From there, Meredith Corp. grew and evolved, surviving depression, recession, the Internet and an increasingly crowded field of magazine competitors to now reach more than 200 million people a month.
It has done it by developing a keen understanding of its readers, using its huge database to hone in on how women seek and use information in the areas of food, home, parenthood and health.
Its portfolio includes Better Homes and Gardens, one of the most widely read magazines in the nation, and Allrecipes, the world's largest digital food brand visited online more than 1 billion times a year by home cooks.
"They unapologetically and enthusiastically deliver both content and product experiences around that particular woman and they know more about her than anybody else," said Mary Berner, CEO of MPA-The Association of Magazine Media, an industry trade group.
Meredith has compiled an unmatched database of 100 million women with an average of 800 data points for each one. That's detailed information on about three-quarters of American homeowners, which helps the company cross-market its products.
"If you come to Better Homes and Gardens you might come because you're a decorator. You might come because you're a gardener. You might come because you're interested in food," CEO Stephen Lacy said. "We need to know that because if you're interested in food we might say, 'What do you think of Rachael Ray?' or, 'What do you think of Eating Well?' If it's really that you're into decorating, we might offer you Traditional Home or Martha Stewart."
Meredith has made acquisitions to help it reach those women, adding Every Day with Rachael Ray, Allrecipes, Shape and Myweddings in recent years. Last year, it took over the advertising and business management for Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Weddings.
The company's roots date back to Edwin T. Meredith, who began selling Successful Farming magazine door to door in 1902. He launched Fruit, Garden and Home in 1922, then changed the name to Better Homes and Gardens in 1924.
It now has nearly 8 million monthly print subscribers and an estimated monthly audience of over 50 million when mobile, Internet and video viewers are included. That's second only to People magazine.
Dee Nash, 52, writes the Red Dirt Ramblings gardening blog from her home in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where she subscribes to Meredith's quarterly magazine Country Gardens.
"They're a bright spot that comes in the mailbox," she said. "When it's 19 degrees in February you need something bright."
A frequent reader of Better Homes and Gardens from the newsstand and online, she also has membership in Allrecipes.
Meredith, which has about 3,500 full-time employees, publishes 21 subscription magazines and last year sold 120 special-interest magazines at newsstands on topics including quilting, kitchen and bath designs, and living with diabetes. About a quarter of its revenue — which totalled about $1.47 billion in the company's last fiscal year — comes from its 17 television stations, but the rest comes from its magazines.
Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, called Meredith a pioneer in "service journalism."
"It's like typical heartland of America, down to earth like having conversations with your neighbour or with your buddy," he said.
At Meredith's 600,000-square-foot headquarters in downtown Des Moines, culinary specialists in 10 kitchens test thousands of recipes. A half-block test garden is used to study new plants and serve as outdoor studios for photographers.
It has successfully extended the Better Homes and Gardens brand beyond magazines and books to nearly 3,000 retail products sold at Walmart stores. The retailer sells just over $2 billion of BHG branded products a year, Lacy said.
The company has had its struggles. The recession reduced advertising revenue by 15 per cent in 2009. There were layoffs. Country Home was discontinued as a subscription magazine in March 2009 and last July, Ladies' Home Journal was reduced from subscription to newsstand quarterly.
Adapting to the digital age, Meredith has managed to create digital versions of its publications that help drive customers to its magazines. Twenty of its brands are available as tablet editions. The company generated 7 million digital orders for print magazine subscriptions last year. About a quarter of the company's revenue now comes from digital sources, Lacy said. In 2007 it was 5 per cent.
Looking ahead, the company wants to understand the needs of younger women.
"Right now the only thing we talk about from the marketing perspective is the millennial women, the daughters of the baby boom women who built this business," Lacy said. "We want to make sure that from a life-stage perspective these brands are relevant to her."
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