Pithy People: 150 years of the People’s Friend

When talking about my research into the popular magazine the People’s Friend the typical response I receive is, ‘my granny used to read that!’ For many Scots, this is their primary association with the People’s Friend and for me it is no different. My grandmother, born in Edinburgh in 1928 to Italian-immigrants, was a regular reader of People’s Friend. Throughout her lifetime, the Friend was a popular women’s magazine that regularly included cooking recipes, household tips, and knitting patterns. Today, such gendered content is a staple of the Friend weekly issues and it prides itself as the world’s oldest women’s magazine. However, the origins of the People’s Friend are quite different. The Friend began as a monthly literary periodical in Dundee, in 1869, and was a key player in a team of popular publications owned by newspaper magnate and Liberal MP (1889-1905) for Dundee, John Leng. By December 1890, the annual combined circulation for his publications – the People’s Journal, the Dundee Advertiser and the People’s Friend – was over 5 million and averaged at 120,000 copies sold per week and by 1901, Leng’s newspaper empire had extended to offices on Fleet Street, the heart of the British metropolitan press industry.

From its outset, the People’s Friend was destined for popularity, resting on the success of its sister publication, the People’s Journal (1858) which was a newspaper for Dundee, Perth and Angus that published telegraphic news alongside fictional literature. By its second issue the People’s Journal was running poetry competitions and Christmas literary editions for readers. Such was the popularity of these phenomenon and the appetite for literature in Scotland, that Leng created the People’s Friend to publish the surplus of literature that the Journal received. Initially, the Friend modelled itself on contemporary periodicals such as Chamber’s Journal and Tait’s Magazine, publishing similar intellectual content including book reviews, literary editorials, and scientific articles. The magazinewas keen to outline its twofold purpose: to encourage the literary pursuits of its readers and ‘promote self-improvement and studious, sober habits’, and the publication of ‘Scotch stories, poetry, and other articles, written by Scotchmen’ that were deeply ‘Scotch in character’. In its first three decades, at least 60% of the Friend’s published poetry was written in Scots and its serial stories written by prominent Scottish authors including Margaret Oliphant, Annie S. Swan, Robert Ford, Alexander Anderson (the ‘Surfaceman’), Jessie K. Lawson and George Gilfillan. Ultimately, the Friend hoped to emulate the writings of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, who were featured on its bound volumes from 1890.

As the Friend celebrates its 150th anniversary, it is right to reflect on its longevity, and there are some key reasons for this. During its time under John Leng, the Friend published content that resonated with the values of late-Victorian Scottish society: Liberalism, Protestant literacy, education, temperance, self-improvement, work ethic, domesticity and industrialisation. Its subtitle, ‘A Miscellany of Popular and Instructive Literature’ and its headline banner give a nod to this identity.

Since 1869, the Friend has always had a strong narrative of female empowerment: its column, ‘The Housewife’, although presenting women in a domestic setting, often published articles in support of female workers and female suffrage, such as an article in 1869 which highlighted the poor working hours of female seamstresses and jute workers in Dundee. From the 1890s, female authors were featured more prominently, and the inclusion of illustrations allowed the Friend to appeal to its female consumer market by including detailed step-by-step illustrations of clothes patterns, sewing instructions and cooking recipes. Entertainment was also a key focus: half of its sixteen pages were dedicated to a mixture of puzzles, brainteasers, jokes, and pithy phrases to live by.

There was also a correspondence column, known as ‘Friend In Council’, where, the Friend’s editor, David Pae, and sub-editor, Andrew Stewart, provided constructive criticism to contributors’ literary pieces and replied to an array of queries from readers which ranged from recipes for toothpaste to advise on the best bookshops in Dundee. In this way, the Friend became a truly encyclopaedic magazine.

By 1905, the Friend was under the control of D C Thomson, the new Dundee press magnate who had bought the Dundee Courier in 1886 and most of Leng’s publications in c.1901. From here, its voice changed: it adopted a more conservative political outlook, featured its female and domestic voice far more prominently, and branded itself ‘Scotland’s Favourite Home Journal’ by 1908. Now in its 150th year, the Friend’s history highlights the importance of Dundee as a city of historic popular journalism and its significance within modern Scottish magazine culture.

Charlotte Lauder

Charlotte Lauder is a Collaborative Doctoral PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and the National Library of Scotland, researching Scottish national identity in nineteenth and twentieth century popular magazines. She tweets from @checkpointchaz