May 14, 2016

Grit: Beefcake and Bonding in an Attic in Rural Indiana

Every summer, and sometimes at Christmas, we visited my Grandma Davis in Indiana.  She had an attic full of old magazines, and my brother and I used to spend rainy afternoons there, leafing through half a century worth of browning ephemera.

Today I get the impression of someone who longed for an urbane, sophisticated life as an artist in Jazz Age New York, but somehow found herself in a farmhouse in rural Indiana, with a husband who was gone weeks at a time, and spent her life lapsing between attempts to rebel and attempts to adapt:

Rebellion: The Smart Set, Nash's, Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post

Adaption: Redbook, Better Homes and Gardens, The Farmer's Wife, Grit


Who would name a newspaper after that gross stuff that gets in your eye after you sleep?

Maybe it was grits, the gross Southern food made out of boiled corn.

It was like a tabloid newspaper, with lots of human interest stories: a blind guy who works as a postal carrier, a woman who found her lost wedding ring in an egg laid by her chicken, a traffic accident that reunited a father and his long-lost son.

Nothing that took place anything near a city: in the world of Grit, no settlement with a population over 2,000 existed in the U.S.

No foreign countries existed, either.  Or black people.  Or Jews.  Or women who weren't housewives.  Or gay men and lesbians.

But -- there were a lot of cute 4-H Boys holding up prize sheep, providing a hint of beefcake on rainy rural afternoons.

Here's a shirtless boy in a bunkhouse at the Millstone 4-H Camp in Ellerbee, North Carolina, 1961.

There were also pages of comic strips, some the old-fashioned dinosaur strips familiar from the Rock Island Argus -- Blondie Prince Valiant, Out Our Way -- and some even older.

Beefcake titles like  Jungle Jim, Mandrake the Magician, and Flash Gordon.

Very nice physique, for a guy from the 1930s with his head wrapped in a plastic bag.

Here's an ad from Grit about selling Grit.  

$6 in 1956 is the equivalent of $50 today.  Not a bad source of income.

Grit was founded in 1885 by German immigrant Dietrich Lamade.  It was especially popular in the 1930s and 1940s, with over 400,000 weekly subscribers.  It was competing favorably with newspapers that wouldn't deliver to rural areas.

The decline of the rural population after World War II, and competition from radio and television, led to a nosedive in subscriptions.  By 2000, there were less than 10,000 subscribers, mostly elderly.

Under new management, Grit has rebranded itself  as a bimonthly blog and print magazine for food and gardening enthusiasts, with articles on free range chickens, hybrid tomatoes, and lawn mower maintenance.

The new Grit is more inclusive, with racial and religious minorities, urban dwellers, and gay men and lesbians:

"Who do you call when you have an animal in trouble?  The ladies next door are at work, and I can no longer phone the gay guys down the street because they have me blocked since we had a shouting match about being invited to a Pampered Chef party, so I call the SPCA."

 It has over 150,000 subscribers.

See also: Borden's Elsie and Elmer