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!
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:
2. São Paulo
5. New York
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.
“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
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.
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