During my internship on the WeChangEd research project, I was able to explore many nineteenth-century periodicals, both Dutch and English ones. What always caught my eye were the many pages filled with elaborate advertisements. Sadly, as many of the preserved copies are in bound collections and ads were often omitted from those, a lot of the original advertising has been lost. After looking at some of the many digitized magazines in the Gale Cengage 19th Century UK Periodicals database, however, I found many almost intact issues of quite a few periodicals. The two that stuck out most to me were those of Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion (1875-1912), a fashion magazine edited by Matilda – the Silkworm – Browne and published by Samuel Beeton, and the Woman’s Signal (1894-1899), a feminist magazine that was led and owned by Florence Fenwick Miller from 1895 onwards.

The difference in advertising between the two periodicals is striking. Whereas Fenwick Miller’s magazine promoted books, medicines and jobs, Browne’s included mostly ads for fashion, beauty products and household products, conforming to the idea of the domesticated wife. Overall, despite addressing women in their new role as consumers, Myra’s Journal seems rather conservative in its views. In her editorials, Browne often stressed how she believed women should be mainly focussed on serving or pleasing men, as this example from the issue published on 1 September 1895 shows: “A woman’s duty is not only to direct her house to the comfort and satisfaction of all its inmates, but she must study to be an intelligent companion to her husband, and make her company pleasant to him.” On top of that, the images of women in the periodical generally answer to the almost exaggerated mid- and late-Victorian body ideal: a female with soft lines, a small waist and dressed, almost captured, in a corset and crinoline.[1] Every issue contains a wealth of those pictures celebrating fashionable, youthful women as pretty shopping Angels who bought goods for themselves and their family while imitating the consumption habits of the higher classes or the royals.[2]

The commodity culture at the end of the nineteenth century was ambivalent, however. Women were regularly portrayed in advertisements as provocative or sensual, rather than angelic.[3] Marketing often relied on the eroticization of the female figure. More specifically, advertisers in the nineteenth century started to recognize the commercial potential of images depicting sensualized women’s bodies. Yet, women were still the go-betweens between men and their commodities, and were expected to remember the separation of spheres, which was also maintained in advertising.[4] It is true that  the rise of consumerism meant that the Angel started to leave the house, although the ornamental, leisured, expensive woman as the new ideal wife proved to be primarily another constructed female identity, promoted through male-run advertising and the new shopping culture, to which women were expected to conform.[5] So the growing consumerism and advertising towards the end of the nineteenth century did not mean that this new form of consumption meant less strict gender boundaries. Even though women were portrayed in a more sexual manner in advertising, this was mainly so they would be attracted to the product and buy it. The consuming woman evolved from “a creature of need to a creature of fantasy.”[6] This makes sense, as advertising strategies were still built on the belief that women were susceptible to addictions.[7] In Myra’s Journal, for instance, women are depicted as consumers who go out and buy goods for themselves and their family, and who have difficulty saving their money:

Florence Fenwick Miller. c. 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

“Many youngish women find themselves compelled by hard circumstances to gain their own livelihood. They are active when the morning sun of life shines upon them, and they can and do work. Full of energy, they delight in spending their own earnings, seeing the tangible results of their labour around them, in rooms growing gradually prettier and more comfortable, in greater refinement in the flowers they love, in nick-nacks that make home more cosy, in pretty dresses, and pretty hats. It is most natural.”[8]

This view on women contrasts heavily with the Woman’s Signal. Its editor did not often include ads depicting female beauty ideals and women as submissive Angels. Instead, the magazine promoted typing machines, medicines, competitions, education and jobs, food or temperance boarding.[9] In fact, women are portrayed barely at all, and if they are, it is in a more realistic manner, usually with a wider waist and less focus on their appearance. Yet Miller is not too radical in her feminism. She strives to reach a big audience, and wants to appeal widely as a “progressive paper for women”.[10] Fenwick Miller’s first issue with her as sole proprietor of the magazine presents its programme as very diverse. Miller writes in her editorial:

“[The Woman’s Signal] will differ from any ‘ladies’ paper’ heretofore in existence, for it will not confine its attention to the Home interests and the Personal interests of our sex, but will regard also the interests that the woman of our time feels, and ought yet more to feel, in the Public welfare and progress. House decoration and sanitary arrangements, cooking, manners in society, gardening, needlework, and so on are all parts of the Homemaking duty which is committed by nature and custom alike to the female sex. Dress, the care of family and individual health and appearance, the means of employment (for those who must earn money), sports and pastimes for the leisure hours, are Personal interests. […] But the Woman’s Signal goes farther. It is our plan also to pass through where there is a breach in old barriers, and to till also that corner of the field of life which used to be shut off from one-half of humanity, but which now has become an accepted and recognised proper ground for women as well as men to occupy – namely, Public affairs – politics, organised philanthropy, and efforts for reforms in morals, manners, and social arrangements.”[11]

With the Woman’s Signal, Fenwick Miller wanted to reach women in every sphere of life, whether it be domestic or professional, while all the while stressing women’s capability and free will, it seems.[12] Van Arsdel and Mitchell argue that in avoiding terms such as “pro-temperance” or “pro-suffragette”[13] when promoting the periodical, and presenting a varied programme with features on domesticity, Fenwick Miller tried to bait as many women as possible to achieve wide-spread circulation and to sell her often feminist beliefs alongside the idea of the married woman as an ideal role model.[14]

It was after doing research and finding all of this information, that one advertisement in the issue of Thursday, 17 February 1898 caught my eye. The message it conveys seems at odds with the magazine’s focus on women’s free will and independence, in whatever occupation they might find themselves. The ad is three columns long, full of images of fashionable young women, and was added to the news feature so as to give it more credibility. Interestingly, it promoted a patent medicinal product, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, and it did so with a rather conservative message:

“Home! That is the place for every woman. The song which alludes to England, Home and Beauty, recognises the three duties of woman – Patriotism, Domesticity and Comeliness. […] Beauty is as much a duty of every woman as housekeeping, or very nearly as church-going. Pay no attention, girls and women, to the people who tell you that it is ‘vain’ to pay attention to your personal comeliness. That is not true! You owe it to your father, your brothers (shall I whisper it? To your sweetheart), to your husband, if you have one, to be pretty.”

Immediately I wondered why a magazine like the Woman’s Signal would publish an advertisement that clearly belongs more in a periodical like Myra’s Journal. Just because Miller is the editor, however, does not mean that she would have selected the adverts that would appear in the magazine. Yet, the periodical states in several issues that Fenwick Miller wishes that all ads meant for the Woman’s Signal be sent to her address. Looking at the paper’s advertising features, they indeed seem to agree with Millers generally feminist views, and convey the magazine’s progressive message with the promotion of diverse products, ranging from domestic goods to more progressive books, for instance. And it is true, Miller generally included advertisements for a lot of patent medicines, and would in her paper promote beauty products that stressed the positive effect on the consumer’s health rather than on their appearance. But why this ad in particular? After looking into how Fenwick Miller acted as an editor, the Dr. Williams Pink Pills and several of the Woman’s Signal’s issues, I came up with three hypotheses as to why she accepted the ad, and decided to have it published.

Advert Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People in the Women’s Signal. 17 February 1898. Gale Cengage Database of 19th Century UK Periodicals.

The first thought that crossed my mind was that she had not edited this particular issue. Soon, however, that hypothesis proved to be problematic, not only because there is no way to prove this as it is her name that is mentioned as editor on the cover, but also because nothing else about this issue seems different from other numbers. On top of that, similar advertisements might have been included in other issues that have not been digitized and that I have not been able to take a look at. In any case, it was not uncommon for Fenwick Miller to place a feminist pamphlet next to an ad for gloves or a feature on domesticity, however out of place this Dr. Willliams advert might seem. Could it be that her motives were more ideological than we would think at first sight? Maybe she wanted to convince readers of the fact that women can be domestic as well as progressive, public or professional. And perhaps the Dr. Williams ad was a somewhat awkward way to appear more inclusive towards all ideas of womanliness. After all, as Liggins mentions in her article:

“The Woman’s Signal had to negotiate the complexities of both new and traditional forms of femininity, which were in uneasy relation with class status at the fin de siècle. Articles advising and celebrating the single, professional woman often conflicted with appeals to mothers and housewives, and advertisements featured evocative visual representations of cherubic children along-side images of temperance hotels and patent medicines.”[15]

Of course we could ask ourselves whether the two different notions of femininity were actually perceived as conflicting by the readers of the Woman’s Signal, since they were encouraged to embrace all forms of womanhood and to not see them as opposites. Either way, Miller considered every woman a potential reader of her periodical, whether it was for ideological or more strategic, economic reasons.[16] Overall, she seems to have created a new type of feminist periodical, which seems to show that womanhood can be complex, and that the two ‘conflicting’ types – either being a housewife or a professional woman – are not mutually exclusive. However, Miller’s wish for inclusiveness alone does not explain why she would ever have printed an ad so radically conservative.

I thought I found a possible answer when I read Van Arsdel’s article that states the paper was suffering from economic difficulties. On 30 September 1897, this was published in the periodical’s editorial:

“The paper now pays its own expenses; but I have never concealed from my readers that this has been done at a great personal sacrifice, that the paper does not yet pay me for the work I give it, and to this, as to any other form of public service, I could not be bound beyond a certain time. It is for this reason that I venture from time to time to beg my readers who value the paper to try to extend its circulation; could we but double the circulation the future would be assured.”[17]

Advertisements in general, even more than the periodical’s sales, made up a lot of papers’ revenues from the 1860s onwards.[18] When looking into ads on patent medicines more specifically, I learned that its marketers easily spent two million pounds a year on advertising costs alone.[19] After alcohol, patent medicinal products were the most widely available commodity, and a big business with high selling numbers.[20] Considering the amounts of money that editors thus would have received for including those medicine ads, it is not unlikely that Fenwick Miller accepted the Dr. Williams one. She had included similar ones before, although the ones that had been published in prior issues had never been this large or conservative in regards to “the female duty” as far as the digitized copies in the Gale database can tell us.[21] It is interesting that a magazine like Myra’s Journal, which also included the Dr. Williams ads, often decided to publish exactly those that were mainly focused on the restoration of beauty. For instance, in the issues published on Friday, 1 June 1894 and 1 October 1998, the included Pink Pills advertisement promotes the pills as a way to preserve a good appearance. Although I have found no digitized copy in which the same Pink Pills ad is included, I did find a similar advertisement that appeared at least twice, in the issue of 1 March 1896 and in the issue of 1 April 1897. Here, the Dr. Williams marketers claim: “Beauty depends on health. A woman who suffers cannot be beautiful. On the other hand, many whose charms might adorn any station are made colourless, thin, and wretched by the lack of just what Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills unfailingly supply. Bright eyes. Rosy cheeks. Plump figure. Ruby Lips.”

It is not surprising that both periodicals included advertisements for Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. It was a well-known product, especially in the later years of the nineteenth century. Originally a Canadian patent medicine, Canadian senator George T. Fulford bought the pills’ patent on June 4 in 1890 from the original creator.[22] After an influenza epidemic, the sales of the pills skyrocketed, and expanded to Europe.[23] Of the 9,000 dollars he spent per month on advertising, 3,000 of it went to the marketing in Britain, where many periodicals included the veiled ads in the form of news features.[24] Not only the financial benefit, but also the facts that Fulford hired seventy women in Britain to address envelopes for him and that he spent money on good causes, including both boys’ and girls’ educations, might have appealed to Fenwick Miller. But then would she still not have indicated in some way that she did not agree with the message of the advertisement?

That question is what led me to my third hypothesis. Even though she may have had financial troubles and felt she had no choice but to include the ad in the issue, she also may have done so to question its contents. Exactly because Fenwick Miller had many advertisements of patent medicines printed, it seems unlikely that she would have wanted to criticize the often attacked medicinal business in general. Instead, other clues in the issue might point towards her disapproval of the ad’s message. Lanning describes in her article how Victorian readers would have made a mosaic of meaning by seeing and reading the different features or texts next to each other in periodicals.[25] Miller, aware of this, might have made use of a strategy with which she purposefully combined other pieces of text with the Dr. Williams ad. [26] Since the marketers of the product made sure to turn their ads into news bulletins that had to be printed in the according news feature, they were able to control the consumer’s reading experience.[27] People would have paid attention to the ad if it was presented as a factual report, which instantly gained reliability this way.

However, Fenwick Miller appears to negate the seriousness of the advertisement by placing directly next to it a columnist’s plea to find jobs for blind people, who can make themselves just as useful as anyone else: “That association [the British and Foreign Association], with the help of many volunteer writers, was able last year to give employment to about 80 poor blind people in London by giving them the books [on braille] to re-copy. […]  And there are few blind persons who, with a little patience, cannot be easily taught to read – though not write – in this type.” This contradicts the message of the Dr. Williams ad, which, as stated above, proclaims that beauty is a woman’s sole duty, as it recognizes patriotism, comeliness and domesticity. After this euphemistic statement, the text goes on way more bluntly to say that women owe it to men to look their best, with a plump figure, a good complexion, and interestingly so, bright eyes. In an ironic, almost humorous way, Fenwick Miller seems to mock the ad and remind her readers that worrying about beautiful eyes is trivial. Similarly, in the same issue, three pages filled with domestic ads on what to wear and what to buy for the house are interspersed with quotes on how women are human beings and need more sympathy, with a citation of George Eliot saying that “Tis a vile life that, like a garden pool, lies stagnant in the round of personal lives”.

Part of the Woman’s Signal cover page. 26 January 1899. Gale Cengage Database of 19th Century UK Periodicals.

Admittedly, we will probably never know what Fenwick Miller’s exact motives were. Perhaps it was a combination of several factors. It is possible that she only did it so she could criticize its message, but at least as plausible that she had to add it because of her financial problems, yet still wanted to make clear that she did not agree with the message the advertisement conveyed. Or maybe she had other motives I am not aware of. Whichever may be the truth, the fact remains that studying periodicals like the Victorian ones are all the more interesting when we look at them in their entirety, to the extent that this is possible. Often ignored, advertisements in magazines in fact seem to offer a lot of insight into the readers’ experiences and the aim of the periodical at hand.

Marjolein Goethals, 20/05/2019


[1] Roberts, H. E. 1977. “The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman”. Signs 2. p. 555

[2] Loeb, L. A. 1994. Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 10

[3] Pikula, Tanya. 2012. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Late-Victorian Advertising Tactics: Earnest Men, Virtuous Ladies, and Porn”. English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 55. p. 286

[4] Richards p. 206, 246

[5] Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. 2007. Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels. London: Routledge. p. 6.

[6] Loeb. Consuming Angels. p. 7

[7] Pikula p. 286

[8] Browne, Matilda. 1894. “Woman’s Duty”. Myra’s Journal 1. p. 13

[9] The Women’s Penny Paper was founded on 27 October 1888 by Henriëtta Müller and became the Woman’s Herald in 1891 under the editorship of Lady Henry Somerset, who passionately campaigned for temperance. When the Woman’s Herald ceased on 28 December 1893, Somerset founded her Journal, which was to become the Woman’s Signal in 1894, with Fenwick Miller as editor and eventual sole proprietor on 3 October 1895. Her goal was to revive the periodical after it lost many readers because of Somerset’s almost obsessive focus on temperance. In: Van Arsdel, R. T. 1982. “Mrs. Fenwick-Miller and the “Woman’s Signal”, 1895-1899”. Victorian Periodicals Review 15. p. 109

[10] Tusan, M. E. 1998. “Inventing the New Woman: Print Culture and Identity Politics during the Fin-de-Siecle: 1997 VanArsdel Prize”. Victorian Periodicals Review 31. p. 174

[11] Miller, Florence Fenwick. 1895. “Editor’s Address.” Woman’s Signal 92. p. 216

[12] Added to the periodical’s title was the subtitle: “A Weekly Record and Review of Woman’s Work and Interests at Home and In the Wider World”.

[13] Tusan p. 174

[14] Mitchell, S. 2003. “Reviewed Work(s): Florence Fenwick-Miller: Victorian Feminist, Journalist and Educator by Rosemary T. Van Arsdel”. Victorian Periodicals Review 36. p. 202

[15] Liggins, E. 2014. “Not an Ordinary “Ladies’ Paper”: Work, Motherhood, and Temperance Rhetoric in the Woman’s Signal, 1894-1899”. Victorian Periodicals Review 26. p. 613

[16] In an 1895 issue, Miller addresses in her editorial that she wants to idealize a womanhood that includes house-proud mothers and daughters, who at the same time want to claim their space in the public sphere. Possibly, scholars like Van Arsdel and Mitchell are right in believing that she mainly wished to be so inclusive because she longed for a bigger audience.

[17] Miller, Florence Fenwick. 1897. Woman’s Signal 196. n.p.

[18] Brake, L. and M. Demoor. 2009. Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Gent: Academia Press. p. 5

[19] Richards p. 172

[20] Ibid.

[21] Most other Dr. Williams’ advertisements I have been able to find and which were included in the Woman’s Signal were only a column long, and focused less on the effect of the pills on female beauty. Often, the ad described the condition of a male ‘patient’, such as Mr. Lee (issue 108, 1896, p. 12) or Mr. Barns (issue 110, 1896, p. 93), dying children (issue 76, 1896, p. 109; issue 159, 1897, p. 31) or of a very ill woman in need of better health rather than a more appealing appearance, for instance in the issues of 13 February 1896 and 11 February 1897.

[22] Loeb, L. 1999. “George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs?”. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. p. 133

[23] Ibid. p. 134

[24] Ibid. p. 135

[25] Lanning, K. 2012. “2011 VanArsdel Prize Essay Tessellating Texts: Reading The Moonstone in All the Year Round”. Victorian Periodicals Review 45. p. 1. The act of rearranging pieces of a magazine issue and fitting the multiple texts with which the reader engages together, is called “tessellated reading”.

[26] Deborah Wynne claims that editors would have been aware of their readers tessellating, and that they would have combined certain features or texts purposefully. In: Wynne, Deborah. 2001. The Sensational Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 106

[27] Lanning p. 13