Hearth and Home: news from the last century
I found my first two issues of Hearth and Home in an antique mall several years ago and purchased them because their delicate engraved illustrations were charming. But when I took the time to actually read through the pages, I was surprised and impressed to discover just how good the magazine was in terms of content. It opened a fascinating window onto a vanished America, a republic that was still largely agrarian rather than urban, a place where you could traverse the land by railroad or steamboat but not by paved roads. What’s more, the magazine was co-edited by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a member of the accomplished and highly public Beecher family and the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Her editorship was one of the fledgling accomplishments of women in American journalism; I know of no other US women editors in the 1800s except for Margaret Fuller. So why is her editorship, and the magazine itself, not better known?
Harriet evidently brought a lot of her own interests to the magazine during her year at the editor’s helm. The publication was wildly eclectic in a way that no publisher would dare to do today when target audiences are so narrowly defined. Hearth and Home was designed for rural homemakers whose husbands could have been gardeners, farmers, orchardists, livestock owners and/or plant collectors; the editors assumed that each reader was classically literate. Each issue contained articles about different types of plants and how to grow them, animals and how to tend them, architectural floor plans and furnishings. Each issue featured notes on ladies’ fashions, suggestions for decorating modest homes inexpensively and yet charmingly, complex rebuses and puzzles for children that would baffle most adults today, and serialized fiction. But there was also material that would interest male readers, including news from around the world with topics that ring familiar today: “religious riots in Teheran,” and attempts by “the Ameer of Kabool” to put down uprisings. The magazine contained long listings for the current prices of commodities that included plaster, petroleum, lard, wheat, rye, wool, calves, and sperm whale oil.
Hearth and Home contains glimpses of the Industrial Revolution that was transforming the world at that time. From the March 13, 1869 issue, a mention of the new telegraphy that was allowing the world to exchange news with great speed through cables laid across the bottom of the ocean: “The new French cable is now being shipped on board the Great Eastern. More than 600 miles are already on board. As the rope is being manufactured at the rate of 200 miles a week, the contract is well in hand, and all will be ready by the first week in June.” And a glimpse of the work in progress at Suez, from the issue dated June 5, 1869,: “Between Shalouf and Suez, a distance of only twenty miles, 20,000 men are at work, and the canal is being pushed forward with great vigor—steam-dredges, asses, mules, men and camels, all contributing toward its completion. The contractor is bound under a penalty of 8000 [GB pounds] to finish the job by the first of October next.” Other contents included religion, politics and astronomic observations; and each issue had a full page at the end covered with illustrated advertisements for stoves, lightning rods and farm tools. And this abundance of contents was repeated every week, for that’s how often the magazine was published. How did Harriet and her associates possibly manage to collect so much varied content to meet her deadlines every single week??
Harriet only served as editor for one year, and the magazine seems to have continued only a short while without her. Hearth and Home is nearly completely forgotten today and has left virtually no trace on our culture or in our library collections. A completely unrelated magazine today goes by that name, and another magazine with that name also flourished during the late 1920s/early 1930s. The only way to find issues of the early Hearth and Home is to get lucky at an antique mall, or to scan the listings on eBay. Buyer beware: I found out to my sorrow that some of the sellers there are offering issues that have had the best engravings scissored out for separate sale.
I am enchanted when I peruse these pages, printed more than 140 years ago. They are a reminder of vanished American youth, abundance, self-reliance and optimism. I want to live in a world like that depicted in the pages of Hearth and Home.