A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Throwback Thursday: Happy Birthday, Commonweal!

This past Tuesday marked Commonweal's 89th birthday. We’re planning some bigger things to mark the big nine-oh in 2014, but for now we thought we’d celebrate at home (on the blog) with a few close friends (that’s you).

Back when we were young, we called ourselves “The Commonweal.” We produced a new issue each week and a subscription cost only $10. Our inaugural issue’s editorial—written by founder and editor Michael Williams with assistant editors Thomas Walsh and Helen Walker (and with the blessing of the seven-person editorial council)—was titled “An Introduction,” and it set out the distinctive mission and role of the new publication:

We believe that The Commonweal will be so fundamentally different to our contemporaries that in place of competition in an over-crowded field we shall occupy a position that hitherto has been left vacant. For the difference between The Commonweal and other weekly literary reviews designed for general circulation is that The Commonweal will be definitely Christian in its presentation of orthodox religious principles and their application to the subjects that fall within its purview: principles which until now have not, we believe, been expressed in American journalism except through the medium of the official organs of the Catholic Church and of the various other denominations.

The editors, after making it clear they were not speaking with authority in the Church (yes, an uppercase “C” was house style at the time), and explaining that a variety of opinions would be presented in “an open forum for the discussion of such differences in a spirit of good temper,” concluded with this declaration:

It is unquestionably a spiritual, moral, and patriotic duty for thinking people to at least make an effort to apply the conserving and regenerative forces of the fountain head of Christian tradition, experience and culture to the problems that today all men of good will are seeking to solve. As opposed to the present confused, confusing and conflicting complex of private opinions, and personal impressionism, mirrored in the so many influential journals, the editors of The Commonweal believe that nothing can do so much for the betterment, the happiness, and the peace of the American people as the influence of the enduring and tested principles of Catholic Christianity. To that high task The Commonweal is dedicated.

Read the entire editorial and let us know what you think—have we changed? Have we stayed the same? One thing that’s not up for debate: we know for certain we’ve gotten better looking with age.

About the Author

Ellen B. Koneck runs Special Projects at Commonweal and teaches in the Catholic Studies department at Sacred Heart University. You can follow her on Twitter.



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Our inaugural issue’s editorial—written by founder and editor Michael Williams with assistant editors Thomas Walsh and Helen Walker 

How common would it have been to have a woman in an editorial position in 1924?


A big change that has  recently arrived [via Argentina] ........ how proud to be called a Commonweal Catholic.  

I'd say that the editorial holds up pretty well, though obviously times have changed and expressions have changed. There are those who might cavil and say that Commonweal today pays rather less attention to questions decided by "competent authority" than it promised to do at its founding. I suppose the Clintonesque reponse to that might be "it all depends what you mean by competent."

Of course, had I been a reader of the Christian Century (founded 1884), I might be miffed that Commonweal, in staking out its place as a Christian journal, seemingly pays no attention to the Protestant press. And if I were a real grinch-like churl (which of course I'm not) I might wish I'd been on hand as an editorial assistant myself to correct "different to our contemporaries" to "different from our contemporaries." But of course I wasn't around at the time.

Isn't "different to" still used in British English?


As to women in journalism?

". . . in 1920 women were 16.8 per cent of the reporters and editors, and by 1950, they were 32 per cent of the journalists."





10 cents or 10 dollars. 10 dollars was a lot of money in 1923. If what you say is correct, Commonweal  should be charging at least 500 dollars a year now.

Bill, $10 in 1923 would be equivalent to $136.93 today, according to the BLS Inflation Calculator. Of course, you got 52 issues at the old price.

Happy birthday! When and why did the "The" disappear in front of Commonweal?

I've always wondered why they dropped the "The"; did they ever explain?  I rather liked it.  But then I don't understand why that country in eastern Europe no longer wants to be known as "The Ukraine." 

In France recently the INRIA research institute dropped the article before its name. INRIA is an acronym and the "I" stands for "Institut", so one used to say "à l'INRIA". Now people have been instructed to drop the article and say "à INRIA". The hope, I heard, is that it will make it look more like Microsoft, Apple, or some other brand name, and less like a research institute. There's been a lot of internal grumbling and some non-compliance. Maybe it's also an exercise in arbitrary authority, a way to test people's docility. Or maybe merely somebody's "bright" idea, and that somebody happened to be at the right place to push it through. (In a way it's a little like the new missal.)

I hope that the story behind the disappearance of the "The" in front of Commonweal is less inglorious.


I was surprised that the editorial didn't explain the name of the magazine. "Weal" even then was losing its meaning, and by now it exists only in phrases like "for weal or woe" where it's supposed to sound archaic and quaint. If you ask someone today what's the "common weal," the first definition will most likely be, "a magazine edited by lay Catholics out of New York." Which is OK.



Just shows that infation calculators may not trump experience. In the 1930's laborers were working for 1$ a day. So that would be close to $260.00 a year---a living wage. Now $20,000 a year puts one in poverty---like those who work in McDonalds (they make less).  I guess we can thank the government for "getting off our backs" (Reagan) so we can screw whom we want. 

Interesting to see the first cover. I remember the magazine later, when it was on creamy beige paper with a certain "tooth" to it and Jean Charlot's little illustrations graced its pages. Here's a link to the University of Hawaii's Charlot Collection :

P.S. Dominic Prezioso: Whether my computer has received a helpful update overnight or your website has done the empowering, I am delighted to be able to paste in links and put in paragraph breaks once more. Thanks again for your support when I inquired about it some months back. Good to know the digital side of things is in good hands. Onward and upward!

Sorry Mr. Preziosi, for  the typo in your name in the preceding post.  Mea culpa. Looks like human errors continue even when digital ones  are remedied.!

So is there any institutional memory of why the "The" was dropped from the title of the journal?

According to the name changed in 1965, but online archives on the website don't go back that far, so I cannot look at that year's issues to see if there was an editorial explaining the change on the first issue titled "Commonweal". Surely an explanation must have been provided then!

In the 50th Anniversary issue of Commonweal (Nov. 16, 1973), which is the oldest issue in my personal possession, there is an opening statement which reads as follows:

With this issue Commonweal begins its 50th year of publication.  ("The" was dropped from the magazine's title, with considerable hesitation, in a 1965 redesign of the cover)

Since I may be among the oldest living former employees of the magazine (I left in December, 1962 just before the birth of my first child) I would like to pass along a favorite Commonweal story.  We had back then a wonderful mailroom kid named Frank, a student from Xavier on 16th Street. He was good-natured, hardworking, and smart.  We were talking one day about the relative obscurity of the magazine, and he said to me that The Commonweal was so esoteric that not even the editors knew about it.

I'd like to think that Frank is out there somewhere on our list of subscribers. 

Maybe it saved on ink?   But if so, wouldn't it now be "New Republic" and "Economist", etc.?

THE Bronx will never drop the THE

It must have been a proud moment for the publishers of “The Commonweal.”

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