his brother who had emigrated some years before and not been heard of since. Our hero struggles to make a living, but perseveres, until one day he rescues from the river a man attempting suicide – who of course turns out to be his brother, aged and defeated by his failure in New York, and too ashamed to stay in contact with his family. The story has a happy ending in which the brothers return to the family cottage in Ireland, but the moral for readers contemplating emigration was clear.

Nevertheless, for all the dire warnings of the economic hazards awaiting male emigrants, the fate conjured for young women was definitely even worse. In 1903 the paper’s women’s page warned of difficulties in finding work and lodgings, or even a suitable church to attend, concluding that it was ‘far better to stay at home and make the best of things’. More sensational warnings would follow in later years however, ones very similar to those contained in white slavery pamphlets such as The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes. In 1915 a correspondent to Ireland’s Own from Montreal warned that girls who emigrated alone lacked moral guidance in their new life, and would spend their time going to movies on their nights off as well as reading ‘cheap literature which is very far from being up to standard. As time goes on she makes an acquaintance, and then what’s the result? In this way Ireland loses sight of the daughters she’s so proud of’. This warning was coy however by comparison to that from 1909, which had described Irish girls who emigrated to New York being forced to work in service for families ‘who have no God’, and associate with other girls ‘who mock purity, girls who are morally dead’. Ireland’s Own went on, ‘the rest of the story is too horrible. In very many cases the unprotected girl sinks lower and lower, until her condition is that of social outcast’. This it was argued would inevitably lead to arrest, imprisonment, alcoholism ‘to sustain her exhausted body, and then one night she runs to the river and goes to be judged’.

Such melodramatic predictions of the fate awaiting young Irish women in New York and other cities were sometimes tempered by more sober acknowledgements that female emigrants (in particular) had their reasons for leaving in such large numbers. It is noticeable that these acknowledgements tended to come from women journalists, who probably had personal experience of some of the limitations women faced in Ireland. In 1906 Ireland’s Own published a long article entitled ‘Country Homes and Home Makers’ by Mary EL Butler, which directly addressed the issue of young female emigration. Butler was one of the most successful women journalists in early 20thC Ireland, as well as being an active member of the Gaelic League. She had a long-running column in the Irish Independent, was regularly published in nationalist papers (she had a particular commitment to the Irish language and published in Irish), and also wrote at least one novel, The Ring of the Day in 1907. In her 1906 piece for Ireland’s Own, Butler acknowledged that for many young women a desire to escape from a dull rural life to something ‘gayer, more exciting’ was an important incentive to emigration. She argued that ‘distaste for country life with us amounts to a national danger’ because of its influence on emigration rates. While her tone is disapproving of these emigrants’ decision, she does go on to argue that ‘if the exodus which is bringing our country to its knees is to be stopped it is absolutely necessary to make home and village life attractive’. A similar attitude was displayed the following year in an article in Lady of the House by Mary Costello. Far less is known of Costello than of Butler, but she published at least one novel (Peggy the Millionaire in 1910) and several long pieces with Lady of the House over many years, including an investigative journalism series called ‘A Woman’s Life in the Dublin Slums’ during the 1890s which contained fierce denunciations of the social and political failures responsible for the city’s tenements. Her 1907 article for Lady of the House was called ‘Fore! The Modern Woman Demands the Clearing of the Way’ and was a bold assertion of Irish women’s new-found confidence, illustrated with a drawing of a Gibson girl playing golf. Costello argued that ‘in no other English-speaking part of the globe have women been more kept down than they have among us, more handicapped in education and in the means of earning an honourable livelihood.’ Noting the high levels of female emigration, she described them as starting ‘alone and dry-eyed across the Atlantic into the heart of life, undismayed by the pictures of hard work, failure, and loss of health which anti-emigrationists forcibly depict.’ While mourning the loss of such energetic young women, she added that nothing would be more likely to stop it than ‘giving Irishwomen an interest and a voice in all that goes on at home’.

None of this would have been much consolation to Julia Curran, whose death may have seemed like the (mainly invented) propaganda of the anti-white slavery campaign but which was for once all-too real. As a final indignity, her death was then used to sell Irish newspapers using sensational headlines like ‘How Miss Curran Was Lured to Death’, along with graphic descriptions of how she was killed. Even Ireland’s Own, which did not print such details, did discuss her death, the editor commenting that ‘it is a sad satisfaction to me to know that “Ireland’s Own” consistently and strenuously warned its readers against the dangers and pitfalls that await the unwary in the huge and seething attics of the New World’.

References

Katherine Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZHihjo_eBQ

Traffic in Souls (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLZLhdqQXug

Clifford Griffith Roe, The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes (London and New York, 1912).

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.

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.