Estelle Ellis Rubinstein, a Pioneer at Seventeen, Dies at 92

July 16, 2012

July 15, 2012

Estelle Ellis Rubinstein, who as promotion director of the brand-new Seventeen magazine helped American businesses discover what she called “a whole new country” — the untapped market of millions of teenage girls — died on July 1 at her home in Manhattan.

She was 92.

The cause was lung cancer, her daughter, Nora Rubinstein, said.

The idea of adolescence as a distinct stage of life emerged only in the early 20th century, and the term “teen-ager” did not enter the popular lexicon (at first hyphenated) until shortly before World War II. Seventeen, edited by Helen Valentine, made its debut in September 1944, billing itself as the first magazine directed at teenage girls.

Ms. Valentine had persuaded the publisher Walter H. Annenberg to create the magazine and add it to his Triangle Publications empire, and she hired Ms. Rubinstein, then 25, to be its promotion director. As Ms. Valentine’s editorial pages developed and molded the concept of an ideal teenage girl, Ms. Rubinstein’s job was to persuade advertisers that they could make money selling to her.

To simplify the pitch, Ms. Rubinstein dreamed up “the prototypical teenage girl” and named her Teena. Teena embodied the demographics and concerns discovered in marketing surveys of Seventeen readers: age, 16; height, 5-foot-4; weight, 118; aspirations, go to college, marry and stay at home. She was as insecure as most adolescents and thus pleasingly desperate (from Seventeen’s perspective) for the magazine’s guidance, especially in what to buy.

“Teena won’t take no for an answer when she sees what she wants in Seventeen,” Ms. Rubinstein wrote in an advertisement.

Kelley Massoni, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Kansas and the author of a 2010 book about Seventeen, wrote in The Journal of American Culture that Ms. Rubinstein’s use of Teena in her pitches — in books, direct mailings and advertisements — suggested that there were countless girls just like her and that girls were developing a profound relationship with the magazine.

One postcard sent to potential advertisers showed a girl ignoring three male suitors at a school dance as she concentrates on reading the magazine. Another showed a girl so engrossed in Seventeen while skiing down a hill that she doesn’t realize she’s heading for a tree. In its first year the magazine’s readership rocketed to one million, and in 1946 Business Week hailed the Teena campaign’s success.

“It is a jackpot market, because, unlike her older sisters, every teenager wants to look almost like every other teenager,” the magazine said.

Three years later, Seventeen took out ads in other publications to congratulate Teena, the advertisers and itself for creating a new market. The magazine noted that fashion manufacturers were styling clothes exclusively for the teenage girl, that retailers were opening special shops, and that cosmetics and toiletries were being packaged for the adolescent consumer.

Estelle Ruth Ellis was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 12, 1919, and graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan with a major in political science and a minor in journalism. She worked for several magazines, including Popular Science, before she joined Seventeen in 1944.

But after her early success there, both Ms. Rubinstein and Ms. Valentine became disenchanted with the magazine, feeling it was giving less prominence to the virtues of citizenship and service that had characterized it when it was born during World War II, Ms. Massoni wrote. Ms. Valentine left to become editor of Charm magazine, which was sold as the first magazine for working women. Ms. Rubinstein followed her there in 1950, to direct advertising and promotion.

Seventeen has continued to be an arbiter of how girls should act and look. Just recently it was criticized for doctoring photos of girls to enhance their faces and body shapes, prompting a petition signed by more than 84,000 people demanding that the magazine stop the practice. It responded that it would, promising to “celebrate every kind of beauty.”

In 1958, Ms. Rubinstein and her husband, Sam Rubinstein, set up a consulting firm to help businesses sharpen their responses to social trends. In the early 1970s, she worked with the Kimberly-Clark Corporation on the development of feminine hygiene products.

She wrote several advice books on how people can best showcase books and art in their homes.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Rubinstein is survived by her son, Ellis; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her husband died in 1994.

Originally published by The New York Times