Eras: 1914-1929

The Woodhead-Field Years: Addressing a Rapidly Changing West

by Tomas Jaehn, Former Curator for American and British History, Stanford University Libraries

Originally published in 1998 on Stanford Libraries' web site and in Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living 1898 - 1998

When the Southern Pacific Railroad sold its creation, Sunset, in 1914, an important era came to a close for California and the West. By the end of the Progressive Era, on the threshold of World War I, Sunset had accompanied a surge of new immigrants to the West, religiously providing promotional news for the newcomers. Unlike the nineteenth-century migration of individuals seeking mother lodes and farmland in underdeveloped territory, these new immigrants were largely families, often with adequate means to establish a comfortable new life in the West Coast's mild climate. In addition, they more often settled in cities and attempted to establish a familiar lifestyle and culture. This situation was an opportunity for Western-oriented magazines of national significance. Sunset, as a corporate promotional magazine for Western migration, tourism and development, had done its service.

Against this backdrop of progressive changes and the uncertainty of the times, a group of employees decided to take over the magazine after the Southern Pacific decided to sell it. William Woodhead, Charles K. Field, and numerous other former employees of Sunset, such as Walter V. Woehlke, secretary and later managing editor, formed Woodhead, Field and Company and purchased the magazine from the railroad. The new owners felt editorial and format changes were needed to make the magazine a vehicle of Western thought and to steer the magazine into a national market. Immediately, without offending the Southern Pacific Railroad, the new owners and editors distanced themselves from the railroad to minimize "the handicap of railroad ownership, in the face of all the prejudice that unavoidably attaches to a magazine so owned." (21) In 1915 Sunset then announced its "joining of the company of modern magazines" by changing its format from book size to the distinctive and larger magazine shape. (22)

The necessity of editorial change for magazines like Sunset had loomed earlier in the century. Ironically, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, onetime contributor to Sunset and major collaborator with Pacific Monthly before it was absorbed into Sunset in 1912, predicted that "it will be necessary for the P. M. [Pacific Monthly] to be rather more radical and up-to-date. At present we are really no different from Sunset." (23) What had been true for the Pacific Monthly at the turn of the century was true for Sunset itself in 1914.

National magazines published on the East Coast touched only lightly--and with an Eastern, sometimes condescending, viewpoint --on Western events, creating an opportunity for a strong Western magazine. Given the competition of West Coast publications such as Land of Sunshine and Overland Monthly, Woodhead, Field and Company was convinced that Sunset could develop into the premier Western magazine. To that end, the editors went far beyond the original ideas of the Southern Pacific Railroad to simply advertise the beauties and opportunities of the West. As a first step, Sunset quietly moved away from naming its home region "Frontier West" and "Wild West" and adjusted its editorials to the more sophisticated region of the "Pacific Coast." While retaining the informational and promotional legacy of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the new owners broadened the magazine's scope and attracted national attention by adding literary, political, and cultural features:

The Magazine will begin, each month, with a strong editorial department entitled "The Pulse of the Pacific Coast," commenting on the affairs of the West Coast and the world it faces, reflecting its politics, its sociology, its economics, its art, its recreation--all its problems, aspirations, griefs [sic] and triumphs. (24)

This change toward a national audience was driven to some extent by Westerners' resentment at being perceived as intellectually inferior to the East.

The greatest impact of the new leadership, the basis for a reputation recognized to this day, was in the caliber of writers and literature published during this era. Promising to publish the "best fiction money will buy," the "literary Sunset" published many great writers of its day. Or published work about them, as was the case of Jack London, Sunset's most famous writer during the Southern Pacific era. Shortly after the sensational news of Jack London's death in November 1916, Charles K. Field of Sunset, in order to compete with other magazines for stories about London, commissioned Rose Wilder Lane to write a biography of Jack London. The working relationship among Lane, Sunset editors, and London's wife, Charmian, was strenuous, and the subsequent serialized article about Jack London was a "fictionalized biography." (25) Nevertheless, Sunset's publication of Lane's sketches viewed Jack London as a regional writer and indicated his significance in the growing movement toward a Pacific Coast culture.

Whereas Sunset of the railroad days reflected an attraction to the West, Woodhead, Field and Company's magazine mirrored the seedlings of a regional culture in the West that "was to provide deep-seated roots for all American culture." (26) Succeeding Jack London, who painted early on exciting, if simplistic, pictures of the American West on Sunset's pages, were authors recognized beyond the Pacific Coast, like Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Will James (as author and illustrator), and Erle Stanley Gardner. Dashiell Hammett wrote in "Ber-Bulu" (March 1925) of frontier conditions and romance on a Pacific island, and Zane Grey shared with Sunset's readers in "The Log of the Gladiator" (April 1926) his adventures in deep sea fishing and his struggles against nature off the coast of Southern California.

Some well-known writers contributed nonfiction material to Sunsetas well. Mary Austin, best known for Land of Little Rain, began publishing in Sunset in the early 1900s, while she was still the young protégée of Sunset rival Charles Lummis, editor of Land ofSunshine. (27) In "Woman and Her War Loot" (February 1919), her single contribution to Sunset under the Woodhead, Field and Company leadership, she stepped away from the material about Western frontier life that had established her as an important regional writer and, instead, discussed the gains women made from World War I. (28) A Western issue only in the sense of gender frontier, she contributed a thoughtful essay on "elimination of femininity from women's working clothes."

Gertrude Atherton, a native of San Francisco, was especially skilled in capturing the sentiments of many Westerners who were overwhelmed by the grandness of nature in the West. In a political piece, "West for Smith" (April 1928), concerning the upcoming presidential election between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Alfred Emanuel Smith, she eloquently argued why Californians would not vote for Hoover, "the fetish of farm distress." In addition to Atherton's attack on Hoover's qualifications for the presidency and stabs toward his agricultural policies during the war, readers had to acknowledge inevitably that even in heavily urban California, many Westerners still relied on agriculture as a means of earning a living.

Political commentaries and articles were part of the magazine's new editorial quest for national recognition. To fulfill its promise to comment on the Pacific Coast's political affairs, Sunset began featuring a monthly column concerning--as the magazine's editors so poignantly called it--"the Pacific Coast and its hinterland, the United States" (February 1922). The editorials offered colorful commentaries on domestic topics such as agriculture and industry as well as on international concerns such as the war in Europe and racial issues. In addition to its own editorials, Sunset enlisted many significant writers and politicians to express their views on Western issues. Naturalist Aldo Leopold counted the mixed blessings of paved roads and pleaded for the preservation of some sample wilderness ("Conserving the Covered Wagon," March 1925), and the advocate of Native Americans John Collier warned of the "Plundering of the Pueblo Indians" (January 1923). Sunset's managing editor, Walter V. Woehlke, commented on a wide variety of Western issues. He condemned the labor unions, the "Bolshevikis of the West" (January 1918), for hindering the war efforts, and he raised his eyebrows over "Traffic Jams" (March 1926) in Western cities, showcasing Los Angeles's success in regulating foot and car traffic. California senator Hiram W. Johnson brought a Western perspective to Sunset's readers in a year-long column "What of the Nation?" between 1919 and 1920.

In international affairs, Herbert Hoover commented on his work in Europe during the war. Although "Unto the Least of These" (February 1920), the story about his efforts to help the starving populations of France and Belgium, was not a particularly Western topic in itself, Hoover addressed values with which Sunset editors liked to identify Westerners: charity, generosity, organizational talent, and ingenuity. Hoover's political foe, Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, also touted his isolationist views in Sunset's pages. In "Why the [Washington] Conference Must Act" (January 1922) and "The Results of Secrecy" (February 1922), he criticized President Woodrow Wilson's ill-conceived efforts to mediate at the Versailles conferences and to create the League of Nations. Apparently, the magazine's editors were not comfortable with some of Senator Borah's remarks, and placed an annotated disclaimer in each article.

Sunset solicited many important men and women of the time to comment on the West and to place issues of national and international significance into a Western context. But its most loyal writer and possibly most influential commentator was David Starr Jordan. Jordan arrived in California from the East in 1891 to become Stanford University's first president. He began contributing to Sunset in 1899 with an article on Mexico. Although his specialty was ichthyology, he was well educated in national and international affairs and a strong proponent of internationalism.

Charles K. Field, since his days as editor under the Southern Pacific ownership, counted on Jordan to enlighten readers on Asian-American relations along the Pacific Coast, a sensitive issue for the magazine because of its geographic proximity to large Asian communities in San Francisco. In 1923 managing editor Walter V. Woehlke once reminded Jordan: "We cannot spare you and you realize how important it is at this crucial time to guide public opinion into the right channel to the end that the fundamental causes of war and peace may be fully understood." (29)

Jordan frequently surveyed international politics in articles such as "The Right to Conquest" (July 1919) and "The Dark Stream of World Politics" (June 1923), in which Stanford University's president reminded readers how important fair treatment of Japanese immigrants was to the Pacific Coast's well-being. In the context of the postwar efforts to create international relations, he pointed out the complexity of annexation issues, discussed pitfalls of "the splash dash method" of the Referendum, and warned of false interpretations of patriotism. To work toward this harmonic end, he summed up, the West and the United States should not follow the political traditions of the old continent but should become part of newness and internationalism. Incidentally, Sunseteditors closed his article with a sketch of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, which today decorates the Stanford University Campus.

Jordan's exposés were well received among Sunset readers as evidenced by "fan mail" and Woehlke's comments that "it is astonishing to see how few disagree with you. I always was of the opinion that the minority, which created all the noise against you, was extremely small numerically…" (30) It is then surprising to see that Sunset accepted in 1921 a full-page political advertisement in which U.S. senator James D. Phelan promised to "save our State from Oriental Aggression" and sought re-election on his promise to "keep California white." Here, financial concerns may have overridden editorial policy.

Many others, along with Jordan, commented on domestic issues ranging from transportation to ethnicity to education. In an attempt to demonstrate the West's advances in education to its national readership and to promote an aura of culture and refinement, Sunset published several articles on the state of education and often functioned as a promoter of California's education. Articles wondered about the flappers on California campuses and asked why young women should attend college. Herbert Hoover's life during his Stanford years and Stanford University's active involvement in the war efforts were showcased prominently in Sunset's pages. Although Sunset generally promoted California's and other Western states' university campuses, it gave Stanford University preferred billing in the growing importance of Western education.

Sunset did not shy away from controversy. When Dr. W. N. Hailmann asked "Is Montessori the Educational Columbus?" (June 1915) and took the Montessori method to task, readers including David Starr Jordan were not happy with his conclusion. Jordan apparently defended the Montessori method strongly enough to warrant a defense of the Hailmann article by Walter Woehlke. Woehlke's letter to David Starr Jordan, however, is as much an excursion into the application of the Montessori method as an early insight into the Sunset editor's perception of the American character:

But I am also prepared to defend the position of Sunset Magazine in its attitude toward Dr. Montessori and her method… It also seems to me that the Montessori method, while it probably is splendidly adapted to the needs of the shrinking, quiet and overly-repressed Italian child, entirely misses its object and aim when applied to the overly-aggressive, self-assertive and excessively individual American child. I have maintained right along that a great deal of the lawlessness and a large part of the disregard for the rights of others in American life can be traced directly to the lack of self-control and discipline of the child in the American home. (31)

Since its inception, Sunset reflected this Western identity of boisterousness, assertiveness, and individualism--characteristic of the earliest immigration of the Gold Rush pioneers--in shaping opinion about the American West.

Growing regional identity was visible not only in Sunset's editorial and pictorial pages about literature, politics, and education. Advertisements, too, became a major factor in Sunset's portrayal of the West. Always a leader in cover illustrations that provided visual reinforcement of Western themes and contributed significantly to Sunset's overall personality, the magazine also used advertisements to support the understanding of a distinct Western culture. (32) Sunset's ads became more and more an integrated part of the package, particularly since the early 1920s when advertisement took on a decidedly new look and stressed results rather than the object. (33) Products such as "Kelly Springfield Tires" allowed--as far as tires were concerned--uneventful trips from New York to San Francisco, and "Chevrolet" promised economical transportation for everybody to go everywhere. "Red Crown Gasoline," the motorist's "assurance of getting an all-refinery gasoline--with a continuous chain of boiling points," provided opportunity to view beautiful Lake Tahoe and other natural wonders throughout the West. If Lake Tahoe was not enough to instill wanderlust in readers, the adjacent magazine article about the design and creation of an early recreational vehicle, or auto home, as it was then called (December 1912), that enabled independent travel would further help shape readers' understanding of the American West.

Sunset of the Woodhead, Field and Company years documented a broad picture of American Western life. It reflected the growth of its regional culture, established Western national and international politics, and put Western education in the American landscape, at a time when education was still equated with Eastern private universities. But Sunset's struggle to produce a regional magazine of national significance was not rewarded financially. The magazine's aim of being political, social, economic, and literary companion to Westerners was too much to fulfill in the long run. In addition, "moving pictures," the new rising industry in Hollywood, had a far-ranging and profound influence on the West, slowly reducing the influence of magazines like Sunset as "image makers" and chroniclers of the West. (34) In September 1928, the owners of Sunset announced that Laurence W. Lane of Des Moines, Iowa, had purchased Sunset (35) and the magazine would embark on yet another change in editorial policy: one that would take it into twenty-first century.


(21) "Announcement to the Readers of Sunset," Sunset, October 1914, David Starr Jordan Archive, SC 58, Special Collections, Stanford University (hereafter DSJ Collection).

(22) "Sunset Gets Into Line," Sunset, December 1915.

(23) Jane Apostol, "Lute Pease of the Pacific Monthly," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 74 (July 1983): 104.

(24) "Announcement to the Readers of Sunset," October 1914.

(25) William Holtz, "Jack Londonís First Biographer," Western American Literature 27 (Spring 1992): 22.

(26) Gerald D. Nash, The American West in the Twentieth Century(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), 121.

(27) Edwin R. Bingham, Charles F. Lummis: Editor of the Southwest (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1955), 156.

(28) Karen S. Langlois, "A Fresh Voice From the West: Mary Austin, California, and American Literary Magazines, 1892-1910," California History (Spring 1990): 22.

(29) Walter V. Woehlke to David Starr Jordan, 27 December 1923, DSJ Collection.

(30) Walter V. Woehlke to David Starr Jordan, 6 August 1919, DSJ Collection.

(31) Walter V. Woehlke to David Starr Jordan, 13 October 1915, DSJ Collection.

(32) Amy Janello and Brennon Jones, The American Magazine (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1991), 184.

(33) Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 95.

(34) Nash, The American West, 136-37.

(35) "To the Stockholders of Sunset Magazine," 15 October 1928, DSJ Collection. Had the magazine enjoyed earlier profits under the new management (i.e., had the Depression not intervened), the outgoing stockholders might have realized up to $162,176 under the terms of the purchase agreement, taking into account a percentage of future profits and assuming current debt. The total payment, however, eventually worked out to about $60,000.