Between the Lines

One Reason James Baldwin Probably Never Subscribed to Parents’ Magazine

J. Weintraub

When I was growing up in the fifties, my parents subscribed to Parents’ Magazine, and one afternoon, having encountered its back volumes in the stacks of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, I couldn’t resist the trip home. Afternoon slipped into evening unnoticed as I leafed through the dried pages, re-imagining my past through both the editorial content—echoing the hopes, concerns, biases, and lifestyles of our middle-class household—and the ads, with their beckoning promises, pleasures, and remedies: breakfasts of Ovaltine and Quaker Puffed Oats, dinners of chicken croquettes and tuna casseroles, American Flyer sleds and Junior velocipedes in the garage, Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine and the Book of Knowledge on my bedroom shelves, and the chalky orange taste of St. Joseph aspirin for children in my mouth on a cold winter morning.

Not until I was outside, walking the urban streets of my neighborhood and glancing into the faces of passers-by, did I realize that something had been terribly wrong with what I had just been viewing. I decided then to return to that kaleidoscope of images that represented the world of a childhood I had shared with so many other baby-boomers, not as a simple observer but rather as their critic.

In his editorial for the new year in the January 1950 issue, the publisher of Parents’ Magazine, George J. Hecht, proclaimed the fifties to be “The Children’s Decade.” Well aware of the unprecedented surge in births in the years immediately following World War II, he restated the social concerns that had characterized the editorial stance of the magazine since its founding in 1926, urging his readers to join him in promoting “good homes, good schools, good health” for children. These goals would best be achieved, he predicted, through community and government efforts to educate parents, to build better housing, and to improve health care and nutrition, and in an appeal that would resonate throughout the pages of his magazine in the years to come, he encouraged increased support for federal aid to education to combat overcrowded, understaffed schools and “gross inequalities of educational opportunities.”

In keeping with this message, this first issue of the decade opened with an article on “What Children May Hope For from Congress” before settling into the publication’s usual blend of self-help advice on child-rearing and home economics, with specific counsel on how to “dress your baby,” “discipline the older child,” “build happier families,” and “say no.” A celebrity profile of Ezio Pinza was included along with the standard monthly fare on home decoration, fun and games, the season’s fashions, and food and cooking.

Stock photos and documentary snapshots, often portraying the actual sites or circumstances of a piece, illustrated some of the articles. Others used drawings, from realistic representations of human activities to cartoonish figures for lighter occasions. As in most of the issues, the illustrations portrayed mothers, fathers, and children—singly and in groups—in a variety of situations, usually domestic, along with a predictable supporting cast of doctors, dentists, and nurses. Infants were everywhere.

Advertisements in this January issue were similarly illustrated with parents and children enjoying the benefits of Ipana toothpaste, Clapp’s baby food, FelsNaptha soap, Fletcher’s Castoria, Maidenform bras, and Jergens lotion. Many of the fractional ads and the classifieds in the back of the book used spot drawings or photos of families and babies to dramatize products that, among other qualities, alleviated the pain or embarrassment of diaper rash, teething, bed wetting, pimples, or general anxiety (“But I Only Left Baby Alone for a Minute!”)

In all, there were representations of some 275 individuals in the January 1950 issue, and with the exception of a thumbnail sketch of a loin-clothed savage about to hurl a spear (to promote a series of teenage mysteries), all were recognizably white. There were no African-Americans.

Along with the regular features, the next issue, February, published articles on family budgets, comic books, father’s clubs, measles, and character-building (in which, as an example of transference, a white boy acts out his aggressions against a black child, whom he characterizes as “too uppity”). Again, the editorial content was personalized with photographs and drawings of moms and dads, infants and children, doctors and teachers, and, again, no images of African-Americans appeared.

In this same issue, however, Cream of Wheat’s trademark black chef (his beaming smile duplicated on the boxes displayed in both hands) was positioned beneath a Li’lAbner comic strip customized to promote the brand. Baptized “Rastus” by Cream of Wheat’s executives, the smiling chef  would appear with Li’lAbner every other month until the end of the year.

In April Rastus was accompanied by a full-page, full-color portrayal of a Creole mammy, outfitted with white apron, scarf, and red bandanna, sitting by a brick hearth and supervising a cast-iron pot--presumably full of the master recipe for Campell’s new chicken gumbo soup--simmering over an open fire. Pullman also advertised in April, and a smiling black porter helping a white family descend from a railroad carriage, was among the photos dramatizing the company’s services.

With the addition of several more Pullman porters and the reappearances of Rastus, a total of 24 African-Americans were pictured in the advertisements placed in the twelve monthly issues for 1950; thus, of the total 3,390 men, women, and children portraying the uses of the various products advertised that year in Parents’ Magazine,99.3% were white.

The first image of an African-American to accompany editorial content in 1950 was that of a boy of two or three, whose portrait won first prize in the May “Photography Clinic,” a regular feature usually consigned to the back pages. Earlier in the year an article reported on a New York City high school where children from some fourteen different countries were enrolled, where “internal frontiers, racial differences, and religious barriers are swept aside.” Although Asians were among the students pictured, most seemed to be refugees of European descent, and there were no discernible black faces among them. In April after examining deteriorating urban neighborhoods and the social resentments that derived from racial discrimination, the sociologist Herbert Alexander urged parents, in an essay illustrated only with a small street-corner scene, to “study, discuss, organize, and Then, in August, an article covered a summer “citizenship” program that brought teenagers of diverse backgrounds together on the campus of New York’s Fieldstone School: “They came from the city, town  and farm. Their fathers are laborers, skilled craftsmen, professional workers and businessmen. Their religious, racial and national backgrounds are as varied. A more authentic sample of the American people it would be difficult to obtain.” One photograph of this “sample” grouped two black teenagers together with thirteen other participants: “The ‘Negro problem’ was seen in the light of the very real and personal problems of a couple of good friends who happened to be Negroes.”

In the following issue an article revealed how Community Councils trained “volunteers of all ages, races and creeds” for community service jobs, and in one of the accompanying photos, two blacks were among the boys being coached by volunteers.

In December, along with a review of educational recordings, was a photo of Boris Karloff reading a story to seven children. Among the girls seated around him was one African- American, the last of a total six to appear in Parents’ editorial pages in 1950, or 0.33% of the 1,800 figures present. When added to the figure calculated for the advertising, the percentage climbs to slightly more than one-half a percent (0.58%) of the 5,200 or so recognizable individuals pictured in these twelve issues.

The numbers are remarkably similar to those calculated for the following year. Among representations of human beings illustrating Parents’ Magazine in 1951, 32 African-Americans can be identified in the ads (0.65%) and ten in the editorial material (0.44%), or 0.56% of the approximately 5,660 figures appearing in its pages that year.

For the next eight years of the decade, these numbers would fluctuate, although they would never attain the heights reached in 1950 and 1951, ranging from a low of 0.02% in 1954 (one drawing of a black teenager at a camp outing, solitary among the 4,565 other figures) to 0.49% in 1958. By the end of the decade, a total of 176 African-Americans had appeared in Parents’ Magazine among some 47,500 other figures illustrating editorial and advertising content, a percentage of 0.37% at a time when, according to the 1950 census, black Americans accounted for 10% of the population and 10% of the labor force.

In 1950 the circulation of Parents’ Magazine was 1,200,000, and although it wasn’t in the league of such general interest publications as Reader’s Digest (17 million) or The Saturday Evening Post, it was one of fifty American periodicals whose subscribership exceeded one million, somewhere between Time and Popular Mechanics. As might be expected for a magazine in this niche, its circulation rose by 52%--reaching 1,825,000—by the end of “The Children’s Decade.” Healthy and growing, it served as a vehicle both for national brands and for products targeted directly at new parents and homeowners. Ads were illustrated with mothers and infants (Playtex), gangs of babies (Gerber’s), family gatherings (7-up), children populating schools and playgrounds (Listerine), doctors and nurses (St. Joseph aspirin), and even scenes of crowded workplaces (American Can). But no black mothers, fathers, or children were present. The Pullman ads disappeared after December 1950 (a sign of the precipitous decline in the company’s fortunes in the face of competition from the airlines), taking the friendly porters along with them. Aunt Jemima (“Wake Up to Fluffy White Aunt Jemima’s!”) replaced Rastus as the kitchen servant of choice in January 1953, and then Cream of Wheat resumed its bimonthly placements, until the end of 1953, after which, following the apparent expiration of the contract, no other African-American appeared in any ad in any guise whatsoever until another five years had passed. Finally, in August 1959, the Columbia Record Club took a full page, displaying 32 album covers, four of which featured black entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Mathis. Aunt Jemima returned in full-color on a pancake box in October 1959 and again in November and December.

It is no secret, of course, that representations of black Americans, with the exception of stereotypes and those in serving professions, were excluded from mass-market advertising for the larger part of the twentieth century. In 1962, following a project launched by the NAACP to desegregate advertising, Sylvia Applebaum wrote in the June-July issue of The Crisis that from reading advertisements a foreigner would have to conclude “that there are no Negroes in the USA. Or if there were Negroes in America, they didn’t wear clothes, own automobiles . . . or that advertisers were indifferent to their existence.”

This perception is supported by various quantitative studies published in scholarly journals over the last forty years, and probably the best summary of these and other analyses can be found in Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’sAunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Westport, 1994). But her recounting of the reaction to one (in most respects) very ordinary ad produced in 1963 by the New York Telephone Company is, perhaps, far more revealing than any comparative numbers. It depicted a young executive, who happened to be African-American, entering a phone booth (“A Man of Action Knows You Get Action When You Telephone!”), and its publication became a news item itself. “Whether it was actually the first [time a black model appeared in a general circulation ad] would be impossible to determine,” wrote a New York Herald Tribune reporter at the time, as cited in Kern-Foxworth, “but no one could recall having seen one before” (p. 135).

Rather than promoting truthful or progressive images of social life, mass-market advertising has always preferred to present imaginary scenarios that attract the attention of and appeal to whatever demographic segment is presumed to be its widest and most responsive audience. “It is hard to conceive of advertising’s role as depicting the ethnic diversity of American society,” declared John O’Toole, President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1991 (and cited in Kern-Foxworth, p. 167). “Advertising, in general, not only has no obligation but it has no business trying to depict national diversity.” Since the African-American market was not considered worthy of attention by major American corporations in the fifties, and since, also, ads are generally created as individual entities—each one striving for its own particular effect—it is easy to see how the advertising in a single periodical could give the impression, issue-after-issue, that normal American consumers and their families were exclusively white.

But although it could be argued that the primary purpose of mass-market magazines is to provide a comfortable platform for its advertisers—who, after all, usually pay a substantial share of the bills—their stated goals are generally more ambitious. In its inaugural October 1926 issue, publisher and founder George J. Hecht dedicated Parents’ Magazine to the dissemination of “scientific findings of the specialists concerning the child’s needs of mind, body and spirit” (at the same time presenting them, of course, in an attractive and entertaining manner). He was supported in this effort by Clara Savage Littledale, a pioneering woman journalist who served as the magazine’s editor from its first issue to her death in 1956. Her post was then assumed by Mary E. Buchanan, who had been her managing editor for the previous twenty-three years.

Jane Addams contributed to the March 1927 issue, and over the years the magazine continued to feature work from renowned educators, social scientists, reformers, and policymakers, including, among others, Margaret Mead, Maria Montessori, Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Pearl Buck, Benjamin Spock, and Richard Nixon. On the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, it attracted congratulatory letters from Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marshall Field, and Harold Stassen, as well as from dignitaries representing the Surgeon General, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. In that same anniversary issue, Parents’ Magazine rededicated itself to support for its somewhat liberal legislative agenda of “better health care for all children, the school lunch program, more generous appropriations for the U.S. Children’s Bureau, provision for day care for children of working mothers, adequate federal funds to further basic research in child development, increased appropriations to aid crippled and other handicapped children.”

As part of its overall mission to help parents raise children to become “responsible adults and good citizens,” the magazine occasionally ran articles designed to foster tolerance and democratic values. The second issue in 1950 printed an essay on preventing racial and other hatreds among children; in April an editorial condemned racial discrimination; the August issue featured the article on the encampment for citizenship. In subsequent years, specific pieces on tolerance continued to be published, often in conjunction with Brotherhood Week in February: “What Brotherhood Means to Our House (February 1952), “What Are We Doing against Prejudice” (February 1953), “One Little Boy Meets Prejudice” (February 1956), “They Learn from the Kids on the Block” (February 1958).

As these titles indicate, such articles were largely anecdotal, written from the perspectives of individual parents. But pleas for tolerance and racial harmony also could be found in essays on larger subjects, and sometimes the magazine would print guidelines that asked its readers to pledge “to rid ourselves of prejudice or discrimination” (from a statement adopted by the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth, March 1951) or to be “fair to people who differ from me in race, religion or political philosophy” (“Help Make Democracy Live,” July 1951).

Representations of African-Americans—usually a single teenager or child—occasionally illustrated these articles or were sometimes used to exemplify specific teachings. One popular series that ran throughout the decade employed a comic-strip format, “pictographs,” which contained fifty to one hundred figures in each segment demonstrating the stages of maturation in a particular age group. The August 1955 issue, for instance, pictured a black mother and daughter in conversation with a white woman and her child to show how children are “influenced to absorb prejudice or a democratic attitude.” A similar conversation was repeated in a March 1957 pictograph, to dramatize “adult guidance in tolerance, morale, life goals.” With the exception of one other occasion, however, these two tiny sketches would be the only instances of  an African-American parent being pictured with his or her child in the entire decade.

Black children could also be spotted in school environments. Usually these were photographs taken on site, and the appearance of these students revealed that the society being documented—or at least some northern sectors of it—was not totally exclusionary. On the other hand, the small numbers of students recorded in this way also reflected the separation occurring in all American schools. Not until the end of the decade, when the editors began to pay attention to the issue of school integration, did an African-American teacher appear in the magazine’s pages or did the number of black students pictured begin to approach their proportion in the population.

But if both the black students and those figures illustrating themes of tolerance or democratic community building are set aside, the already miniscule number of African-American faces accompanying Parents’ Magazine’s editorial content in the fifties is reduced to a handful. Sometimes a random individual would appear fortuitously in a group photograph—among draftees at an induction center, among patients and doctors in an urban hospital, among teenagers being instructed on bicycle safety—and as with the school settings, their appearances were evidence of some integration in the community. But also, as in the previous case, the absence of African-Americans in most of the photographic documentation—a chamber of commerce meeting, a house-raising, a neighborhood cookout, an Independence Day parade, and so forth—underscores their lack of participation in the social life then experienced by the majority of Americans.

A black girl jumping rope for an article on “Jump Rope Rhyme,” a boy in a movie theatre or a girl in Chicago Symphony audience, a teenager camping with his white friends, a snapshot submitted to the Photography Clinic—except for these and a few other instances, no representations of African-Americans appeared in the hundreds of general articles, special reports, or standard sections on nutrition, child care, marital relationships, home decoration, and the myriad of other practical topics that formed the core of the magazine’s content.

Five or more pages of fashions, usually consisting of staged scenes or location shots built around a seasonal theme, were reserved for each issue. No black child or young adult modeled any clothes in this or any other section during the decade, although in two instances African-Americans contributed to the theme. The February 1951 spread was shot at the Greenbrier resort, and accompanying the child models in two of the scenes is a stout black servant outfitted in full mammy regalia. Also, for the New Orleans location in 1956, a black horse-and-buggy driver was introduced into the background décor.

That same March 1956 issue featured the decade’s only African-American on the cover of the magazine. A lead-in to the spring fashions, the cover showed a young girl receiving a bouquet of flowers from a smiling heavy-set black woman wearing a red-striped apron and a red handkerchief around her head. Presumably a denizen of New Orleans, she, along with Aunt Jemima and the Creole cook introducing Campbell’s chicken gumbo, were the only African-Americans to be presented in full-color in the magazine during the entire decade.

There was also only one African-American father. Just as he had broken baseball’s color barrier almost ten years previous, Jackie Robinson, in an October 1955 celebrity profile, became the first and only African-American male to be depicted in the role of a parent in Parents’ Magazine in the fifties. He was photographed together with his wife and children, the only African-American family to be found in its pages as well.

Families from Africa and Asia, however, were pictured in several articles on child welfare overseas. Hecht, who was a member of the Population Council, had an interest in family planning in developing countries, and his magazine reported on overseas missions and the activities of such United Nations’ programs as UNICEF and UNESCO. Consequently, photographs of infants from Africa, Asia, and South America occasionally appeared in its pages. Yet, among the thousands of other photos and drawings of babies used to illustrate or decorate the contents of Parents’ Magazine during “The Children’s Decade”—full-page blowups to thumbnail sketches; babies sleeping, waking, nursing crawling, climbing, toddling, smiling, frowning, bawling—not a single one of them was an African-American.

Although the results might suggest otherwise, it is unlikely that Hecht and his editors intentionally conspired to eliminate from their pages visual representations of African-Americans experiencing normal family life. Its authors frequently condemned prejudice and promoted democratic ideals, and although the magazine avoided divisive issues and polemical language, it aggressively supported equal opportunity for all children, especially in education. This stance and the occasional photograph of an integrated environment also reveal that the editors did not censor their content to avoid disturbing the sensibilities of their Southern subscribers. Instead, the absence of blacks in, for the most part, anything but derogatory, subservient, or symbolic roles, was simply customary journalistic practice, the editors offering a picture of society that they believed best reflected the experience of their readers. Similar studies lead to similar results (See, e.g., Paul Lester and Ron Smith, “African-American Photo Coverage in Life, Newsweek, and Time, Journalism Quarterly, 67, 1, 128-137); and just as the editors of Parents’ Magazine followed without question prescribed rules and guidelines for grammar and style, they routinely presented a picture of American life that was 99.5% white when illustrating their pages.

A community discovers and identifies itself through the “mediated images” presented by the mass media, and in 1968, after more than a decade of escalating racial turmoil and violence, the Kerner Commission in its Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York, 1968) looked at American media and found it to be wanting. The “slights and indignities” that characterized the portrayal of blacks in the media, it reported, reflected “the biases, the paternalism, the indifferences of white America,” to the detriment of both communities: “If what the white American reads in the newspaper or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary or normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American. By failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society, the news media has, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country” (p.383).

But the inability of white Americans to “understand or accept” the black community as a “normal or ordinary” part of their society was a condition noted by black writers and intellectuals long before the Kerner report and the riots that preceded it. As early as 1948 James Baldwin would declare (in “Journey to Atlanta,” collected in Notes of a Native Son, Boston, 1984) that “the American commonwealth chooses to overlook what Negroes are never able to forget: they are not really considered a part of it” (p.76). Again and again, he felt he had to remind his readers that he was an American, and although such expressions were not meant to be confused with a desire for absorption into white society or culture, he insisted on the need to recognize the black community as an integral part of the past, present, and future of America. By the early sixties, the heat of both his anger and rhetoric had intensified, and in The Fire Next Time (New York, 1964), he framed his discussion as a letter ostensibly designed to tell his nephew how to deal with white Americans, “for most of them do not really know that you exist.” This was a fact that was “proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity” (p. 106). He added, repeating a theme that had emerged in such earlier essays as “Stranger in the Village” (1953), that European cultural and political hegemony was doomed in a post-colonial world, warning Americans that “if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay” (p. 106).

Ralph Ellison, too, identified early in his career the refusal of white Americans to view blacks as fellow citizens, and also the corrosive effect of such a denial on the imaginations of both races. “It is not unusual for a Negro,” he wrote in 1944, “to experience a sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all. He seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind as a phantom that the white mind seeks uneasily . . . to lay.” (“An American Dilemma,” collected in Shadow and Act, New York, 1972, p. 304). Similarly to Baldwin, he felt that America at midcentury could no longer afford to conceive of itself as exclusively white, and despite “a stubborn confusion as to their American identity” among whites, he eventually found considerable strength and hope in the country’s difficult multiplicity. “The diversity of American life,” he wrote in 1964, “is often painful, frequently burdensome, and always a source of conflict, but in it lies our fate and our hope” (“The World and the Jug,” collected in Shadow and Act, p. 141)”

Of course, a quick glance at our media today will reveal that much has changed in their depiction of American social life, although at the turn of the new century recognition of our country’s diversity was still far from complete (see, e.g., R.M. Entman and A. Rojecki, The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America, Chicago, 2000). Moreover, just as an exhibit of postcards at the New York Historical Society in 2000 exposed for a new generation the commonality of lynchings in the first decades of the 1900s and the callousness of the white community’s response to them, it is worthwhile to re-emphasize the extent to which African-Americans were denied recognition as participants in American society at midcentury, if only to account for the intractability of the still corrosive racial divisions we face today. As Darryl Pinckney noted in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katerina disaster, “In the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse . . . but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them” (“On Our Own,” NYRB, Oct. 6, 2005, p. 6).

My father, a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” witnessed and participated in much of the brutal economic and social upheaval of the twentieth century. He was, like many of his contemporaries, an intolerant man, unsympathetic to the emergence of African-Americans from invisibility and servitude, both in his personal experience and in the media to which he was exposed. As he retired and aged, he became increasingly distressed that his beloved baseball and basketball were no longer “American” sports, and this qualification was not meant to refer only to Spanish- or Lithuanian-speaking athletes. More blatantly, near the end of his life, in his early eighties, he often wondered if there were somewhere in America where he could live without ever seeing a black face. I replied once or twice that there were several enclaves in Idaho and Montana where this was probably the case; but when I added that people whose last names began with “Gold” or “Wein” would be equally unwelcome there, he refused to listen. His question had, after all, been rhetorical, and what my father really wanted was to return to an America that had never really existed but that was accurately portrayed in the pages of Parents’ Magazine a half-century before.


J. Weintraub has published fiction, essays, translations, and poetry in all sorts of publications, from Massachusetts Review to Gastronomica. A recipient of Illinois Arts Council Awards for fiction and creative nonfiction, he is also a network playwright at Chicago Dramatists and has had plays produced throughout the country. More at http:/jweintraub.weebly.com