It was a place where anything seemed possible. The small, weekly society magazine that went by the name of Vogue was staffed by “ladies and gentleman, so no one worked very hard and anybody who wanted extra duties was welcome to them,” according to Edna Woolman Chase, an employee there for nearly 60 years. When Chase was just an 18-year-old “little girl from the country” (aka Asbury Park, New Jersey), a friend helped her get hired into Vogue’s circulation department, barely three years after the magazine was founded on this day in 1893. The teenager lived in a Manhattan boarding house with other single working women in an atmosphere she nostalgically describes as “family-like.” She threw herself into her job, a full-time gig addressing subscriber’s envelopes and adding new subscriber’s names into a ledger. Chase was paid $10 a week and loved every second of it.
“Vogue’s staff was small and the atmosphere around the office informal and non-professional,” Chase wrote in her 1954 memoir, Always in Vogue. “I was, I suppose, a factotum. A kind of little widget, young, eager and ignorant. From the very first day I felt a proprietary interest in the whole organization. I couldn’t wait to get there in the morning, I hated to leave at night.”
The name “Vogue” came from the magazine’s very first editor, Josephine Redding, a stout woman never seen without her broad-brimmed hat and who was hired by founder and publisher Arthur Baldwin Turnure. Redding, apparently tasked with the duty of finding a name for Turnure’s fledgling publication, flipped through the pages of the Century Dictionary until she found a definition that suited her:
“Vogue: Mode or fashion prevalent at any particular time; popular reception, repute, generally used in the phrase ‘in vogue’: as, a particular style of dress was then ‘in vogue’; such opinions are now ‘in vogue.’”
And so the magazine was named Vogue.
Early editions of the weekly were not exclusively fashion focused. It was a society journal, and so also featured articles about animals (Redding’s personal passion), etiquette, sports, gossip and hobbies. When it came to fashion, Redding was no Anna Wintour. In fact, she was entirely disapproving of the binding, inhibitive and, frankly, dangerous styles of the late-19th century, and was vocal in her opinion of them. “Humps. Women today are all covered with humps,” she wrote. “Big humpy sleeves, humps on their hips, humps on their behinds, it’s nonsense.” Though given the fashions of the time, Redding’s distaste is hard to argue with.
After the tragic sinking of the Maine during the Spanish-American War, an incident that was to 1898 New Yorkers as the fall of the Twin Towers was to those of 2001, Redding gave this fashion advice: “Don’t be so violently, alarmingly and visibly patriotic as to wear tri-colors on everything. Bad taste has never helped a good cause.”
In 19th-century Vogue, fashion designers were never named. Resources were not provided. Captions usually did not accompany illustrations (photos were not introduced until 1913), and if captions were provided they were likely to say, “For descriptions see printed text on another page,” sending readers on a wild goose chase, given that page number in question was never actually provided. The idea that an illustration might garnish the text was not yet an idea that had gained footing in the publishing world. For instance, one love story about a girl living on an army base was decorated with images of angry trouts fighting on hooks.
The magazine had a considerable male readership—or at least the staff liked to think so—and so Vogue included lots of men’s fashions, lengthy articles about the Yale and Princeton football teams (remember there were no professional leagues in those days!) and a popular feature, “As Seen By Him,” which mused on the various ideals of the anonymous gentlemen (writer Walter Robinson and art director Harry McVickar) who wrote it. One column reads like the rantings of Seinfeld’s Elaine Bennis, as she tries to convince her friends that she is “really, truly a nice person”:
“A word about the treatment of servants,” Him began. “One should always be kind to them. I am never familiar, never allow them to bring tales to me and I always keep them at a distance. I, however, occasionally encourage them with a bit of commendation. In fact, I always make it a point to be scrupulously civil to inferiors. I say make a point, but it really comes to me quite naturally. I frequently stop in the street to pat a stray dog on the head or to say a kind word to a horse. Every man who feels assured of his position would do likewise.”
Ultimately, Chase became a right-hand gal to Turnure, a man she describes as “a Princeton graduate of ’76, a founder by instinct…a chronic gambler on the stock market…and a gentleman who liked to stretch his lunch hour well into the afternoon.” When Turnure died unexpectedly in 1906, the magazine floated along, primarily building its bread and butter—Vogue made-to-order patterns—while contributors provided whatever content they felt suited the readers. In 1909, Condé Nast bought the paper and made it a monthly magazine, the beginnings of the Vogue we know today. In 1914 Nast promoted Chase, the little farm girl from New Jersey, to editor-in-chief of Vogue, a position she held until 1952.
Now, 108 years later, Anna Wintour’s Vogue would be unrecognizable to Redding, an editor who disapproved of trends and placed illustrations of New York debutantes on the covers. But I do like to think the two women—along with Chase—have some things in common: A strong point of view, a devotion to building the brand and an adherence to their belief of what is ultimately and forever Vogue. —Ali Basye
Photos: Top: The very first issue of Vogue, December 17, 1893, featured a debutante on its cover. Second from top: Edna Woolman Chase, editor of Vogue from 1914 to 1952, shown here as a 20-something employee of the circulation department, circa late 1800s. Third from top: Four young employees of Vogue, circa 1911: Edna Woolman Chase (far left), Martha Moller, Marie Lyons and Grace Hegger. Bottom: An illustration from 1892. Top photograph: Vogue founder and publisher Arthur Turnure. Bottom right photograph: Condé Nast.