Reader’s Digest Centennial

This week we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first edition of Reader’s Digest with one of their most popular jokes as voted by readers:

A turtle is crossing the road when he’s mugged by two snails. When the police show up, they ask him what happened. The shaken turtle replies, “I don’t know. It all happened so fast.”


For those who browsed and read Reader’s Digest regularly, among the articles and book condensations, you might remember:

Believe It or Not!
Humor in Uniform
Quotable Quotes
Word Power
Picturesque Speech
Life in These United States
Personal Glimpses
Things to Come
Points to Ponder

and many more features making it interesting reading for young and old.

During a tumultuous time in the magazine publishing world over the last 15 years, Reader’s Digest is still around, navigating two bankruptcy filings and currently publishing monthly in over twenty languages with monthly circulation over ten million, far below its historical circulation peak, but still substantial.

In a sense, Reader’s Digest was like a print website in a pre-Internet world. In it was something for everyone: long- and short-form content; continual updates to maintain interest; and, overall, a hopeful message. (By the way, you can subscribe at $10 for one year, $15 for a two-year subscription.)

Past editions of Reader’s Digest are like time capsules of the last century. Founders and first publishers DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila Bell Wallace, married in 1921 when both were in their early 30s. They started the magazine in 1922.

Lila’s father was a Presbyterian minister, and she attended the University of Oregon. DeWitt Wallace’s father was a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, eventually becoming its president. DeWitt initially attended Macalester before finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

DeWitt was in the US Army in The Great War, wounded and spending four months in a French hospital. While there, he passed the time reading magazines when the ideas started spinning. By February 1922, shortly after marrying Lila, the first edition of Reader’s Digest was mailed to subscribers. The rest is history.

Both DeWitt and Lila were active philanthropists, with DeWitt giving much of his fortune to Macalester College and Lila giving a reported $60 million in her lifetime to organizations like the Metropolitan Opera.

Reader’s Digest had a generally conservative political slant, focusing on traditional virtues of patriotism, courage, and service to others. The regular stories and sections on the military undoubtedly stemmed from DeWitt’s personal appreciation for those who served.

And, yes, humor.  From the January 1950 issue:

Victor Borge, describing his adventurous boyhood in Denmark: “Once my father came home and found me in front of a roaring fire. That made my father very mad, as we didn’t have a fireplace.”

Happy 100th birthday, Reader’s Digest.

(The image above is from the Reader’s Digest Centennial page,

12 Responses to Reader’s Digest Centennial

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 9, 2022 at 5:16 am #

    It brought me through the best of days,
    and was comfort when I wept,
    so now please join in grateful praise
    for dear Readers’ Digest.
    Its homespun humour made me smile
    (and sometimes brought a groan),
    but as I read it, all the while,
    I was not alone;
    a better world called out to me
    from articles and stories,
    a place where I still longed to be,
    for though there were few glories,
    there was hope of love and care,
    and a clearer, kinder air.

  2. Deb Gorman February 9, 2022 at 7:53 am #

    Thanks for the walk down Memory Lane. My first love of reading, in grade school, was fueled by my mother’s copies of Reader’s Digest. After she was finished with the newest edition, she’d give them to me.

    I never missed reading them from cover-to-cover.

  3. Cindy Fowell February 9, 2022 at 8:37 am #

    Such fond memories of my parents reading the humor sections out loud for the whole family, laughing together.
    And I learned so much from the stories and articles in my preteen and teen years. My favorite – the condensed books at the end of the magazine. Also the condensed books published separately.

  4. Kelly Fordyce Martindale February 9, 2022 at 9:51 am #

    I had no idea. Thank you. Very interesting.

  5. Lane Jordan Burday February 9, 2022 at 9:54 am #

    I LOVE the Reader’s Digest! Have been reading it for over 40 Years, cover to cover. Thanks Steve for sharing!

  6. Megan Schaulis February 9, 2022 at 10:44 am #

    I remember a day in 4th grade, circa 1997, when we were given copies of RD and asked to stand up and retell one of its jokes in our own words. I remember the joke I shared to this day!

    • Dan Balow February 9, 2022 at 11:39 am #

      OK, you can’t let us hang here. What was the joke?

      • Megan Schaulis February 9, 2022 at 12:59 pm #

        Just for you, Dan:

        Two guys are sitting at a bar on the second story of an old building. The one guy keeps going on and on about powerful wind currents in the area.
        Hoping it’ll make the guy quit talking, his neighbor says, “Great, Mr. Wind. Show us these wind currents.”
        “Mr. Wind” walks to an open window, jumps out, performs a double back flip, and lands on the ground unharmed.
        When he gets back up to the bar, his once annoyed neighbor is wide eyed with shock.
        “I told you, man, wind currents are amazing,” says Mr. Wind. “You can do it, too!”
        The eager patron walks to the window, jumps out, falls flat, and breaks his leg.
        The bartender looks over to Mr. Wind and says, “Wow, Superman, you’re mean when you’re drunk!”

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks February 9, 2022 at 11:29 am #

    So wonderful! What a legacy of words and wit.

  8. Ann L Coker February 9, 2022 at 3:55 pm #

    Today I finished reading the anniversary issue of Reader’s Digest, closing with the Word Power on “cent.” One of my favorite columns was “I Am Joe’s (or Jane’s) ______ (body part).” I guess “World of Medicine” replaced it, along with food talks. Congratulations to a long magazine life.

  9. Patti Jo Moore February 9, 2022 at 4:13 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this with us – – WOW!! 100 years!!

    This brought back lots of memories. 🙂

  10. Janet Ann Collins February 9, 2022 at 7:43 pm #

    I still love the Readers Digest and request a subscription as a Christmas present every year.

Get New Posts by Email

Get New Posts by Email

Each article is packed with helpful info and encouragement for writers. You can unsubscribe at any time with one click. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!