If you’re anything like me, over the past few days you’ll have grown pretty tired of the promotional visual language around Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But a look at history proves that these kind of informal, throwaway graphics can serve as significant documents of the times in which we live.
In this piece, we’re taking a look at the cover designs of 3 twentieth-century magazines — Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post, and The American Weekly. You’ll be fascinated not only by the evolution of their graphic language, but also by how they reflect changing social norms around the family and gender roles.
1. Good Housekeeping
Founded in Massachusetts in 1885, Good Housekeeping is a mainstream magazine aimed at women. It continues to be published today, and is one of the world’s biggest global magazine brands. Scanning its November cover designs from the past 110 years gives a snapshot not only of changing graphic design language over the past century, but also of the radical social change that happened in that time.
In the early twentieth century, the front page of issues around Thanksgiving typically depicted children, and included nods to romanticised versions of the Thanksgiving story. The style was illustrative and evocative of a children’s book. Where women were depicted, they tended to be in domestic roles, or accompanied by a male partner (see November 1904). Even in a publication aimed at women, their identity around Thanksgiving is subordinated to the role of mother and wife. These are mirrored in the children’s roles, too: in the 1931 and 1932 covers, the girl works, preparing food and washing up; while in 1935, the boy is at leisure, waiting to be served, and in 1940 also performs gendered work (hammering).
This visual language stayed relatively unchanged until the 1960s, when individual women began routinely to appear on the magazine’s covers in preference to showing children. Coinciding with an increase in the use of photography, around this time celebrity culture emerged. Celebrity women model the evolution of gender norms; for example, in 1969, Sophia Loren is depicted bottle-feeding her baby — a new cultural image that combined motherhood with fame and success.
The basic pattern of Good Housekeeping front covers, featuring an individual smiling woman, remained quite similar through the decades that followed, though the tone of the cover’s messages shift from celebration (preparing recipes and choosing gifts) to anxiety (weight loss and medical problems). Overall the visuals become more noisy, with the covers increasingly crammed with text, competing for buyer attention in a crowded magazine market.
A fascinating departure from this design pattern comes in 2008, where a woman is depicted at the center of a multi-racial family, with renewed emphasis on home cooking and money-saving — perhaps reflecting both the watershed of Barack Obama’s election, the context of a global financial crisis, and an accompanying nostalgia for the natural security of the nuclear family.
In the past couple of years, there are hints of another major shift in the magazine’s visual language, with a renewed emphasis on hearty food, and markedly less prominent headlines about weight and health — perhaps an attempt to reposition the magazine for a millennial audience, who may be more likely to view these themes as themselves unhealthy obsessions.