Minimalists in History: Edward Bok

edward bok

“Make home happy; hold loved ones first in your heart; leave off fussing over fashionable ways of living, be natural, and you will be living the simple life. . . .”
– Edward Bok

Edward Bok was the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1889 to 1919. During this time, the Journal became the first magazine in the world to have a million subscribers.

Bok was also a strong proponent for simple living, especially for middle class women. No feminist, Bok believed the ideal woman lived a simple life in the home, passing on her perspective to her husband and children. Reminds me of the earlier Cult of Domesticity.

“We have drifted away from simple living, and our children are suffering from it.”
– Edward Bok

Bok thought people were interested in talking about the simple life than in living it because they associated simple living with “a barren abode and crude living.”

Simple living was actually, Bok said, about being content, and people could simplify their lives without making them spartan.

He gave an example of an affluent family who purchased high-quality but simple furniture, had no servants and rented an automobile when needed instead of buying one. Much of the family’s income was donated to charities.

“There are no nervous breakdowns in the simple life.”
– Edward Bok

According to Bok, to live simply, one should have a healthful diet, simple serviceable clothing, a clean healthy dwelling place, open-air exercise and good reading.

Although some readers of the Journal felt living simply could be a hardship socially, Bok said anyone who drops you from their “visit list” because you’re living simply was never a true friend.

He also pointed out that being true to our values is more important than satisfying the standards of society.

“Wholesome ideas come from a clear intimacy with Nature.”
– Edward Bok

Bok believed in the value of contact with nature. He thought living in the country or suburbs was ideal, but, acknowledging that some people prefer to live in cities, offered recommendations for urbanites as well.

The Journal published inexpensive plans for summer cottages and encouraged those who couldn’t afford a second home to rent a cottage in a rural area instead of vacationing at a resort hotel.

Bok also supported urban playgrounds and the youth camping movement.

“The curse of the American home to-day is useless bric-a-brac.”
– Edward Bok

Bok is also well known for his campaign to simplify domestic architecture, much like Andrew Jackson Downing. He believed money was wasted on the turrets and ornamentation found on late Victorian homes, as well as over-decorated interiors.

Also, he felt these types of homes were not conducive to good moral character. He felt everything in a home should perform a useful or aesthetic function.

The Journal often published plans for plain, affordable and functional houses designed by architects such as Ralph Adams Cram, Frank Lloyd Wright and Stanford White.

“Every war brings after it a period of materialism and conservatism. . . . “
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt

After a period of patriotic simplicity during World War I, the US entered another era of extravagant living.

Business representatives created the National Prosperity Bureau to convince the public to abandon their war-induced simplicity efforts. Ad copywriter Helen Woodward said the salvation for a woman tired of her husband, home or job was not simple living, but spending.

During this time, Bok retired from the Journal and became a full-time philanthropist. Glenn Frank, editor of Century magazine, said this was “dangerous and essentially anti-social” and threatened the American tradition of working until you “drop in the harness,” that is, until you die.

Publishing executive William Feather was even more critical:

Mr. Bok is un-American. In proof of this I cite that he has quit work and is now attempting to Do Good, and conducting a vigorous propaganda to induce other business men to do likewise. Bok is ashamed to work. He is ashamed of profits. He regards trade as inferior.

Doing Good, patronizing the stupid and weak, giving the people something they don’t want, is his idea of a worthwhile life. I contend that no 100 per cent American subscribes to such a doctrine. The 100 per cent American dies in harness.

Interesting view of what it means to be an American, isn’t it? Work yourself to death?

Have you ever been criticized for trying to simplify your life?

7 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Edward Bok

  1. I love this series as you are always introducing me to people and their ideas I hadn’t heard of. Bok is someone I would like to have met. What a shame he was demeaned so when his views were no longer the popular opinion.

    his remark about friends not being true friends if they turn their back on you for living a simple lifestyle, I learned that the hard way myself.

    thank you for introducing Bok and you put it perfectly at the end, how should we view being an American? I’d like to think those of us simplifying our lives are reintroducing the concept of less is better.

    • I’m glad you like the series. I really enjoy writing it since I get to learn a lot, too.

      It seems today too many people equate being a good American with spending a lot of money, but I hope we can move toward redefining it as living simply and contentedly.

  2. Our thoughts are on the simpler side of life. It is no desire of ours to be wealthy in terms of money or stuff, slaving away our days to “get there” – where? Life is slower, more intentional with less money, less demands, less wants. Not fitting into the mold of a consumer society is a bit strange at first, but by learning to follow our desires instead of the ones that are assumed we should take, we are finding that life is indeed more beautiful with minimalism in mind.

    • I agree. Also, maybe we just have good friends, but we haven’t been taken off anyone’s “visit list.” A few think we are odd, but it doesn’t affect our relationships.

  3. Dave and I are fortunate in that our fathers both retired in time to enjoy life–setting an example we were thrilled to follow. I expect Dave’s sister to “die in harness” but at least, as a teacher, she takes wonderfully long and varied vacation trips. Her vacations would wear me out, though, as they are VERY active ones. She epitomizes that phrase: busy, busy, busy.

    • I’m into active vacations too – like to see as much as I can when I’m traveling, so I may be like Dave’s sister in some ways. People do have different personalities. I know I like to be busier than some do. Not because I’m trying to get ahead, but because I enjoy doing things like knitting and baking in my down time.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.