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The Elbert Files: E.T. Meredith’s legacy


This year marks the 100th anniversary of

Better Homes and Gardens magazine, which makes it a good time to look back on the eclectic accomplishments of its founder, as well as relearn some interesting facts about the nation’s premier home and family publication.

The Meredith Corp. official history begins in the 1850s when Thomas Meredith abandoned plans to settle in Oregon and put down roots in western Iowa, where grandson Edwin Thomas (E.T.) Meredith was born in 1876.

Thomas was involved in populist politics and moved to Des Moines, where he owned the Farmer’s Tribune, a Populist Party newspaper. After high school, E.T. joined his grandfather and became general manager of the newspaper.

When E.T. married in 1895, he received half interest in the Farmers Journal, with his grandfather selling the other half to the Populist Party’s unsuccessful candidate for governor. E.T.’s gift included a note “scrawled across the Tribune’s perennially troubled balance sheet: “Sink or swim.”

E.T. was a good swimmer and kept the publication afloat by keeping politics out of its pages.

But not out of his life. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in 1914 and for governor in 1916. E.T. served as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of agriculture in 1920-21 and was a favorite son candidate for president in 1924. In June 1928, he died unexpectedly at age 51 while others were touting him as a “dry” alternative to Al Smith, who opposed Prohibition and lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in the general election.

Politics aside, E.T. accomplished much in business and in Des Moines.

His decision to remove politics from the Farmers Tribune paid huge dividends when he restructured it in 1902 as a monthly how-to magazine and renamed it Successful Farming.

“Subscriptions grew from about 25,000 to more than 500,000 in 11 years,” according to the corporate history.

As a civic leader, E.T. helped launch 4-H clubs.

He also promoted farm-to-market roads and in 1915 became the driving force of the Jefferson Highway, a 2,300-mile north-south road linking Canada with New Orleans through Des Moines. It was said that he was inspired by disappointment when the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway did not pass through Des Moines.

He reshaped downtown Des Moines when he purchased 2.8 acres on the western edge of the commercial district in 1911 and built a distinctive headquarters that is still recognized as part of a key gateway to downtown.

In 1914, he sponsored a five-day train trip to Iowa for New York advertising executives to showcase Des Moines and the state in a bid to spur advertising.

About the same time, the publisher was experimenting with a concept for a new “Garden, Fruit and Home” magazine, but pulled back. The official history says E.T.’s entry into politics in 1914 may have been the reason for, “or perhaps response” to, promotion of the new magazine that “simply wasn’t encouraging.”

After World War I, things were different. For the first time, the 1920 census showed more Americans lived in cities than on farms; automobiles had become affordable and radio and movies were reshaping everything.

In 1922, E.T. gave his family-oriented magazine another try, rearranging the title to Fruit, Garden and Home. A trial issue in July 1922 cost 10 cents for 52 pages of articles with titles like “Little Garden in the City” and “July Fun for Little Folks.”

The magazine was designed to appeal to male readers, as well as women, to widen the advertiser base. It formally launched in September 1922 with 150,000 subscribers. But that wasn’t enough and the magazine lost money, prompting a title change in 1924 to Better Homes and Gardens “to better express … our real purpose.”

The new title was taken from “a phrase then in use as a motto of a Des Moines neighborhood association,” the history said.

It worked, and E.T. came up with an editorial dictum – “No fiction, no fashion; no piffle, no passion” – that guided content throughout the 20th century, setting the magazine off from competitors.

Meredith Corp. was sold late last year to digital publisher Dotdash, which rebranded its flagship, 7 million subscription magazine as BHG and announced plans to expand its online reach and enhance print issues. “Today, the iconic media brand reaches a monthly audience of over 43 million,” the company said in an August news release. 

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