Home, sweet home Magazine: 75 years old, Better Homes and Gardens continues to bring its readers all the comforts as well as trends.

October 12, 1997|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

When it turned 75 this year, Better Homes and Gardens celebrated sweet memories while keeping its face forward -- and youthful.

Last year, Adweek proclaimed it third among the hottest magazines, right behind People and Martha Stewart Living. It ranked fourth in paid circulation (7.6 million) and seventh in advertising revenue.

It's not resting on those laurels. BH&G has moved beyond print. It went online in the fall of 1996 (www.bhglive.com) with stories and tips on home improvement, gardening, cooking, shopping, rearing children, health and fitness. Last month, it took its popular pages to television in a nationally syndicated half-hour show, bringing to life the features that have made it a hit with readers.

There are older design and women's service magazines, but none has more successfully kept its focus while growing with the changing needs of its audience.

BH&G is, as ever, as mainstream as it gets. And for this, Jean LemMon, its first female editor-in-chief and a vice president of Meredith Corp., which publishes the magazine, makes no apologies.

"Some magazines are like private clubs, making readers feel they have no business being there," she says. "We're not edited to fads. We don't pander to the sensational. We don't want to make our readers feel excluded."

After all, most of BH&G's 35 million readers (an estimated five readers per issue sold) are from middle-class American families.

Indeed, the magazine has been a mirror of American family life since its first issue, when it was called Fruit, Garden & Home, in July 1922. (The name change came two years later). Early on, the focus was on topics such as "How Our Small Fruits are Propagated" or "Pests of the Poultry Yard," but the magazine also covered babies, budgeting and how to build a backyard play area.

Trend-setter

Family coverage, of course, wouldn't be complete without building, gardening, food and furnishings. The magazine reported on, as well as set, trends. It introduced readers to the tossed salad in March 1939 and even poked fun at the concept with a cartoon, which depicted gnomelike creatures floating above a bowl with this playful recipe for the perfect salad: A miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a sage for salt and a maniac for mixing it.

Two years later, readers were fired up with a sizzling story on barbecuing. BH&G's food editor had discovered grilling and entertaining outdoors in California, and the magazine was instrumental in launching a nationwide trend.

In the 20th century, at least, it was a trend -- the cave man had figured it out long before.

The building department also was responsible for firsts. As a means of spurring a lagging construction industry during the Depression, the magazine first sponsored a home-improvement contest in 1933. Prizes totaling $5,000 were offered for the best new and remodeled homes. Contests remain a popular feature with readers -- with bigger prizes, too. Awards for the 1996 contest, which combined home improvement and decorating, totaled $100,000 in prizes and merchandise.

Proud tradition

The magazine helped popularize new building notions, such as housing that utilizes solar energy. The visionary ideals of architect David Barrow first were presented in 1947 with a house that had large expanses of glass on the south facade and deep overhangs, long before the concept took off in the '70s and '80s. It had a hand in bringing country style to the fore, and BH&G also takes credit for introducing, in 1944, the family room, which never has gone out of fashion.

"Our editors felt that families being reunited after the war needed a place to re-bond," says LemMon. "The living room at the front of the house -- usually reserved for company -- wasn't going to get the job done. So they created a very informal room at the back of the house where family members could relax, play together, work together."

BH&G might be more identified with traditional style, but the magazine doesn't back away from covering contemporary design. Futuristic design was documented in 1969 with a spread on plastics, then the hot buzzword. The newest synthetics and molding techniques showed bold colors and shapes.

Almost two decades earlier, in 1950, the clean, uncluttered lines of Danish Modern and blond wood furniture were even featured on the cover. But the way the dining room was photographed came off with a warmth that made the room inviting.

Indeed, warmth and a welcoming spirit have been consistent since the early days.

Back in 1922, there was no mission statement per se for BH&G. But when LemMon became editor four years ago, she reiterated what appear to have been early goals: "The standards by which we judge every story are measuring up to being believable, achievable, affordable and comfortable," she says. "If the story [or look] doesn't, out it goes."

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