By: Jack Swift
Johnson County Historian
If you have read my column for a length of time, you probably know that I collect old magazines. I have several, including a few that go back to the early 1900s. But one of the most interesting to me is an original Readers Digest dated March 1938. March 22, 1938 is the date of my birth. I refer to that old magazine occasionally because I like to see what was considered good writing in that somewhat idyllic era. Moreover, the magazine gives an idea of what the world, especially the United States was like before the buildup of World War II. It’s a good bet that if it is in the Digest, it’s pretty sure to be a good example of the art of writing. Although the Digest has changed several times over the years, I think it still informs and entertains well. I often share with others jokes and anecdotes that I read in the Readers Digest.
One of the first stories in my birthday Digest is titled Private Virtue, Public Good. The piece is by Henry Morton Robinson. The article discusses the role the businessman plays in society. Robinson points out that although sometimes folks look upon the businessman with less than ideal favor, it is the businessman that keeps the economy moving. While some folks decry capitalism, I believe it is better than any other system such as communism, socialism and such. In 1938 a recession hit causing unemployment to rise to 19%. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Germany and agreed to allow Hitler to occupy Czechoslovakia and declared “Peace in our Time.” He was very wrong about that. War wasn’t long coming.
I thought it would be interesting to check out the costs of some items the year I was born. Average annual wages were $1730.00. The average cost of a new home was $3,900.00. Hey, how about this! Gasoline was ten cents per gallon. You could rent a house for less than $30.00 per month. If you could come up with $763.00, you could own a new car. Bread was 9 cents per loaf. A pound of hamburger meat was 13 cents.
The first appearance of the popular character Superman was in Action Comics. If you had an original of that comic book, you would be rich. Reportedly, one sold recently for over a million dollars. Another notable event that occurred in 1938 was the radio program “War of the Worlds.” The introductory remarks were like a news item that proclaimed an invasion of earth by martians. It was so realistic that many people panicked upon hearing the program. The show was narrated and directed by Orson Welles. It was an adaptation of a story by H. G. Wells and featured in the radio series: “Mercury Theater on the Air.”