When I cleaned out my parents’ home a couple of years ago, I discovered some neat stuff.
I found my grandmother’s and mother’s diaries dating back to the 1920s, in which they daily recorded the weather, who visited and what they ate.
Along with scores of letters written by my father while he was overseas defeating Hitler were two books full of pictures of Nazi personalities and events. I learned from the internet that the pictures came from cigarette packages. Germans collected them like baseball cards and dutifully pasted them in the books to create an illustrated propaganda piece.
I found a small tin box full of blond hair, with a note saying they were the curls clipped from a great uncle and saved by his mother.
And there was a September 1949 first-
edition copy of Southern Fireside, a magazine that promised to tell “The Story of the South TODAY, Tomorrow and Yesterday.”
“Whoa!” I thought as I thumbed through it, might this be the publication that paved the way for Southern Living and Garden and Gun?
Though I had never heard of Southern Fireside, the content was strikingly similar to those popular “how to” manuals for New South gentility.
On the cover was Natalie Brown, the “raven-tressed, vivacious” daughter of a Virginia judge. Graduate of the Marymount-on-the-Potomac School for Girls, Miss Brown resided at Brimstone Hall, the centerpiece of the family’s 260-acre estate where she enjoyed riding and art.
Of course she did.
Inside articles on “New Trends in Fall Gardening,” plantation cooking and cotton’s place in “today’s fashion world” seemed to confirm my suspicion as to its literary descendants.
However, closer inspection revealed that Southern Fireside contained more than fashion, food and fluff. Included were short stories, some by authors who would later gain a measure of fame, and commentary the likes of which is seldom found in popular regional magazines today.
There was a profile of Ernest Norris, president of the Southern Railroad Company, “The South’s No. 1 Salesman,” who bragged that “sometimes it seems like the biggest crop in the South today is factories.”
And there was a “symposium” where prominent Southern editors and writers addressed the question, “Is there a Southern point of view?”
In his contribution, Virginius Dabney, the Richmond editor with the most Southern name I ever encountered, wondered how to find a single voice in a region whose “inhabitants divide their time between hoisting highballs … and shouting hallelujah.” A few pages later, the advertisement for a “Cigarette Proof! Alcohol Proof! Sturdy Modern Table” for $9.95 suggested to which group Southern Fireside planned to appeal.
Southern Fireside was also planned to appeal to white folks. The only black face in the magazine was in an illustration for one of the stories. The only black voices were the exaggerated dialect in articles like “Hebben is my Home, an I Ain’ Got Long ter Stay Heah,” which described the “yearnings” of the “plantation Negro … as expressed in his hymns.”
Yet, Southern Fireside did more than romanticize race relations, though reading leaves the impression that the editors were not of a single mind on how to approach the subject.
The magazine’s movie reviewer criticized two recent films “in which the Negro issue is brought right out on the screen for all to see and hear.” Atlanta banned the movies — Lost Boundaries and Home of the Brave — and the reviewer strongly suggested that distributors and theaters in “the land of cotton and the Klan” might want to do a bit of self-censoring themselves.
Meanwhile, in the “Symposium,” the participants took note of the growing pressure on the segregated South, and like Harry S. Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette, most of them recognized that white Southerners had “created a society which still denies simple justice to millions of its members.”
In 1949, it was quite an admission, especially in a magazine whose success depended on the very Southerners who created and benefitted from that very inequality.
Which may be why, three months later, Southern Fireside quietly closed shop.
Combining sentimentality with social commentary was apparently too much for potential subscribers.
In its farewell letter (provided courtesy of Debbie at the Alabama State Archives), the sponsors of the magazine regretted the suspension of “this experiment in regional evaluating and reporting” and, in a gesture uncommon to the industry, included a refund for the issues never received.
So there was no link between Southern Fireside and the successful regional publications of today.
Or was there? Did Southern Living and Garden and Gun learn from Southern Fireside’s failed “experiment” that “regional evaluating and reporting” was acceptable provided it evaluated barbeque and reported on Dixie’s best tailgating spots?
In the mid-century South, readers did not want a magazine that exposed regional flaws, however gently that exposure might be.
Looks like they still don’t today.