History, a teacher once told me, is a conjunction of institutions and ideas, individuals and events. In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, the confluence seems almost magical—people and forces coming together at exactly the right moment to give life to something brand new.
The story begins with a long-lived periodical called the Youth’s Companion. Published in Boston, the Companion was born in 1827 as an offshoot for young readers of a religiously oriented digest. The Companion developed into one of the leading periodicals of its day, offering children in the preelectronic era a window on the world beyond the garden gate.
One reader, looking back on her mid-nineteenth-century girlhood in a small country town near Worcester, Massachusetts, recalled the excitement she felt awaiting her weekly copy of the Companion. Mary Davis and her sister had scrounged rags and collected chestnuts to raise the one-dollar cost of a subscription. The magazine reached them via the weekly market wagon: “With what eagerness did we often watch the slow approach over distant hills of that white-topped wagon, and on its arrival how carefully would we scan its contents till we discovered the much-desired paper!”
The rise of the Companion began in 1867 when it came under the control of an enterprising and creative businessman named Daniel Sharp Ford. Applying astute editorial instincts and innovative business practices, he transformed a pious provincial children’s digest into a national publication. From a circulation of forty-eight hundred when Ford took over, the Companion’s distribution had grown to nearly half a million by 1892—at the time one of the largest of any American magazine. (For reasons obscure, Ford named the umbrella organization that published the Companion the Perry Mason Company. The writer Erle Stanley Gardner later said that when he used the name for the protagonist of his popular courtroom book series, he probably subconsciously remembered it from his boyhood reading of the Companion.)
Daniel Ford retooled Youth’s Companion as a family magazine with appeal to adults as well as children. He attracted name writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, William James, and Mark Twain. Besides enriching the content, Ford used pioneering techniques to attract advertisers to its pages and he set up aggressive marketing and promotion programs. One of his most effective tactics was the use of premiums—products, cash bonuses, and other inducements to acquire subscribers—a harbinger of the toy in the Happy Meal today, or the million-dollar sweepstake offers from magazine publishers, or the bonus cell-phone minutes for referring another customer. For the Youth’s Companion, premiums proved a big success—stimulating subscriptions and generating new revenue streams beyond advertising and circulation.
At a time when delivering marketing messages in anything larger than tiny agate type was looked upon by traditionalists as unseemly, the Companion splashed its premium promotions across the page in big bold type. One ad promised readers who sold subscriptions to friends and relatives “An Equal Division of FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS IN CASH.” Readers who reached the sales quota could also choose from a profusion of merchandise—from watches to fountain pens to moonstone rings. (The practice of tapping existing customers to get new ones—the “friend get a friend” approach—is one of Ford’s techniques still favored by magazine publishers and other direct marketers.)
Through the Companion, premium items were also available for direct purchase. The magazine published an annual catalog issue offering products of an abundance and variety that Amazon.com might be proud to offer today—laying hens and singing canaries, watch fobs and steam engines, bedsteads and jackknives, and on and on.
Of all the premiums the Companion offered, one stands out above all others: the American flag. Premium campaigns around the flag proved immensely successful for the magazine, in both financial and promotional terms. At the same time, the Companion’s efforts had a lasting impact on the place of the American flag in the life of the nation.
Today, public schools and flags go together like french fries and ketchup. Travel around any town or city in the United States and you can count on seeing the Stars and Stripes in front of, or atop, most public schools (and in many classrooms as well). It wasn’t always so. If any one person deserves credit for establishing this ubiquitous practice, it is James B. Upham.
Upham joined Youth’s Companion in 1886. A nephew by marriage to Daniel Ford, he signed on to lead a new department, one dedicated to developing the potential of premiums. Upham combined patriotic zeal with a genius for promotion—and he showed no hesitation in using the one in service of the other. There was nothing cynical, though, about Upham’s patriotism. A staunch New Englander, Upham as a schoolboy heard classroom declamations every Friday of Daniel Webster’s orations on the birth of the union. “We were brought up on the air of patriotism,” he recalled. As an adult, Upham was distressed to perceive that appreciation for the blessings of American democracy had gone into decline—taking a backseat in the Gilded Age to pursuit of the almighty dollar. He worried that a fading of patriotic awareness could lead to a citizenry that did not know enough nor care enough to defend democracy against erosion from within or attack from outside.
The arrival in New York Harbor and other American seaports of shipload after shipload of immigrants made the challenge all the more acute. To invigorate the national spirit and to advance civic consciousness, Upham believed in a need to instill patriotism at a popular level, especially among young citizens of the future. His uncle concurred.
Ford and Upham saw promoting national pride as part of the Companion’s mission—this at a time when the idea of “mission” in a business context was more than a pro forma statement of goals and principles. Like a substantial segment of educated churchgoers in late-nineteenth-century America, they embraced an activist view of religion along the lines of the “Social Gospel” approach that a few years later would come to be identified with Walter Rauschenbusch.
They took a similar view of their duties as citizens. They felt obligated to further the essential moral values and the philosophical principles they believed in. For Ford and Upham, these included the liberties and the egalitarian ideals they saw as the bedrock of American democracy. If this evangelizing complemented the periodical’s editorial franchise and helped increase profits, so much the better.
After a few months at the helm of the Premiums Department, Upham began to think about premium offerings that might support the Companion’s patriotic mission while also serving its commercial imperative. His thoughts turned to the American flag. What more readily identifiable symbol of the United States and its principles could there be? The red, white, and blue offered visual shorthand for a nation’s values that even the youngest schoolchildren could relate to.
Although patriotic activities and displays were on the increase at the time, the flag was not yet the ubiquitous fixture at schools and other public buildings that it is today. To reach the young, Upham decided, every public school should have a flag. Focusing on public schools would highlight their importance to society as crucibles of citizenship—a conviction not shared by a significant bloc of citizens who opposed using taxes to finance government-sponsored education. Spotlighting public schools would also help counter what Ford and Upham saw as a disproportionate influence of church-sponsored education. Both were active churchgoers but they were philosophically opposed to an education system under the aegis of religion, which they feared was a threat to the separation of church and state. (Upham was a Mason, a group known at the time to oppose the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in particular.)
Upham launched a campaign in the Companion of advertisements and supporting editorial material urging young readers to sell certificates to family, friends, and neighbors at ten cents apiece until they saved up the ten dollars needed to purchase a school flag from the Companion. The Flag Over the Schoolhouse program, as it came to be known, was a triumph by every measure. Beginning in 1888, the Companion sold increasing numbers of flags each year, peaking at more than twenty-five thousand in 1891. While helping launch a national tradition of displaying flags at schools, Upham’s venture also scored a trifecta for the magazine—raising patriotic awareness, achieving valuable promotion, and generating income from the sale of flags.
Besides standards for schools, the Companion’s premium operation sold many other kinds of flags and flag paraphernalia: a pocket flag with carrying case, wall flags for the home, flag mending kits, and more. (Later, again combining ideology with self-interest, the Companion supported state laws requiring public schools to fly the flag, which many states adopted.) Upham also ran a parallel flag promotion: an essay contest on “The Patriotic Influence of the American Flag When Raised over the Public Schools.” The school with the best essay in each state received a flag measuring nine by fifteen feet.
To further nurture the spirit of patriotism, in 1891 the Companion announced the founding of the Lyceum League of America—a network of local youth groups whose mission was to celebrate the value of American citizenship through lectures, debates, and other activities. Within a year, the Companion’s Lyceum League numbered twelve hundred societies with thirty thousand members. (Upham modeled these societies on New England village lyceums, which had bloomed earlier in the nineteenth century. Offering speakers and cultural programs, these groups were often a community’s sole source of culture and entertainment.)
As the school flag campaign rolled forward, Upham set his imagination in gear for a new inspiration. It came to him in the summer of 1891 while vacationing in his native New Hampshire. As he reclined in the shade of a pine tree, savoring the aromas of boughs and bark and sap, his mind drifted toward the upcoming World Columbian Exposition. The official groundbreaking for the Chicago world’s fair was set to take place amid great fanfare in October 1892. Why couldn’t the Companion hitch its wagon to this very powerful horse?
When he returned to the office, Upham began to flesh out his idea. And it wasn’t long before he found the perfect connection: Columbus Day. There was as yet no national holiday celebrating the discovery of America, but many localities, New York City prominent among them, sponsored big celebrations.
In fact, Columbus Day fests in some American towns dated back to 1792, the three hundredth anniversary of the Italian explorer’s grand transatlantic voyage. Italian-Americans, particularly in New York, began routinely commemorating Columbus Day as an expression of pride in their Italian heritage. These early tributes were also linked to a desire among many Catholics to establish a rightful place as Americans when Catholicism was widely viewed with considerable scorn. These Columbus commemorations were not the type of public expression we associate with a modern holiday—parades and speeches—but were instead considered an opportunity to visit one’s church, to acknowledge the day in prayer. And they served to remind other Americans of the ethnic and religious background of what most people at the time considered to be the firstAmerican.
The number of Catholic Americans had been instantly amplified with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. And despite ongoing suspicion of them by Protestants, by 1850 Catholics had become the largest religious denomination in the United States. Their numbers grew even more rapidly with the immigrant surge that began in the 1870s and continued into the early twentieth century, when Catholics would represent one-sixth of the population. Between 1880 and 1890, the number of Italian immigrants alone jumped from less than one percent of total immigrants to over 2 percent; by 1900, Italians represented nearly 5 percent of the ten million people who entered the country that year—almost all of them Catholic.
Despite growing numbers, their status as second-class citizens—by virtue of their assumed loyalties to spiritual Rome rather than secular Washington—was certainly on the minds of the creators of what would become the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the United States, the Knights of Columbus. Founded in 1882, the Knights were early supporters of Columbus Day celebrations at the local level, and the growing population of Italian-American immigrants, most of whom were Catholic, gave the organization increasing political clout. Thus the Knights of Columbus’s support for a nationwide quadricentennial observation of Columbus Day was not just an important part of what would become a groundswell of enthusiasm for Upham’s idea, but also a way of demonstrating Catholic loyalty to America.
The second part of Upham’s plan—to make public schools the center of the quadricentennial event—was equally well-timed, as the country was just emerging from a long and hard debate about the value of public education to the young nation, with the proponents, like W. T. Harris and Benjamin Harrison, winning the day and leading to the establishment of free public schools for everyone. “The public school is exactly the right institution to take charge of this celebration,” Chicago congressman Allan Durborow would tell Francis Bellamy. “There is a direct line of connection between the determination of Columbus to break through the limitations of the Middle Ages and the educational system which represents the modern spirit of enlightenment.”
Finally, unlike other commemorations, which honored individuals at their births or deaths, Upham could choose an October 12 celebration to mark the event that made the man famous rather than simply marking his birth or death. That event, of course, was the arrival of the three caravelles of Columbus’s first flotilla—the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—as the initial step in a great chain of progress leading to the birth of American democracy, and free public education as one of democracy’s greatest fruits. Proposals to establish a similar celebration of Columbus’s discovery today would inevitably be more controversial, given the broadening awareness of the record of brutal mistreatment by Columbus and his successors of the native peoples of the Americas, and an understanding that the arrival of the Europeans represented a genocidal catastrophe for indigenous civilizations.
At the time, however, Daniel Ford recognized Upham’s idea as another inspired one, perhaps on a par with the Flag Over the Schoolhouse program. A Columbus commemoration in schools around the country would be an opportunity to nurture patriotic awareness among the young and, by piggybacking on the enormous publicity already being generated for the Chicago expo, to reap a promotional bonanza for the Companion. (More than twenty-seven million visitors would eventually pass through turnstiles at the Columbian Exposition grounds.)
Upham’s brainchild was an early example of a promotional gambit that today might be called “event marketing.” The goal of sponsoring organizations is to shine in the light of the prestige, the esteem, and the attention surrounding high-profile happenings, whether sports spectacles like the Olympics and the Superbowl, or more modest events like fund-raising walks and charity art shows. One example of event marketing written up in business school case studies is the campaign by the American Express Company around the 1986 centennial of the Statue of Liberty. In exchange for pledging money toward restoration of the statue, the company earned the right to link its name to one of the most cherished national monuments. The company rolled out this privilege in marketing, advertising, public relations, lobbying, at VIP receptions, and in almost any other way they could think of.
Even by today’s standards, it is hard to imagine a more resounding success than what the Youth’s Companion’s national Columbus Day school commemoration turned out to be. Beyond achieving high-profile promotion in schools around the country, the program even turned a profit. In an archive at the University of Rochester I found a simple accounting put together following the event. It reads:
SALE OF FLAGS FOR THE EVENT
Appended to the tally is an unsigned commentary exulting that the Companion had “conducted what has proved to be the most monumental piece of advertising ever attempted by a paper, without one dollar of expense to itself; rather, with an actual running profit from the incidentals created by the work.” (The sixteen-hundred-dollar net would be worth about forty thousand dollars today.) When I came across the financial tally, I remarked to Mary Huth, the librarian in charge of the archive, how surprising it was to find that the context of the Pledge’s creation was so commercial. “Yes,” she said cheerfully, “but how very American.”
Back in early 1891, when the event was still just a gleam in Upham’s eye, the Columbus anniversary pageant’s ultimate success was anything but certain. It was a stroke of good fortune that Charles C. Bonney, a key Columbian Exposition official, had also come up with the idea for some kind of school-based event. When he heard about Upham’s idea, he readily approved Upham’s proposal and anointed the Companion as the official sponsor.
With the Exposition’s imprimatur in hand, Daniel Ford next landed the crucial support of Education Commissioner Harris. A Yale dropout, leading Hegelian scholar, and founder of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Harris was a former superintendent of schools in St. Louis, where he established the first public school kindergarten in 1873. He was also “a tireless crusader for universal public education,” according to education historian Diane Ravitch, and “argued unceasingly that the purpose of education was to give the individual the accumulated wisdom of the human race, and that this was a public purpose fully deserving the support of the entire community.” Harris personally backed the Companion’s plan and lined up the National Association of School Superintendents and the National Education Association to take part. The backing of these organizations added another official stamp to the plan and provided a national network for promoting the ceremony among teachers, students, and school administrators.
To help the busy premiums director organize the program and move it forward, Ford appointed the newly hired Francis Bellamy. A Baptist minister, Bellamy, then thirty-six, had recently left his job as pastor of Boston’s Bethany Baptist Church, where Ford was a prominent member of the congregation. With Harris’s blessing, Bellamy was named chairman of a steering committee set up to oversee the event, cementing the Companion’s control. “It was a staggering commitment for a young man untrained in wide affairs,” Bellamy later wrote, “and I accepted it with trembling.”