What could you learn about American women by comparing women’s magazines today and their counterparts fifty years ago?

Over at City Journal, Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, takes a “Journey Through the Checkout Racks” at her local supermarket and compares the leading women’s magazines of today to what they were like in 1963.

Interestingly, some of the stalwarts of 1963 still have a place on the racks today. Thus Vanderkam was able to compare apples to apples.

There are interesting sociological facts. Good Housekeeping reported in 1963 that 40 percent of its readers were in the workforce. That had gone up to about 75 percent of women aged 25 to 54 by 2010. The age for a first marriage in 1963 was  20.5; last year it was 26.6. Acknowledging that women’s lives have changed dramatically, the article finds that some of these changes aren’t what you’d think.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1963 magazines was their comparatively high quality and erudition:

Flip through the weighty 50-year-old issues, and you’ll soon feel, literally, a massive cultural shift in what women expect from their periodicals. In 1963, consuming a magazine could take days. Early that year, Good Housekeeping serialized Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the French Revolution, The Glass-Blowers, cramming much of it into a mere three issues. In May, GH ran a large portion of Edmund Fuller’s novel The Corridor, a feat that required stretching the magazine to 274 text-heavy pages. Redbook’s March 1963 issue featured Hortense Calisher’s novel Textures of Life and five short stories, a level of fiction ambition that even The New Yorker rarely attempts now. There is verse, too. At one point, a dense page of du Maurier’s text makes room for Catherine MacChesney’s “From the Window,” letting Good Housekeeping readers experience poetry and prose at the same time. Marion Lineaweaver’s ode to the coming spring in LHJ (“The wind is milk / So perfectly fresh, cool / Smooth on the tongue”) was one of six poems in the March 1963 issue alone.

That erudition is all the more surprising when you consider that women’s magazines reached a far larger fraction of the population in 1963 than they do now. Good Housekeeping hit a circulation of about 5.5 million readers in the mid-1960s, at a time when there were about 50 million women between the ages of 18 and 64 in the country. Ladies’ Home Journal reached close to 7 million readers. Editors assumed, then, that a hefty proportion of American women wanted to ponder poetic metaphor.

There were also more articles in 1963 on housekeeping. Both years feature a plethora of stories on losing weight. Cooking was also more important in 1963, with little attention paid to how long recipes would take because women had more time. “The 1963 housewife apparently lived in terror that neighbors might stop by unexpectedly for coffee and that she wouldn’t have a spread ready,” Vanderkam writes of the heavy emphasis on baking.

Women have less time to read women’s magazines today, and so the number of pages and focus has shifted: the thinner magazines of 2013 deal with how women can make the most of their limited “me time.” In place of short stories and poetry, we see an emphaisis on…well, me:

The articles in today’s women’s magazines seem to be written explicitly for this “me time”—that is, centered on the reader herself and not on the larger world. After reading through the 1963 magazines, one can’t help finding the modern ones a bit shallow.

It’s hard to imagine a social revolution being launched from their pages, as Friedan’s partly was. Only a few features deal with something beyond the reader’s own life—a tale in LHJ, for instance, of how the mother of a soldier killed in action met the nurse who treated him. Gone (mostly) are the short stories and the novels. In the 1963 Redbook, the anthropologist Margaret Mead answered outward-facing questions from readers (“Do very primitive societies have humor?” “Do you believe that our laws on drug addiction should be revised?”). In the 2013 Redbook, a similar role is filled by Soleil Moon Frye, the actress best known for playing Punky Brewster, who answers readers’ personal questions—one about a husband’s body odor, another about a fiancé’s pre-wedding jitters.

Not sure this is where the early feminists wanted to take us?

Read the entire, fascinating article