In 1888, Paul Popenoe was the first of four children born in Topeka, Kansas. When his parents moved the family to Pasadena, California, Popenoe found fertile ground for his seemingly disparate interests: growing date palms, eugenics, and marriage counseling.
The Victorian values of the late 19th century were embedded in Popenoe, but he took a progressive stance on many issues, making his life a contradiction. He was a Sunday school teacher in his youth but later eschewed religion and became a secular humanist. When he was 17, he fainted after eating a steak dinner and became a strict vegetarian long before that was popular. But, true to his Victorian roots, he did not believe in any kind of sex outside of marriage, and he was a virgin on his wedding night.
About 1908, Popenoe dropped out of college after three years to work and care for his sick father. After working as a newspaper editor for a few years, he quit his job and made a six-month tour of Europe. Popenoe’s father worked as a nurseryman when he retired, so on his dad’s behalf, Popenoe learned Arabic, one of eight languages he knew, and traveled around the Middle East collecting date palms. This lead to his first book, Date Growing in the New and Old Worlds, published in 1913, which became a manual for horticulturists.
A CERTAIN KIND OF PEOPLE PERSON Later that year, Popenoe moved to Washington D.C. to edit the new publication the Journal of Heredity. He idolized Charles Darwin and believed that improving humanity would happen by applying science to society. His focus turned to heredity and eugenics, an extension of natural selection. Eugenicists believe in improving the genetic makeup of the human population specifically by sterilizing people with genetic defects or undesirable traits, thereby keeping them from reproducing. This was a very progressive point of view subscribed to by the intellectuals of the time, including Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger and Theodore Roosevelt. Popenoe’s self study in a group of like-minded scientists and intellectuals eventually resulted in his book Applied Eugenics, published in 1918.
During World War I, Popenoe was a captain in the vice and liquor section of the War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities. He was responsible for eliminating liquor and prostitutes from around the army training camps, the perfect job for a teetotaler with his puritanical upbringing. After the war he went to New York and worked as the Executive Secretary of the American Social Hygiene Association. Their mission was to use public education to promote premarital abstinence, but they were broadminded enough to promote sex education and birth control.
BECOMING HIS OWN CASE STUDY It was while he was in New York that Popenoe married Betty Bowman, a dancer 13 years his junior, after a six month courtship. The couple moved to Coachella Valley, California where Popenoe retreated to his first love and established a date farm until the agricultural market collapsed and forced them to move to back to Pasadena.
Popenoe’s lack of experience with women made his marriage rough going at first. He was, however, determined to understand the unique world of women, and his efforts resulted in the book Modern Marriage, A Handbook for Men, published in 1925. Fifteen years later he revised the book to include advice for women based on his personal and professional experience.
Despite his lack of a college diploma, in 1929 Popenoe was awarded an honorary doctorate from Occidental College, where he had done two years of study twenty years earlier. He used the title Dr. Popenoe professionally.
STAYING TRENDY The application of his philosophy of hereditarianism shifted with the tide of social thought, and he changed his focus from genetic improvement to family improvement. In 1930 Popenoe founded the Institute of Family Relations (later the American Institute of Family Relations) in Los Angeles, bringing marriage and family counseling (a concept that started in Germany a decade earlier) to America. He maintained that “…to improve the race, we should first start with the family. And since the family often suffers problems which threaten its stability, we must treat those problems. In other words, we should establish a marriage counseling center where maladjustments might be brought, studied, classified–and helped if possible.”1 Part of his counseling was to encourage fathers to take an active role in the lives of their children.
In the ensuing decades, the Institute had up to 70 counselors and claimed in 1977 to have counseled over 300,000 men, women and children. He required the counselors to be married and never divorced. Even though Popenoe was not religious, in the 1960s and ‘70s many of his assistants were ministers and other religious people, including Dr. James D. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. His office moved to Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and Popenoe became the marriage counselor to the stars, although Lana Turner went to his house for her sessions to maintain privacy.
REACHING THE MASSES Popenoe’s influence extended beyond the Institute. He wrote a daily newspaper column called “Your Family and You,” and he counseled couples on a reality TV show called “Divorce Hearing.” He was a popular lecturer on college campuses and wrote a total of 17 books and numerous popular and scientific articles on marriage relations. Television host Art Linkletter asked Popenoe to help him create a way to successfully match men and women, a forerunner to today’s dating services. Popenoe created a questionnaire of 32 items including race, religion, politics, and pets. Over 4,000 people responded to a newspaper ad to be matched. A Univac computer analyzed the surveys and picked a couple who were introduced to each other on Linkletter’s television show People Are Funny. It was a good match, and the couple got married.
In 1953 Popenoe started the advice column “Can This Marriage Be Saved” in the magazine the Ladies Home Journal, using actual case studies from the Institute in his articles. Still a feature of the magazine, the column has been called “the most popular, most enduring women’s magazine feature in the world.”1
Popenoe’s own marriage was not without its challenges, but he practiced what he preached. Within the relationship the duties fell along traditional gender lines: Popenoe worked and took care of the yard and Betty was a stay-at-home mom who raised four boys. Their youngest son wrote that Popenoe was a strict disciplinarian who, despite a heavy work schedule, gave his children lots of attention.
In his 1926 book Conservation of the Family, Popenoe predicted what the family of the future would be like. He expected better mate selection, greater understanding leading to a stronger permanence of love, more intelligent consideration of children, more concern for individual development, especially for women, and more democracy within the family structure.1
QUESTION: What do you think makes a good marriage?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Popenoe, David, War Over the Family. New Jersey: Transactions Publishers, 2005 http://books.google.com/books?id=FhZeJwLSu74C&pg=PA238&lpg=PA238&dq=obituary+paul+popenoe&source=bl&ots=iH3CDQf5Ut&sig=qWwi-eyeC2zp23l5EpqalGP91eg&hl=en&ei=GiLHTJOMAoyssAPKps2oDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=obituary%20paul%20popenoe&f=false