FROM THE PAST:Celebrity endorsements, products that promise miracles, and an obsession with weight loss – the first edition of ‘ Woman’s Weekly’in 1911 had some very contemporary concerns, writes ROSITA BOLAND
"WOMEN’S WORK is never done. This is a saying which women are always using. We are going to prove that it is true. Every week this page will illustrate the endless and countless tasks that the average woman has to do. 1. Serving up the breakfast. 2. Seeing the children off to school. 3. Making the beds. 4. Putting the dinner on to cook. 5. Backdoor shopping with the tradespeople. 6. Needlework in the afternoon.”
Probably, by the time you read about task number five, something twigged. Women certainly still shop for household provisions, but it’s a task more likely to be done in a supermarket. As for needlework in the afternoon – well, can there be many women who still do needlework as a set chore every day?
The above all comes from the very first edition of the British magazine Woman’s Weekly, which was published in November 1911. The magazine is still very much in business, and as part of its centenary celebrations, recently republished that first edition. The startling thing about reading through a magazine that was published before women could vote, before the Titanic sank, and when poppies were just pretty flowers and held no symbolism of a ghastly war, is how contemporary so much of it still is.
There are patterns for clothes, fashion tips, ads for household products and foodstuffs we still eat, including Bird’s Custard. There’s a short story, a competition – the prize is a pair of scissors – a feature on how to become a nurse, and an ad with the headline, “How I enlarged my bust after massage, cold creams, wooden cups, electricity, dangerous drugs and other methods had all failed.” Wooden cups! Electricity! Eeek!
The young lady in the ad, who was “anxious to obtain a luxurious bust development”, apparently did so by means of a vague and mysterious “plan” that is never specified. The plan was suggested to her by “a friend who had given a lifetime to study and scientific research”. God alone knows what kind of potions were ingested to achieve this result: “You can imagine my surprise and delight when I noticed that my bust was becoming firmer and I watched it grow in size day by day and week by week . . . until it surpassed even my fondest dreams.”
Woman’s Weeklyin 1911 was marketed towards the woman “of the Empire” before marketing was ever coined as a word. The editor’s letter explained that “the dominant note is that of ‘usefulness’”. The magazine, or “journal” as it described itself, was going to offer practical information in the form of clothes patterns for children and women, cookery recipes, and household tips that would add to every woman’s “household stock-in-trade”.
It was also offering weekly fiction, but with a caveat. “There is a tendency in many papers for women to deal with phases of life which, to put it mildly, are not at all pleasing or nice to think about.” Woman’s Weeklywas not going to send its readers down those unpleasant byways. Its stories would be as “useful” as its household tips, “and not deal entirely with the sordid side in life”.
Perhaps the most dated part of the journal are the many rather terrifying ads for cures for illnesses. For a “rupture”, the cure offered was “the rice method”; some food product you sent away for. Guy’s Tonic promised to cure a range of ailments from flatulence and coated tongue to weak kidneys and depression – and all this in a bottle for one shilling. Celebrity endorsements were around even a century ago: princess Eugénie Palaeologus-Nicephorus-Commenus, “ a descendant of Constantine the Great”, wrote that she would “not be without it not for any reason or on any account”.
And one thing remains as constant today as it did in 1911. An article titled, “How long have you been putting it off? Removal of over-fat” is promised by yet another mysterious potion. This one is called Antipon, and it contained “only vegetable matter of a quite harmless nature”. This time, the endorsement came from an (unnamed) nurse, who stated, “I have used Antipon in the case of the very fattest woman I have ever nursed. She is getting smaller and beautifully less every day.”
Antipon is no longer available but there are many other products that are still advertised in women’s magazines. All of them still promise to help with what’s now known as weight-loss, but which previous generation of magazine readers knew as “removal of over-fat”. We may no longer do needlework every afternoon, but some things never change.