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History of the American Soap Opera: The Radio Years

Updated on June 9, 2015

In May 1948 writer James Thurber published the first in a series of five articles for the New Yorker. He wrote about the history, commercial appeal and artistic[ and not so artistic ] elements of thee radio staple. He explained " a kind of sandwich...whose recipe is simple enough. although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising. spread twelve minutes of dialogue. add predicaments, villainy and female suffering...throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears...serve five times a week..."

Why melodrama had been around, performed, for centuries, it was Irna Phillips brought about the soap genres as it came to be known."...episodic dramas...a storyline begun in one show will play out over the course of weeks or months. Most of these shows deal with personal relationships and have clearly defined good and bad characters. The happy couple can expect a schemer to come between them time and again. The successful businessman may be undone by a longtime friend who's a spy for the competition, or by an attractive coworker who tempts him to cheat. If a baby is born, at least two people will claim to be the father." Story lines often moved either lighting fast or glacially. On Just Plain Bill "it once took "Just Plain Bill" Davidson more than a week to give a customer a haircut.


Phillips, a former teacher "struggling to break into radio as an actress " began working as a scriptwriter for WGN in Chicago in 1930. Her first series, Unpainted Dreams, debuted that fall, sponsor-less. "In it, she formed the bedrock of all the soaps that followed- a core family surviving the trails and tribulations of daily life." She also worked on developing story lines and ideas to appeal to potential sponsors. She wanted to take her shows national, retooling Unpainted Dreams as Today's' Children ,which she wrote and helped voice, for a national network broadcast.
In 1937, Phillips created The Guiding Light. In told the "never-ending saga" of "nonsectarian minster, Dr. John Rutledge, and his flock in his small-town." Story lines would eventually deal with things such as "labor unions, isolationism, and antiwar sentiment...World War II, incest, sadomasochism, justifiable homicide, adultery and illegitimate pregnancy." By 1940, Phillips had writtin ,or supervised the writing of ,more then 6,000 scripts and earned $200,000 yearly.
During the dark, miserable days of the Great Depression, soap operas[ so-called for the soap and cleaning products that sponsored them] " became a central feature in the lives of millions of American women." By 1937, more then half of daytime programming was devoted to the soaps.

In 1931 Frank and Anne Hummert put forth the first of what be a dozen soaps they would create, Stolen Husband. The most popular of the Hummert soaps would be Ma Perkins [1933], Our Gal Sunday [1937], Stella Dallas[1938] and the best well known The Romance of Helen Trent, which poised the idea that "that romance can begin at thirty-five. The Hummerts were dismissed as a "serial factory", making not only soap operas, but mysteries and dramas in an "assembly-line production." "From their estate in Connecticut, they relayed their plot sketches and summaries to a corps of writers, script readers, and typists...summaries were expanded, refined, and turned out as final scripts." Frank Hummert once said that "that his idea for such programming was predicated on the success of serial fiction in newspapers and magazines. According to Hummert, It occurred to me that what people were reading might appeal to them in the form of radio dramas' ."
Meanwhile, short story writer Elaine Carrington sold her show to NBC , Red Adams, a nighttime drama. After three months, the Beech-Nut Company offered to sponsor the show as a daytime serial. Red Adams became Red Davis and eventually Pepper Young's Family, which aired till 1959.

But it wasn't all light and glory in Soapland. Critics derided the serials for "undermining the moral fiber of American womanhood." And mocked the "washboard weepers" for gross sentimentally and morbidness: the audiences must be" addicted to endless stories of calamity and unhappiness." Write William Faulkner complained from Hollywood, "I seem to be out of touch with the Kotex age out here."
During World War II, the soaps played a " role in the American war effort...By integrating into their plots war messages, themes, instructions, and propaganda, the soaps helped rally American women to understand and fulfill their critical role." ... Government announcements about war bonds, scrap metal, rationing and "to save used cooking fats needed in the manufacturing of ammunition." Characters had blood drives for the wounded soldiers, lost sons, husbands and fathers. Ma Perkins lost a son. Stella Dallas took a job in a munitions factory


Premiering in September 1939, debuting six weeks after the war broke out,, Against the Storm told the story of two " young refugees from Central Europe trying to adjust to life in America." It won the Peabody in 1942 for as" a case of merit in a field of mediocrity."
After the war, soaps returned to their pre-war stories. Love, unrequited love, jealous love. The occasional nervous breakdown. Babies, stolen babies.out of wedlock babies, babies who didn't know who their father was. Broken marriages, fake marriages, secret marriages.
But a new threat, and new possibilities, loomed on the near horizon.


sources: Collins, Gail. America's Woman.New York: Harper Collins. 2004
McDonald, J. Fred. "Don't Touch That Dial!" DTTD!: Soap Operas: Soaps in the Depression Era. N.p., 2009. Web. 06 June 2015. <
Morton, Robert, ed.World Without Ends: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. New York: Harry N. Abrams,Inc., 1997. Print


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