“Certainly, the quiz format can be found in magazines during the 1940s and 1950s,” Johnson wrote. “I remember reading old magazines—Woman’s Home Companion and Collier’s—that my grandmother had saved and noticing beauty and household quizzes.”
Alan Nourie’s American Mass Market Magazine pinpoints, in the years after World War II, the very first stirrings of what would one day become the Cosmopolitan Quiz: “Quizzes and cartoon in the back pages of articles titled ‘What Not to Tell Your Husband’ and ‘I Was Sure I was Sterile’…began to appear.”
In a 2006 article for the Guardian, the author Lynn Peril provided the most specific evidence of anyone for the true takeover of the Quiz: “In the 1950s, the women’s magazine Ladies Home Journal devised one of the very first regular quizzes for its readers,” she wrote. The quiz was called “Making Marriage Work.”
In the absence of a clear Quiz origin, it seemed fair to look more narrowly at its history in one publication—and what better magazine to choose than Cosmo, which not only has mastered the quiz but is proud of it? A browse through the Cosmo archives, starting in the mid-1960s, just before Helen Gurley Brown took over, revealed that, even at this late date, quizzes were not a regular feature of the magazine. And even after Brown took over, it took a few years for pseudo-psychological tests to make their way into Cosmo’s pages with any sort of regularity.
The first quiz-like feature to come in during Brown’s tenure was published In May 1966. Cosmo invited its readers to “Rate your roommate potential,” by testing their “LF (livability factor)” against rules like “No flirty eyes” and “forget the purple walls.” It was more a proto-quiz—an article with a bit of interactivity tacked on.
In June of that year, Cosmo published a strangely complicated personality test, “The Test of the Unfaithful Wife.” It begins with a complicated story about a woman who cheated on her husband and ended up dead because no one would give her money to pay off a madman on the bridge who blocked her way home the next morning. Readers were supposed to list who they thought was responsible for the cheating wife’s death, in order of blame. Whichever characters came in first and last on that list reveal something about the person taking the test. (Your correspondant, for example, has “a keen awareness of the difficulties of existence” and a “lively self-esteem.” She thought it was mostly the madman’s fault. Then the wife.)
Later that summer, though, Cosmo published a quiz boasting a raison d’etre that could have come out of any one of the recent ones on BuzzFeed:
Every person is concerned with his uniqueness, his special personality. “Who am I?” asks the young person growing up. And again and again this is a question we whisper each time we look in the mirror. Sometimes we are surer, other times less so. Often our own self-evaluation has little resemblance to what other people think of us.
The quiz was titled “How well do you know yourself?”—the question that, implicitly, every personality quiz before or since has asked. Unlike a modern-day BuzzFeed quiz, though, this one had a sheen of respectability. It was written by Dr. Ernest Dichter, who, Cosmo boasted to its readers, “received his PhD in psychology from the University of Vienna and his Licence des Lettre at the Sorbonne…He is considered the leading exponent and practitioner of motivational research—the study that uses psychology and social scientific techniques to determine what makes people buy.” He even had his own research center in the Hudson Valley.
Dr. Dichter’s powers had their limits, though. “This test does not claim to be completely absolute and scientific, but it is a good indication of your temperament,” he wrote. “We have tried it on many people. It works.”
Readers were shown a series of pictures of a woman at a party or skiing or out in the yard and asked to select the caption that described the woman’s thoughts in that situation. Their answers revealed some deep truth about their femininity or common sense.
Even after these first forays, though, the Quiz did not immediately become a regular feature in Cosmo, even as horoscopes, lists, and other lighter-than-air fare filled the magazines’ pages. Perhaps the editors worried about the fact that even Dr. Dichter’s credentials did not convince readers that these tests could possibly have much connection to reality. “Was Ernest Dichter’s ‘How Well Do You Know Yourself?’ a tongue-in-cheek feature, or was he serious about the captions?” one reader wrote in to ask.