100 years of Reader's Digest: A timeline

Reader's Digest Editors 17 January 2022

Next month marks a century of Reader's Digest. We take a look back at its remarkable history and most memorable moments

This month, Reader’s Digest celebrates a remarkable milestone: its 100th anniversary. From its start in February 1922, every issue has been packed with useful information and inspiring stories.

Over ten decades, Reader’s Digest has become a global powerhouse, and today, with 23 editions in 41 countries, it remains one of the world’s most-read, best-loved publications. 

Just before DeWitt Wallace launched this “little magazine,” he said, “The Digest will have but one mission: to interest and at the same time to widen one’s outlook, to increase one’s appreciation of things and people, to enlarge one’s capacity for enjoyable association with fellow men, to lubricate the process of adjustment to this world.”   

We have highlighted some of the many milestones of Reader’s Digest in a historic timeline in this issue, including mention of the most impactful articles we have ever published. And throughout the rest of this year, we will bring you the best examples of enduring articles from our archives.

Here’s to another 100 years!

TIMELINE

Highlights from a century of Reader’s Digest

The very first issue of Reader's Digest

1922  DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace publish 5,000 copies of the first issue of Reader’s Digest, “The little magazine,” in New York. It has 64 pages and 31 articles, all condensed from other publications.

1924  RD’s first anti-tobacco  article appears, “Does Tobacco Injure the Human Body?”

1929  Subscribers number more than 200,000, and the magazine also becomes available at newsstands.

1930  Reader contributions are requested for regular departments, many focused on humor.

1933  The first original article, “Insanity—the Modern Menace,” by Henry Morton Robinson, is published. The next year, RD expands from 64 to 128 pages. 

1935  RD’s first high-impact public service original article, “—And Sudden Death,” is published. It is about the preventable carnage of automobile accidents. The New Yorker called it “the most widely read magazine article ever published anywhere.”  

1936  Paid circulation reaches two million, and editorial staff has grown to 32. An alarming article about a quickly spreading disease is published: “Why Don’t We Stamp Out Syphilis?” The Wallaces establish the Reader’s Digest Foundation, benefitting education, journalism, youth organizations, and international understanding.

1938  Reader’s Digest is launched in the U.K., the first international edition.

1939  Lila Wallace selects the Pegasus as the company’s symbol. Magazine circulation is near three million and the first two-color illustration is published in November.

The first Spanish (Latin America) edition of Reader's Digest

1940  The first foreign-language edition—the Latin American edition—launches in 1940. Initially, Selecciones is translated in New York and printed in Chicago. In 1944, regional printing moves to Havana, Cuba.

1942  The first issue of the Portuguese-language edition of Reader’s Digest is translated and printed in the United States, then shipped to Brazil and Portugal.

1945  The world is still officially at war in June 1945 when the Finnish edition debuts in June. It sells out all 50,000 copies in a week.

1946  Post-war, people around the world are hungry for information, and Reader’s Digest international expansion is speeding up. The Danish, Japanese, and Australian editions are launched.

1947  The Norwegian, French, Belgian-French, Swiss-French, and French-Canadian editions debut.

1948  Reader’s Digest begins to use four-color illustrations. Now the German, English-Canadian, South African, Swiss-German, and Italian editions are published.

1952  The magazine begins attracting big-name writers: James Michener, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific, joins as roving editor.

1952  “Cancer By the Carton” connects smoking with lung cancer, provoking a furor; it is the first time a U.S. magazine had covered this topic in such depth. It would contribute to the largest drop in smoking since the Depression.

The writer and journalist Alex Haley

1954  A young Alex Haley joins the Reader’s Digest staff. He would write several features—and then become one of the world’s most famous writers when Roots is published in 1976, a project sponsored by Reader’s Digest.

1955  U.S. circulation surpasses ten million a month. Its cover price is still 25 cents, as it was in 1922. RD asks its U.S. readers if they prefer paying more or accepting advertising. The vast majority votes in favour of accepting advertising. (The international editions took advertising from the start.)

1956  The Lila Acheson Wallace Fund is established. It invests in programs in the arts, adult literacy, and urban parks.

The remarkable Longest Day book by Cornelius Ryan

1957  The Dutch edition is introduced. Also, work begins on a landmark book— The Longest Day, about D-day—funded by Reader’s Digest and written by Cornelius Ryan. Researchers in Paris, Stuttgart, London, and New York produce more than 16,000 interviews and create hundreds of detailed maps. The book is published two years later.

1960  The Reader’s Digest Handbook of First Aid is published. Over the years more than 15 million books are sold in the U.S. It’s also published globally.

1967  U.S. circulation reaches 16.5 million and worldwide circulation totals 28 million copies monthly. The very popular and enduring health series, “I am Joe’s…”—covering body parts like lungs, liver, and prostate gland—debuts in the magazine.

1968  In January, RD continues its fight against smoking by publishing, “What the Cigarette Commercials Don’t Show.” It sells more than nine million reprints. In 1971, cigarette advertising on radio and TV is banned in the United States.

1971  “The Report That Shocked the Nation,” an anti-pornography article, generates requests for more than 25 million reprints—the most ever.

1973  The Wallaces, now both in their 80s, retire.

1976  The restoration of painter Claude Monet’s house and garden with its famous lily pond in Giverny, France, gets underway thanks to Lila Wallace’s support.

The founder DeWitt Wallace and his wife Lila

1981  Reader’s Digest founder and long-time editor-in-chief DeWitt Wallace dies at age 91.

1984  Lila Acheson Wallace dies at age 94. An advocacy piece against drinking and driving, “I Still See Him Everywhere,” fires up a discussion about driving under the influence of alcohol. It’s the sixth RD article on the subject since 1980.

1987  The Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opens. Also, RD’s first report on AIDS, “The Plague That Knows No Bounds,” is published.

The Crocus Carpet at Kew Garden's, London

1988  The British edition marks its 50th anniversary by planting 1.5 million bulbs to create the Crocus Carpet at London’s Kew Gardens; the bulbs continue to multiply to this day. The Queen congratulates RD on “a half century of responsible and entertaining journalism.”

1991 The Soviet Union is dissolved, and the Russian edition becomes RD’s 40th in its 16th language. This kicks off a rapid expansion into former Soviet countries.

1994  The Ten-billionth copy of Reader’s Digest is published in the U.S.

1996  Reader’s Digest introduces its new design, which includes removing its iconic table of contents from the cover. It also launches European of the Year, annually celebrating individuals who help transform the lives of others.

2001  Reader’s Digest India publishes “The Good Doctors of Sittilingi,” about a doctor couple in  southern India who set up free medical care in a rural area. Its publication results in a major boost in donations—and lasting improvementsto the region’s standard of health care.

2002  Reader’s Digest France launches its annual Solidarity Prize. Each year, €10,000 is donated to charities that turn a tragedy or problem into a solution for the greater good. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Solidarity Prize.

The Chinese edition 

2008  Reader’s Digest launches in mainland China under the name Puzhi Reader’s Digest.

2009  The French edition publishes a 20-page section on the importance of organ donation. It includes organ-donor cards in the magazine, and publicizes the nationwide effort along with major media outlets.

2010  British Reader’s Digest launches its 100-word-story competition. Now an annual tradition beloved by readers, it celebrates creativity and the power of the written word.

2011  The international editions publish a five-part advocacy series about internet safety,  demanding stronger international laws  to protect children and young people. Some 70,000 people sign a petition that is sent to the European Union.

2013  Reader’s Digest conducts its latest wallet-drop test in cities around the world to create its hugely popular
article, “How Honest Are We?” Here are the rankings, from most to least honest:

1.      Helsinki

2.      São Paulo

3.      Mumbai

4.      Budapest

5.      New York

6.      Moscow

7.      Amsterdam

8.      Berlin

9.      Llubljana

10.   London

11.   Warsaw

12.   Bucharest

13.   Zurich

14.   Prague

15.   Madrid

16.   Lisbon

2015  For the Finnish edition’s 70th anniversary, readers submit stories of how Reader’s Digest has impacted their lives. Several are published, including some sent by readers whose health improved thanks to articles they read in RD.

2018  In Australia, the RDTalks podcast is launched, with episodes covering the magazine’s most popular themes,such as inspiration, drama, and crime. Today the podcast has more than 140,000 downloads.

2020  The Chinese-language edition published in Hong Kong and Taiwan is praised by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and endorsed as “excellent reading material” for students in Taiwan.

2022  In February, Reader’s Digest celebrates its centennial. Reader engagement and love of the brand, whether accessed via print or online, remains among the strongest of any publication in the world.

CALLOUTS

“In my long and troubled journey to complete Roots, I owe an undying debt to Reader’s Digest. Without its help and encouragement, Roots could not have been written with the scope that it has. The magazine’s support enabled me to make repeated trips to Europe and Africa. Without it, I could not have afforded the traveling and, consequently, could not have explored my roots.” —Alex Haley

1985


RD’s art collection does its first world tour, and then a second in 1988. It exhibits in Mexico City, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Sydney, Lisbon, Stuttgart, and other cities. Among the works are those by Matisse, Monet, van Gogh, Gaugin, Chagall, and Cézanne.

In October 1985 the pages of Reader’s Digest gave a preview of its art show. Featured were works by (clockwise from top left) Renoir, Modigliani, Degas, Braque, Lachaise, and Picasso.

1986  British Reader’s Digest unveils a commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth to celebrate her 60th birthday. Word comes back from Buckingham Palace: “She likes it—very much.” The portrait is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

2007  In the first episode of the hit TV series Mad Men, set in a 1960s New York advertising firm, the characters are trying to solve problems caused by Reader’s Digest reporting on the tobacco and advertising industries.

Read more: DeWitt Wallace: The man behind Reader's Digest

Read more: 9 Good News stories from 2021

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