The New York Review of Magazines

My Ladies’ Home Journal Heritage

By Spencer Bailey

A series of illustrated Ladies’ Home Journal magazine covers from the 1890s and early 1900s used to hang in frames on the walls of my grandparents’ house. I remember a few of them: a white, spotted dog on a green background; nine yellow chicks splayed on a black page; a woman wading in water wearing a swimming cap. There was also an original painting — featuring a tan bunny rabbit with beady black eyes on a navy blue background — which became one of the Journal’s most famous images. Published on the cover of the April 1903 issue, it was a defining part of the early 20th-century American ethos. So much so, in fact, that it was featured in fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and art director George Lois’ 2007 book Iconic America: A Roller-Coaster Ride Through the Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture.

All of these covers were illustrated by Frank S. Guild, my great-great-grandfather and namesake, born in 1856, who was, I recently found out, the Journal’s art editor. His middle name was Spencer.

Growing up, all I knew about Frank was that he once lived in New Hampshire and that his father’s name, too, was Spencer. My knowledge about the man who helped illustrate the Journal — America’s most advertisement-filled magazine in 1900 and the first in the nation to reach one million subscribers — was limited. I decided to do some research.

A Google search of “Frank Guild” brought up surprising results. A Wikipedia page — just a stub, but a start — that labels him as an American-born painter. An eBay listing for the Journal’s April 1904 issue, the one with the chicks, for $25. (I went ahead and bought it.) A Google Books page, featuring a scanned copy of the 1898 book Model Houses for Little Money, to which Frank contributed two chapters (“Remodeling the Front Door” and “What a Window Will Do For a Home”). And a website for Antiques Emporium, a shop in Raleigh, N.C., selling an 1884 painting by Frank in a gold frame (a “lovely rendering of a young lady in a garden wood”) for $1,250.

Digging around online databases and books, I found more. Harvard Libraries had a scanned copy of the “What Some Folks Write About” section in the Journal’s August 1904 issue. It describes Frank as “the Journal’s own art manager, who designed the famous ‘Bunnie’ on the Easter Journal of 1903, and also the popular cover of yellow ‘chicks’ on the last Easter issue.” And in Bowdoin professor Jennifer Scanlon’s book Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies’ Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture, I learned that the Journal’s art department was “considered the best in the nation by the early 1900s.”

When the April 1904 issue I ordered on eBay arrived in the mail, I flipped through all 74 of its 12-by-16-inch pages, reveling in the illustrations and advertisements (for things like corn syrup, carriages and corsets). The issue’s snappy stories and top-notch writing, too, demonstrate why the Journal had cultural cachet. Consider “Monarch, The Grizzly,” a feature about hunting grizzlies in the Sierra Mountains, written and illustrated by Ernest Thompson Seton, a founder of the Boy Scouts of America. Seton’s prose is clear and cool-headed (“Just as fads will for a time sway human life, so crazes may run through all animals of a given kind”), and his pencil drawings, one featuring a grizzly bear amid the sprawling California landscape, help illuminate the text.

Then there’s the issue’s invitingly simple yet stylish cover, which, in the lower right-hand corner, features its artist’s yellow-painted initials: F.G. They’re the initials of an artist whose contributions to the magazine were wide-ranging. And consistent. An artist who illustrated stories about homes and gardens, and backyards and birdhouses. An artist who drew front doors and flower pots and chairs. An artist who also wrote sidebars and articles, including “Easily-Made Dressing-Tables For Girls” (Dec. 1897) and “The Washstand as a Thing of Beauty” (April 1898). An artist who helped usher in a century of iconic American covers, illustrations and images. An artist who, it appears, played a big role in shaping the Journal’s early identity. An artist named Frank.

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