BY the 1940s, only one publication exceeded Reader’s Digest in sales. It was the Bible. And the Digest even put its stamp on that book, producing a condensed version in 1982 and presenting it to Pope John Paul II.
Starting with newsstand sales in 1929, the Digest became an instant success and ultimately a global phenomenon, as well as an exemplar of paternalistic policies that coddled employees. This fall, as part of the company’s recent restructuring, the last employees will be leaving the Digest’s former headquarters here — a sprawling campus perched on a hilltop — for offices in White Plains and Manhattan.
But many of the glory days will stay behind, captured in a collection of artifacts and documents on view at the New Castle Historical Society in “Reader’s Digest: The Local Magazine That Conquered the World.”
The society is housed in the former home of Horace Greeley, the founder of The New York Herald Tribune, and a visitor must walk upstairs and through Greeley’s study, past his desk and old typesetting equipment, to see the exhibition. It seems fitting that one visionary publisher should play host to another.
DeWitt Wallace, the founder of the Digest, had what at the time was a revolutionary idea. In the early 20th century, he believed that people were overwhelmed by too much information and needed help sorting it out. He began culling what he considered the best stories from other publications and condensing them into easily consumable pieces.
Mr. Wallace was initially met with skepticism. The exhibition includes several panels that chart the magazine’s history, and the first, “Birth of an Idea,” includes a letter from the editor of The Red Cross Magazine, John S. Phillips, granting Mr. Wallace permission to excerpt an article. “I have looked over your little publication,” Mr. Phillips writes. “But, personally, I don’t see how it will be able to get enough subscribers to support it.”
The early lives of Mr. Wallace and his wife, Lila Bell Acheson Wallace, are documented, as is their extensive philanthropy and art collection. Mrs. Wallace started collecting art in the 1940s, creating one of the first corporate collections in the country.
At one time, the halls, conference rooms and even the cafeteria at the Digest’s headquarters were decorated with paintings by Renoir, Chagall,van Gogh, Degas and the like. Mrs. Wallace believed it was important that employees be intellectually stimulated in their work environment. Alas, visitors to the exhibit will not see any of these works; most were sold at auction in the late 1990s. Instead, a small pile of 1990 calendars titled “Great Paintings From the Digest Collection” sits on a chair, with a handwritten note reading, “Free — help yourself.”
The value of this exhibition is less in what it offers visually than in how it captures an era. Evidence of bygone days of corporate largess is seen throughout the show. One case holds a silver compact with the Digest logo of a Pegasus engraved upon it. The compacts were given to women with 10 to 14 years of service at the company; men received a gold pocketknife. Employees who put in 15 to 19 years at the company got a silver traveling clock. For 20 or more years of service, workers were handed two tickets to Bermuda, with two extra weeks of vacation thrown in.
A 30-minute video includes testimony from former employees, who reminisce about the Digest’s baseball, bowling and golf leagues.
“At the end of every season was a party,” one man recalled. “You’d fill out a form. Did you want the filet mignon or the lobster?”
Another former editor remembered Mr. Wallace chasing everyone from their desks at 4 p.m., insisting that they go home. “He believed if you were smart and organized enough, you should get your work done by that time,” the employee said. It was hard to lose your job at the Digest; Mr. Wallace finally fired a man after he failed to show up for work for eight weeks.
There is also an online component to the show. At the Web site rdexhibit.com, former employees are invited to contribute their own memories.
Many write about their encounters with the Wallaces. Elinor Griffith, a former editor and a co-curator of the exhibition, said that both the site and show have attracted many Digest alumni, some of whom have reconnected with one another after decades.
The show chronicles many milestones of the Digest’s success. By the 40th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, the magazine had 40 editions and was published in 13 languages and in Braille.
A 10-foot panel shows a timeline of steady growth, beginning with a circulation of 290,000 in 1929 and leveling off in 1982 at 31 million. Books and record divisions opened, and the Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes was established. Influential stories — like a 1933 investigation about preventable car crashes, “And Sudden Death!” — are highlighted. Every issue of the Digest is available for browsing.
Correspondence from famous contributors is also on display. Charles Lindbergh requested in a 1939 letter that no changes be made “in text, punctuation, capitalization or title” in an article he contributed. In 1962, Richard M. Nixon wrote that he was “pleased and honored” that the Digest would excerpt his book. “I hope you do not catch too much ‘political flak’ from some of my never-say-die critics,” Nixon added.
Glaringly absent from the show is any mention of the company’s decline. Reader’s Digest filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August 2009 and emerged from it early this year. The staff was reduced by nearly 8 percent. The company’s stately old headquarters is now the proposed site of a housing development. But the remnants of its past at the historical society give testament to a corporate culture that has indeed become part of history.
“Reader’s Digest: The Local Magazine That Conquered the World,” through January 2011, at the New Castle Historical Society, 100 King Street, Chappaqua, N.Y. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (914) 238-4666.