Contributor: Paul B. Ringel
Associate Professor of History
High Point University
The Youth’s Companion was the most commercially successful children’s magazine (and one of the highest-circulating magazines of any genre) in the nineteenth-century United States. It was founded in Boston in 1827 by Nathaniel Willis, an orthodox Protestant printer, in the midst of an evangelical revival intended to restore traditional Calvinist doctrines—including the idea of infant depravity—to a city whose leading institutions were increasingly controlled by liberal Protestants. Willis’ magazine mingled frightening Calvinist messages about the imminence of death with sentimental reminders of maternal love in order to persuade young readers to take their spiritual obligations seriously. Under his direction, the Companion remained a relatively small, regional publication with a peak circulation of about 4,000.
After Willis retired in 1857, new editor Daniel Sharp Ford gradually transformed the Companion into a national publication with a circulation of 500,000 during the 1880s and 1890s. This image, “Fejee Islanders,” was the cover illustration for Ford’s first Companion issue, and it hints at the new editor’s broader strategy for attracting new readers. Ford strived to make the Companion more commercially appealing to young (and especially boy) customers without sacrificing its orthodox message. To do so, he borrowed editorial techniques from sensational adult publications, introducing dramatically illustrated cautionary tales set in exotic locations filled with hazards created by non-Protestant cultures. These stories conveyed explicit evangelical messages, but surrounded them with thrilling violent episodes intended to please boys more interested in reading James Fenimore Cooper or Sir Walter Scott (or, less reputably, the Police Gazette) than a Sunday-school paper.
Ford supplemented these stories with other features that focused on marketing the Companion more directly to children. Primary among them was his premiums program, which provided presents such as roller skates and slingshots in return for selling Companion subscriptions. These strategies initially failed, but after the Civil War loosened genteel standards for attracting child consumers the Companion rapidly ascended to commercial preeminence within the children’s magazine industry. The premiums returned in expanded form in 1866, eventually including such lavish prizes as grand pianos and $1000 cash. Sensationalism returned as well, and although the Companion never achieved the critical acclaim of its postwar contemporary St. Nicholas (whose devotee E.B. White later erroneously derided Companion readers as “people whose childhood was spent on the other side of the railroad tracks”) it regularly sold five to six times as many copies as its more prestigious rival.
The Companion’s circulation began to decline around the time of Ford’s death in 1899, although this shift was probably more a product of its increasingly anachronistic views of childhood. A succession of Ford’s former lieutenants kept the magazine going, but it struggled to compete with the less moralistic entertainments available to early twentieth-century American children. It ceased publication in 1929, when it merged with American Boy magazine. For half a century, though, the Companion established that an American children’s magazine could combine entertainment with Protestant morality, and in doing so it helped to legitimize the idea of the child consumer.
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