“Money never remains just coins and pieces of paper. Money can be translated into the beauty of living, a support in misfortune, an education, or future security.” - Sylvia Porter, Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, 1975
Sylvia porter was born on June 18, 1913, to Louis and Rose Feldman, in Patchogue, Long Island, NY. The family later moved to Brooklyn, where her father practiced medicine. Dr. Feldman died of a heart attack in 1925 and Rose became a milliner to support the family. She also changed the family name to Field. Sylvia attended P.S. 99 and graduated from James Madison High School at age 16. Rose insisted that Sylvia prepare herself for a career, so Sylvia enrolled in Hunter College, where she started as an English and history major. Sylvia switched her major to economics after the stock market crash of 1929, when her mother lost $30,000 in investments, and her fiancé, Reed Porter, wanted her to explain the crash. Sylvia graduated from Hunter in 1932, and found employment at an investment counseling firm. She also studied for an MBA from New York University.
In 1934, Sylvia began writing a newsletter about U.S. government bonds and also took a job at the New York Post, where she wrote a financial column three times each week. At first, the Post had her column appear under the
byline of S.F. Porter, to hide the fact that she was a woman, because they felt people would not take her advice seriously if they knew it came from a woman. She also wrote a financial column for American Banker, and in 1938, was named financial editor for the Post. In 1942, the Post decided that Sylvia’s gender would be an asset and revealed that S.F. Porter was a woman when they added her photo and changed her byline to “Sylvia F. Porter.” This led to her writing a newsletter for the banking and securities industry and guidebooks on personal finance.
Sylvia wrote her columns and her books in plain language, the better to answer complex questions for the average reader and combat what she referred to as “bafflegab,” where financial information was presented by members of the business class for members of the business class. She thought the public wanted access to financial information, if they could only understand it. In a speech to the Associated Press Managing Editors Association in 1961, Sylvia stated that “We in America are living through the most profound, glorious income revolution in all history, which means that for the first time the vast majority of Americans are earning enough income to be acutely interested in reading in simple language about trends in jobs, paychecks, living costs, and taxes.”
In 1939, Sylvia wrote her first book, which was called How to Make Money in Government Bonds, where she discussed government finance. In 1941, she wrote, "If War Comes to the American Home, which explained national defense in ordinary terms and described what families might encounter in a wartime economy. In 1947, Sylvia’s column became syndicated and she entered into an association with J.K. Lasser to publish a series of handbooks for taxpayers. She also wrote monthly articles for the Ladies Home Journal. In the 1980s, Sylvia published her own magazine, Sylvia Porter’s Personal Finance. The magazine was brought down by the stock market collapse of 1987 and its subscriber list was purchased by Kiplinger in 1989.
Sylvia was also willing to take on dishonesty and fraud in government and the financial press. Were big-time investors profiting from the ignorance of small investors and individual Americans? Did the financial press get paid to promote particular stocks? Sylvia thought this was wrong and believed that everyone should be financially literate.
An early project involved revealing the American holdings of I.G. Farben, the German chemical company notorious for its manufacture of Zyklon B, the gas used in the Nazi gas chambers. She also publicly questioned Treasury Secretary Morgenthau’s management of government bonds and Senator Edwin Johnson of Colorado for his advocacy of silver.
Sylvia and Secretary Morgenthau later became friends. He would seek her advice in setting the prices of government bonds and she would support his policies in her column. In 1940, the two worked together to design a savings bond to help raise money to support the war effort. (For the rest of her life, Sylvia promoted U.S. Savings Bonds as a safe way for Americans to save.)
During her career, Sylvia also served as an advisor to several U.S. presidents. For example, President Kennedy appointed her to the Consumer Advisory Council. President Johnson wanted to appoint her as head of the Export-Import Bank, an offer which she declined. President Ford named her chair of his Citizens Action Committee. Sylvia Porter was active in financial journalism to the end. Her last works were Your Finances in the 1990s and Planning Your Retirement. She died on June 5, 1991, in Pound Ridge, NY.