I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading through women’s magazines from the 1950s, in particular an illustrated weekly called Grand Hotel, one of the biggest-selling fotoromanzo or photo-story magazines that such had great success in 1950s Italy. New technologies were making it possible to mass-produce magazines that heavily featured colour photography and illustration, and the fotoromanzi, with their unique blend of serialized, illustrated stories – always melodramatic and always about love – met with huge popularity in these years. Their highly visual nature also appealed to the less educated. Readers could also write into the magazine with their (mostly romantic) problems so that we get glimpses not just of what Italians were reading but also of what how it related to their own lives. They have been traditionally dismissed as rags read by rural southern women, not literate enough to read anything else and too poor or isolated to go to the cinema for their fix of escapist entertainment. I know there will be some skeptics too, who will wonder why I am spending my time reading through trashy magazines from decades past, the kind that are more likely to be found as wrapping in fish and chip shops than in libraries. Yes, the stories are awful. And with the amount of twists and turns in each plot line – if there isn’t at least one faked death, mistaken identity, long-lost parent or sibling there will definitely be a secret illness, a wrongful conviction or a murderer motivated by jealousy – it’s obvious they aren’t designed for easy note-taking either.
But once you strip aside the endless plot twists, the trite happy endings, the melodrama and exaggerated emotions, you are left with an insight into some of the issues that affected ordinary people’s lives in the 1950s and the ways they might have coped or been expected to deal with them. Italy in the early 1950s was a nation still devastated by war and held back by twenty years of fascist economic policy. It was still largely rural, with huge regional differences in education, opportunity, culture and tradition as well as simple economics, between north and south and more generally, urban and rural Italy. Even though the typical fotoromanzo reader was supposed to be poor, southern and female, a glance at the regular letters page of Grand Hotel shows that this was not necessarily so. Both men and women wrote into the magazine from all over Italy: north and south, city, town and country. And despite the differences in their lives, there were some issues that affected all.
Plots based around the war show how fresh this experience still was in the minds of all those living in the 1950s. Particularly interesting are the stories based around a soldier’s homecoming as these give glimpses of the personal challenges of peace-time and the uneasy adjustments to civilian life. Yet more stories revolve around illness or infirmity, an issue that – if the letters page is anything to go by – did affect many lives in the early 1950s. Many readers wondered if they should keep this secret or be open about it and (as they saw it) risk ruining their chances of marriage? A popular theme in the magazine fiction of the early 1950s, I noticed it less and less as the decade went on; was this a reflection of the poverty and poor nutrition that affected those growing up in the 1940s, especially in southern Italy?
These are just some of the issues that have come up in the stories so far. The ways in which Italians fall in love and marry is another rich theme, since the stories manage to be fanciful, exaggerated and improbable while at the same time reflecting some of the realities of love, dating and marriage for Italians in the 1950s. Again the dialogue between the stories and the letters page is fascinating; what did ‘F.C.’ – a young woman in Milan who wanted to have a serious discussion with her boyfriend about his financial future – think about the stories featuring couples that fell in love literally at first sight and would do anything to be together while they exchanged only a few words over years? Clearly not all the women readers were taken in by the escapist fantasies of love that the magazine was famed for.
The stories, letters, fashion pages and advertisements offer an intriguing and often surprising glimpse into 1950s magazine publishing and potentially, into the lives of Grand Hotel’s readers too. We can never be entirely sure what people thought about what they were reading, and only a tiny proportion of readers ever wrote into the magazine. Still, magazines like this do give us some sense of what people might thought about certain issues, and what kind of challenges they might have faced as so-called ordinary life continued in a country that was caught between the devastation of war and in the early 1950s, the still quite unexpected prosperity and social change of the boom. ‘Ordinary’ life was never uneventful or less complicated. Over the next while and as I work through this research, I’m hoping to write a few more short pieces on some particular themes that arise out of these magazines, so do check back…