The December 1925 Improvement Era

December 13, 2005 | 21 comments
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Let’s flip through a church magazine that’s nearly a century old. The pages are slightly yellowed; there are a few stains on the cover and the staples are rusting.

It has advertisements: for garments (“lowest prices on the market;” you could get them in wool, cotton, or silkalene), train travel to California (round trip from Utah for 52.50$), and life insurance. “No substitute for Life Insurance can be found until you find a Remedy for Death:” slighty ironic for a Church publication if you think about it.

Keeping with that theme, one of the articles is entitled “Postpone Your Funeral.” It contains sad markers of its time (“More than eighty-five percent of the deaths occur before the age of seventy-five.” “100,000 persons died from tuberculosis alone last year in the United States.”) and some advice that could have come from a current magazine article on dieting (don’t overeat, eat more vegetables, drink plenty of water). I liked this idea for maintaining health: “Generally speaking, eight hours’ play, eight hours’ work and eight hours’ sleep is a pretty fair division of the twenty-four-hour day.” He also notes in the article that Church members would be expected to buy Christmas Seals (presumably similar to Easter Seals?) in order to support health education.

Reader’s Digest style jokes are found at the bottom of some pages:

A number of men were reporting in their Quorum on the harmony existing in their homes. John was reporting and stated that he and his wife were always in perfect unity. “If, for example, we are decorating the house and my wife prefers a red color, and I prefere a more modest gray, we compromise by choosing red.”

Most striking, perhaps, is the number and length of short stories. I don’t think the Church magazines publish any fiction now.

And while you could certainly find an article about Brigham Young in a more recent Church magazine, it would be about one-tenth as long–and with none of the lengthy original-source quotations–as the one written by Preston Nibley and leading off this issue.

A brief recounting of an outing of the Ohio Conference to visit some ancient burial mounds (complete with two pictures) was written in a charmingly informal way (“Shortly after leaving Bainbirdge [sic?], we were overtaken by a severe electrical storm and a downpour of rain. We arrived home drenched, but felt repaid by our day’s experience.”) by the two “lady missionaries” who went on the trip. They describe the mounds as being “just like the forts described in the 48th and 50th chapters of Alma.” Their tone puts an entirely different spin on their apologetics; it’s intriguing.

You’ll perhaps be pleased to learn that cheesy, sentimental poetry was not invented recently.

Here’s a sentence you won’t find in an Ensign article:

It has always been a favorite cry with enemies of “Mormonism” to charge it with national disloyalty and to seek to discredit our Church organization as being motivated by strictly sectarian and unpatriotic desires.

(One wonders if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, but that’s a topic for another post.) It comes from an article titled “Citizenship and Religion” that works hard to make the case that Mormons are good citizens.

An article on tithing and temple work is standard fare–except for the precise dollar figures given (200K for the Kirtland Temple; 2.8M for St. George, Logan, and Manti temples combined; $3,398,785 spent in 1925 on stake and ward expenses, Church schools, “care of the worthy poor,” missions, and church buildings.)

I love the report on the banquet given for Elders Melvin J. Ballard, Rey L. Pratt, and Rulon S. Wells before they left to open the South American mission. Why did I like it? Because they included the menu: Brazilian cocktail, Buenos Aires roast turkey, Amazon dressing, Andes potatoes, Giblet Gravy, Peruvian Peas in Timbale Cases (what the heck is that?), Cranberry Jelly, Bolivia Olives, Celery, Rolls, Argentina ice cream, and Spanish Cake. Thanksgiving meets a geography lesson–for 140 people at the Beehive House. The talks given are quoted at length, including the bad jokes: “The first elders who went to that land were given a Chili reception.” We learn that their wives will not be going with them.

The “Messages from the Missions” section proudly notes “Fifteen Baptisms in Oklahoma” and describes the experience of two elders who saw a Zulu war dance performed by 1000 warriors. There’s a picture, too.

A sermon from (presumably non-LDS) Bishop G. Ashton Oldham, published by The National Council for the Prevention of War, is reproduced. (It includes an umlaut over the second ‘o’ in ‘cooperation’–never seen that before.)

The back contains several lesson outlines. They are better than what we have today, in my opinion. The topic for all of the lessons was “The Home.” I was pleased to see the wife viewed as a “working partner, not a silent partner” in the marriage. While a mother who “becomes a money earner at the expense of her motherhood . . . is out of line of her duty” whether she should earn money “is a question to be decided by each individual family.” It is noted that a mother earning money should be exempted from some household duties. The fiscal value of a woman’s household labor is mentioned several times.

I also liked this: “The following pictures have been previewed and found acceptable by the [Mutual] Committee:” followed by a list of a dozen or so movie titles. Hard to imagine that today, eh?

There’s a statistical report in the back, listing Mutual enrollment and attendance by stakes. There’s this note at the bottom: “Notice that over half of stakes have not reported for October. Many errors have appeared on the reports submitted.” There’s also something called an “Efficiency Report” with scores for items such as recreation, slogan, Era, and fund.

“Passing Events” notes everything from the death of a member of the Idaho Falls (stake?) presidency to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb to a study being conducted to determine whether one’s shadow weighs anything.

I only barely recognize my Church in these pages.

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21 Responses to The December 1925 Improvement Era

  1. J. Stapley on December 13, 2005 at 2:01 am

    Thanks for the fun write up, Julie. Though if you wanted a different Church, that extra 20 years back to 1905 would have likely done the trick.

  2. sam b on December 13, 2005 at 7:01 am

    Almost like finding a stack of your grandparent’s journals. So delighted to hear that homey sexism was safe in the Era.

    The umlaut is still used occasionally in pretentious circles. It’s designed to syllabify what would otherwise be interpreted as a diphthong. It is the giddy lack of such an umlaut that forces the Harvard bookstore to be called Coop as in Chicken rather than Co-op as in Cooperative. Who ever accused Harvard of being pretentious?

    So many shibboleths, so little time… (er, is there an umlaut over the second b? I can never remember)

  3. Lamonte on December 13, 2005 at 9:38 am

    Julie – Thanks for an interesting review. It is always worthwhile to learn the condition of the church in another era. While I am probably much older than you (born in 1953) I agree that the church and especially the church publications have changed quite a bit over the past 80 years. But at the same time I see the same issues that we struggle with today – striving to identify ourselves as a legitimate force for good in this country and in the world; maintaining a separate role for men and women but with a desire to identify the importance and significance of both in the family organization; celebrating the expansion of the church in distant lands; and reminding ourselves of our shortcomings with a plea for improvement (hence the name Improvement Era)

    Thanks again for sharing your discovery.

  4. TMD on December 13, 2005 at 10:00 am

    Not sure what’s so unfamiliar–aside from things that are artifacts of the passage of time and the fact that it was written for a church that was smaller, more homogenous, and more geographically bounded.

    Some things are quite familiar–the joke could easily have been, and probably was–recounted in a priesthood meeting last week somewhere, and there’s certainly something familiar about the problems with reporting for the statistical report.

  5. ed on December 13, 2005 at 11:22 am

    Great idea for a post. You are right that the old magazines give a very different impression of the church. A couple of years ago I spent scrament meeting reading an Improvement Era from the mid-1960s, and even that seemed very different from todays magazines. The articles were much more “intellectual,” for one thing. And there wasn’t much in there about Jesus…only a few casual references. As if the readers were assumed to already know about the basic gospel, and didn’t really need to be reminded of Christ that much.

    Incidentally, the “umlaut” is actually called a diaeresis. It’s still used that way in “The New Yorker,” for some reason.

  6. LoneWriter on December 13, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    By the way, timbale is “a custardlike dish of cheese, chicken, fish, or vegetables baked in a drum-shaped pastry mold.”

    Many years ago, I found that my mother-in-law had a stash of Relief Society magazines dating back to the 1920′s. Besides the expected recipes and craft patterns, the magazines included serial love stories. Each story was so full of sweetness and sugar that I nearly became ill trying to read them!

    Yes, the media face of the Church has changed greatly in the last 80+ years.

  7. RoastedTomatoes on December 13, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for this post — great work. Perhaps the most remarkable difference in my view is the much greater level of disclosure by the church a hundred years ago. You mention that the magazine included attendance statistics for the different stakes. These days, we’re forced to collect stray remarks and rank speculation if we’re interested in getting a grip on the church’s overall activity level. (The best available figure, based on a global aggregation of the available activity-rate data at local or national levels plus occasional moments of confirmation by people who’ve worked with the confidential data, is that worldwide activity is about 30%. If that number were published in the Ensign every month, perhaps a few more people would do Home/Visiting Teaching, no?)

    A few weeks ago, my wife and I discovered several issues of the old newspaper of the Northern California mission. Note: newspaper, not newsletter. The thing was actually pretty professional, and it even included speculative theology. My, how the church has changed.

  8. Mark B. on December 13, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    The changes in church publications mirror the changes in mainstream magazines.

    Call it the People-ization of the press.

    Pick up a Time magazine from 40 years ago, compare it to this week’s issue, and the differences are obvious. The type now is larger, the pictures bigger, the articles shorter.

    The editors either believe that we’re dumber than our parents or grandparents, or they think that we can’t be bothered with a longer, more challenging piece.

  9. Carl Youngblood on December 13, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    The question is, what (if anything) can we do about all this? Is there a way we can improve the declining level of discourse in our society?

    I think it would be great to have all these things (except advertising) in today’s Ensign.

  10. Visorstuff on December 13, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    RE: #8 or that we never read anthing.

  11. Julie M. Smith on December 13, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    Great comments, all.

    Ed, it takes awhile to notice an absence: it occured to me a few hours after I had put the magazine down that I hadn’t seen a single reference to Jesus Christ. (I didn’t read every single word, though, so I may have missed one or two, but suffice it to say, there was very little there.)

  12. Carrie W. on December 13, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    My mom told me that my great grandmother (born about 1890)just loved the old Relief Society magazine. It was small, I think the size of a large print Reader’s Digest and she “liked the feel of it in her hands”. She loved the stories that “always had happy endings”. This was a woman who came from pioneer stock and was a pioneer herself in slightly desolate Southern Utah. I think the stories were the escapism that TV is for us today. Apparantly, she was really disappointed with the newer style of bigger magazine and no more love stories.

  13. Mark B. on December 13, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    I’d like one of those Brazilian cocktails, by the way.

  14. Visorstuff on December 13, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    IMHO, the magazines prior to the TV age served a different purpose. They were a source of news, entertainment, communications and education – in addition to helping promote faith and one’s personal relationship with God.

    Now they are a teaching aid, a communications vehicle or a complement to family and personal study. They are more to help an individual’s personal relationship with God and Church, and not so much concerned with the wider world (for which we now have other “good books” and sources for.

    Is this a result of better understanding of readers via reseach, a stronger push for correlation, trying to give more (and purer) doctrine, or a combination of the above?

  15. fMhLisa on December 13, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    I had a butternut squash timbale just a few days ago. I’d never heard of timbale before either. It was fabulous.

  16. El Jefe on December 13, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    Of course it’s a different Church. We had 600,000 members in 1925, almost all in Utah, Idaho, Arizona and California. Today, we have 5 million in Latin America alone, the fruits of that first mission by Elders Ballard, Pratt and Wells.

    Attention span. That’s one of the differences in our age. We are bombarded with messages, and our attention span is not very long. Articles are shorter, there are more pictures, and they need to grab our attention more quickly.

    Cut them some slack on the jokes. Most of them are pretty good the first time you hear them. They sound old to our ears.
    I suspect that Mexican food was not wildly popular in the Salt Lake Valley in 1925. Certain things had not yet been revealed to them.

  17. Wilfried on December 13, 2005 at 6:16 pm

    Fun and original, but also pretty serious post by implication, Julie. I don’t think the Church has changed in essence, of course, but the present magazines certainly display changed perspectives, perhaps with a greater impact than we think. I wish we could do a worldwide study of ratio’s of “reading-appeal”, “community-building”, “conversion-potential” of the present magazines, not only for the English-speaking, but also for the multilingual Liahona. Is it possible our present magazines have lost in those categories? Too much cautiousness, too much globalism, too much flawlessness, too much insipid esthetics? I guess what appeals in those old magazines is that closer-to-life touch, that frankness, and even a certain charming clumsiness.

  18. Sara Steed on December 13, 2005 at 7:39 pm

    Currently at work, I am indexing the Relief Society Magazine. Sometimes I blow off working and just read the articles and, yes, the stories. My favorite thing to look at, though, are the recipes–maybe because I never eat breakfast and so am hungry by the afternoon. What amazes me is that in looking at the intricacy and time involved in feed a family during those times, I feel like an art form has been lost. I can hardly cook from a box, let alone prepare and serve a 7-course meal for 12 people, and from scratch! What a beautiful treasure the knowledge of our ancestors is!

  19. Marcia Stornetta on May 6, 2006 at 10:39 am

    I am currently doing some research using the Relief Society magazine. Where are there collections? Can any of the issues or articles be accessed online?

  20. Kimball L. Hunt on May 6, 2006 at 5:47 pm

    A charming biblio-logue you’ve given here, Julie — thanks!

  21. Julie M. Smith on May 6, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Marcia, I had a hard copy of the magazine. I’m not sure if they are available online, but the two places I’d check would be the BYU and U of U libraries.