Dewitt Wallace was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1889. His father was a professor of Greek and Old English at Macalester College. Unlike his father, Dewitt Wallace was interested in business. As a young man, he was always trying to make a buck, raising chickens, selling vegetables from his garden, and operating an electrical repair service.
After college, he worked for a publishing house that specialized in agricultural textbooks. While working there, he learned that the federal government had all kinds of free informational pamphlets that were available to farmers, but most farmers didn’t even know these pamphlets existed. So he decided to publish and sell a condensed collection of the free pamphlets to farmers, called Getting the Most Out of Farming. It was a huge success, and Wallace decided that making information easily available was the secret to success in the publishing industry.
He was trying to figure out what to do next when World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the army. He was seriously wounded in 1918. During his recovery, he read hundreds of magazines, and he realized that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general-interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He began to explore his idea. He assembled a sample issue and sent it to different publishers, but the concept did not appeal to any of them.
So he and his wife, Lila decided to start the magazine themselves. Working out of a basement in Manhattan, the couple published the first issue of Reader’s Digest in February 1922, with an initial run of 1,500 copies. People didn’t think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal. But Wallace strength was his talent for finding stories that appealed to the widest number of people.
By 1929, circulation had reached 200,000 and was growing. In 1933, the magazine began publishing original articles, and the following year they began to condense books. Reader’s Digest went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, with 39 editions in 15 languages, and a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.
The thing that made the Reader’s Digest special to me is that it brought together such a varied collection of articles that it introduced me to subjects that I might never have read about otherwise…It was in the Reader’s Digest that I read about open heart surgery, x-rays, tubeless tires and the workings of the human body. It was here that I read about philosophers, scientists and statesmen and all those wonderfully ordinary people who are incredibly special.
I first read 84 Charing Cross Road which is one of my all time favourite books as a Reader’s Digest condensed book. But what I liked the most were all those articles about the messy business of living. There was so much wisdom and good sense there. Sadly, the magazine is no longer as good as it once was, but I still have a lot of the old issues and I treasure each and every one of them.