During a recent visit with my Grandmother, Mary Swan, she let me comb through her vintage clothes that had been delicately stored in a bedroom closet for the past 40 years. As we poked through all of the nooks and crannies for treasure, we found an inconspicuous box on the top shelf that held what I consider to be the jackpot of all finds. In this box was a Cosmopolitan magazine from November 1911!
As I very carefully turned the fragile pages, I saw what Cosmo used to be, “…a publication for aspirational women.” Women with hopes and dreams of being more than the predetermined stay-at-home-mom (which is definitely a full-time job on its own).
I was amazed to learn Cosmopolitan began as a family magazine, launched in 1886 by Schlicht & Field as The Cosmopolitan. Sadly for Schlicht & Field, they were only in business for two years before they had to close their doors.
John Brisben Walker acquired the magazine in 1889 and, with the help of E. D. Walker, The Cosmopolitan became the go-to source for fictional short stories, novels and series until around 1950.
In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor in chief. In an effort to rouse sluggish sales, Brown decided to give The Cosmopolitan a facelift. The magazine was renamed Cosmopolitan and the publication became more about single women and their sexual liberation–a much different kind of aspiration than Schlicht & Field had in mind, I’m sure.
In a time when women were trying to liberate themselves, I find it interesting that Brown’s attempt–intentional or not–to “sexually liberate women” ended up sending a message that in order for a woman to lead a full life, she needed a man.
And what is Cosmo today? Well, by looking at the cover of the November 2011 edition, it’s a magazine for women who are only interested in pleasing their man rather than themselves, being stick thin in order to please the public and their view of “beauty” and wearing the latest fashion.
So much for being liberated.
When comparing the early 1900’s version with today’s, it’s amazing to me how one person can dramatically change the way we market to and for women. Even though Brown didn’t singlehandedly change the view and status of women, she played a big part. Although I don’t agree with the message today’s Cosmopolitan (Cosmo) sends, knowing the full story of Cosmo shows how much impact one person– or advertiser–can have. Pushing the envelope and doing something different might be uncomfortable but it also might change the whole game.