The day we tested sex aids at Good Housekeeping
In the early 2000s, I was sitting in my corner office overlooking Carnaby Street in London when my PA announced a call from New York. It was noon in London, 7am in New York.
That wouldn’t be good news. A very senior executive from our parent company – think Gerri on the Succession TV show – has come online.
“I see a story on the internet, it must be fake news, but it says Good Housekeeping tested”, – there was a pause – “items of a personal nature”.
“Vibrators,” I confirmed.
“We tested sex aids on the road?”
There was a breath of transatlantic air.
Lindsay Nicholson, who edited Good Housekeeping for 18 years, reflects ahead of the magazine’s 100th anniversary. Pictured: 1920: the first British edition
“It’s a matter of health,” I replied. “Cheap imports arrive in the UK untested and are made of substandard materials which could be very detrimental to the women who use them. Our readers rely on us to provide them with information on all the electrical devices used in the home!
There was a long silence, then: “You know it’s not Cosmopolitan?”
Of course I knew. Good Housekeeping – GH to all of us who worked there – had been tackling previously unspoken topics for decades before its little sister Cosmopolitan arrived on the scene. And I’m delighted that it continues to do so, with an impressive 100th anniversary in March that will be celebrated, I believe, with record sales figures.
For millions of women, it’s a trusted source on everything from health and fashion to beauty, how to make the perfect Victoria sponge, the optimal way to stack a dishwasher and, yes, the best method for an orgasm.
It has such a reputation for integrity that famed potter Emma Bridgewater produced a range of coffee mugs emblazoned with the words: ‘I’ll believe it when I read it in Good Housekeeping’.
The original Good Housekeeping launched in the United States over 135 years ago, aimed at pioneering women in the Midwest. It featured traditional recipes and homemade tips.
When it became the property of media mogul Randolph Hearst, he decided to launch the title in Britain as well. The first British publisher was – inevitably for the time – a man, James McPeake, who decided that British Good Housekeeping would have a different philosophy to the ‘mummy’s apple pie’ of the American original.
Lindsay said Good Housekeeping was an instant hit, offering more realism than the haute couture Vogue, launched shortly before. Photo left: 1950s, right: 1960s
The first letter from McPeake’s editor promised: “The burning questions of the day will be reflected each month in articles from women in the public eye who are known for their insight into their subject matter – by women who can lead women and who are fearless, outspoken and outspoken.’
It was an instant hit, offering more realism than the haute couture Vogue, launched not long before.
Sadly, after just two years as editor, McPeake passed away and the baton passed to his assistant, Alice Head, 27 and burning with ambition.
The effects of the First World War were still being felt. Working-class women who had entered munitions factories found they preferred it and refused to return to their roles as maids and cooks.
Middle-class women who rarely ventured into servants’ quarters were now responsible for cooking, cleaning, and managing their own homes.
Lindsay said the magazine’s influence was overtaken by Cosmopolitan in the 1970s. Pictured: 1970: Golden Anniversary
Alice understood this and imported an idea from America – a Good Housekeeping Institute that tried and tested every household appliance on the market: early vacuum cleaners, irons and washing machines, awarding the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to those who met his high standards.
Alice’s creation went from better to better. She combined consumer advice and recipes from the Good Housekeeping Institute with articles from Virginia Woolf and suffragist Millicent Fawcett.
Nothing was off limits and titles included Would Wives Have a Wage?, Some Questions About Divorce and, as early as 1927, Sex And The Single Woman.
Many women cannot abandon their families to pursue their own goals
Alice edited the magazine for 15 years, becoming, even more unusually at the time, the company’s managing director. She is rumored to be the highest paid woman in Britain.
His successors were equally formidable. But the Swinging Sixties and 1970s saw the magazine’s influence begin to wane and be overtaken by Cosmopolitan, which arrived in the UK in 1972.
Nonetheless, Good Housekeeping continued to appeal to “women leading women.”
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, was a guest at the 65th birthday party. In the 1990s, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told columnist Maureen Lipman that it was the magazine’s arrival each month that kept her under house arrest.
Lindsay, who was asked to become the 11th editor of Good Housekeeping in 1999, decided the vision of James McPeake and Alice Head was still relevant. Pictured left: 1980s, right: Michelle Obama on the cover in 2019
Then, in 1999, I was asked to become the 11th editor of Good Housekeeping. With the majority of women now working outside the home, few thought a housekeeping magazine could survive. Should we change the name to GH?
I decided that the vision of James McPeake and Alice Head was as relevant today – times change, people don’t – as it was then, and as most women, far from to be perfect housewives, just wanted practical advice to ensure the best for their families. and themselves.
It has always been easy for radical feminists to decry the very idea of housekeeping while ignoring the fact that households – families – need to be supported. Our feminism was about the reality that women – then and now – do most of the emotional and real work in the home and that many are unable or unwilling to abandon their families in pursuit of their own goals.
In the absence of a totally egalitarian world, a balance must be sought and this is what Good Housekeeping proposed.
A specially commissioned survey found that the vast majority of working mothers were so busy they were unable to find time for themselves. A woman said to me, “If I’m ironing but can watch TV at the same time, then I call that time for myself!”
Lindsay (pictured), who still reads Good Housekeeping, said she advised her 28-year-old daughter to read the publication when she needed advice on appliances
I don’t think a man would ever say that. Our research was then used by the Labor Government to help make employment laws more family-friendly.
We took risks, like testing the vibrators, and by the 2000s the traffic was skyrocketing and no one was talking about changing the name to GH, or the housekeeping going out of fashion.
In 2014, Good Housekeeping regained its rightful place as the best-selling monthly magazine, a position it holds to this day, and we opened a purpose-built institute and cooking school, as well as launching a website that immediately attracted millions of visitors.
I edited Good Housekeeping for 18 years and loved it. But staying at No. 1 was taking its toll. My second marriage had broken up and in the subsequent divorce I temporarily lost my home. . . too bad for my own housekeeping skills!
When the layoff arrived, many contacted me to wish me well, including one of the magazine’s most loyal fans: the Duchess of Cornwall. Shortly after, I received an MBE (for services to journalism and equal opportunity) from Prince Charles.
He told me that after advocating for women to find time for themselves, it was now time for me to focus on my own writing, which I do, with a novel and a memoir in the works.
I still read Good Housekeeping. My daughter, Hope, is 28 and about to get married, and when she asks me what are the best kitchen appliances for the apartment she is furnishing with her fiancé, I tell her to check out the website Good Housekeeping, reminding him that, ‘You can believe it when you read it in Good Housekeeping.