A History of the Grapevine Magazine

The A.A. Grapevine: 

The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous

In 1944, six New York members of Alcoholics Anonymous, decided to start a newsletter that would promote "harmony between groups, through knowledge and understanding."

In the early days of A.A. it was rare for members to communicate with each other outside of their own groups. Most people had no idea how other meetings were run. Some groups had started to publish their own local newsletters, but a way to open up communication between the groups was needed. A way to bring news of A.A. to those serving in the armed forces was also called for.
When Bill W was approached with the idea, his response was an enthusiastic "Go to it and blessings on you." He nicknamed the original editorial staff the "six ink-stained wretches". The first issue was published on May 22nd 1944. Copies were sent free of charge to members serving in the armed forces and to each group registered with the Central Office.
The Newsletter reported on new groups with excitement. It carried headlines that proclaimed “70 New Groups in Two Months!” or “33 New Groups Added in less that a month”. Many non-alcoholic writers contributed to the newsletter, including the novelist Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend. The Lost Weekend was reviewed with other books as part of a regular section in the newsletter, entitled "The Pleasures of Reading". The newsletter also listed details of radio programmes that featured alcoholism. Many friends of A.A wrote for Grapevine. Amongst them were Dr. Harry Tiebout, Sam Shoemaker and Lois Wilson. The newsletter was also used to debate current issues that affected A.A; much like our web forum is today. Hot topics at the time were the place of women in A.A and whether A.A. speakers should be applauded.

Bill W saw Grapevine as a principle means of communication with the groups, writing more than 150 articles for the magazine over the years. In response to letters from struggling groups, Bill used the Grapevine to begin laying down the framework that would eventually become our Twelve Traditions. His early articles discussed the principles of unity, anonymity and public relations. The April 1946 issue published Bill’s "Twelve Suggested Points for A.A.Tradition". Over the next few years, he wrote over thirty articles about the Traditions. Members used the magazine as a forum for discussion and debate about the suggested points until they were officially adopted as the Twelve Traditions in 1950. In 1952, Grapevine published his series of essays as we now see them in "The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions".

In December 1950, Bill W and Dr.Bob used Grapevine to introduce their idea for a General Service Conference to the fellowship. Entitled ‘Your Third Legacy’ its introduction read: "This is a proposal to form 'The General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous'–a small body of State and Provincial AA Delegates meeting yearly, who could assume direct responsibility for the guidance of the AA General Service Headquarters at New York City." By coincidence, that same issue carried news of Dr Bob’s death, which came just after it went to press. January’s edition was of course dedicated to his memory. While experimental Conferences were taking place, readers were kept up to date with developments. After 1955, Grapevine began to report on each annual conference. In 1955, Bill wrote a series of three articles about the growth of A.A world services. Later these were adapted to form the original history section of The A.A. Service Manual.

In January of 1966, Grapevine published an article by Bill which discussed his proposal to increase the ratio of alcoholic to non-alcoholic trustees on the General Service Board. This meant that the chief responsibility for the guidance of world affairs would be shifted to the alcoholic trustees. This plan was put in place by the end of the same year and A.A was no longer under the "protective custody" of its non-alcoholic friends.

The first editor of Grapevine, Tom Y, wrote our A.A. Preamble, which we hear read out at meetings around the world. Originally entitled ‘The A.A. Definition’, its intention was to explain the nature of our fellowship to both non-alcoholic and alcoholic readers. He based it on the forward to the first edition of the Big Book. There have been some minor changes since it was first printed 1947. The word "honest" was omitted from "an honest desire to stop drinking" to fall in line with our Third Tradition. The line "we are self-supporting through voluntary contributions" was added.

In 1945, groups voted Grapevine as their official national magazine. It became incorporated as one of two publishing divisions of the Alcoholic Foundation. Now the A.A. Grapevine Inc is one of the two operating entities of the General Service Board. (The other one is A.A. World Services Inc.)

In 1946, the FBI produced a newsletter also entitled Grapevine. Threatened with legal action the name of our magazine was changed to the ‘A.A. Grapevine’. This did cause problems with anonymity though, as the US Postal Service required envelopes to display the full title of the publication. (For years Grapevine was so anonymous it carried nothing but the date and a cluster of grapes on its front page). As a solution, the postal service assigned us the name PO Box 1980. This is actually the official title of the magazine and appears on all correspondence. You will find it printed on the cover of every issue.

In 1954, Grapevine published a questionnaire designed to try and establish different stages of alcoholism. Over 100 readers responded. The data was analysed by the Yale School of Alcohol Studies and has been used in conjunction with other studies to help countless professionals better understand the disease of alcoholism.  Amongst the questions were "At what age did you start to develop abnormal and unreasonable resentments?" and "When did you start to develop indefinable fears?"

Current editions of Grapevine are now split into different interesting "departments". Y.E.S. (Youth Enjoying Sobriety) prints articles written by teenagers in recovery. "Is AA Changing?" gives members the chance to voice their concerns about changes they see in local meetings or the fellowship at large. "Old Timers Corner" gives those with long term sobriety the opportunity to share their experience. "If Walls Could Talk" is a centre page spread displaying photos of meeting venues that members have sent in. "Ham on the Wry" is the magazine's humour section.

The AA Grapevine website www.aagrapevine.org.uk makes available latest editions of Grapevine and other resources, such as Audio Grapevine, a live discussion forum and other information about the magazine. You can also "Click-on-a-Joke", take part in polls and enter competitions. The amazing ‘A.A. Grapevine Digital Archive’ was launched in 1997. Here you can find every article, letter, editorial, special feature, joke, and cartoon published in the Grapevine magazine starting from the first issue in June 1944. Registered users can browse by department, date or topic. It’s a fantastic resource for bother personal recovery and service. There is a subscription fee but if you are interested in A.A. history it is well worth it. In the early 1950’s Grapevine started to publish additional items related to the magazine. Books that you will probably be familiar with are "Language of the Heart" and "The Home Group: Heartbeat of A.A." These and other anthologies on both written and CD format can be ordered from the Grapevine website.

Grapevine should be considered an integral part of A.A history. While he was alive Bill W was the magazines official Senior Editorial Advisor. In reality he was also its mentor and chief contributor. The March 1971 issue was dedicated entirely to his memory. It printed just six articles, all of them about Bill W.

On its fifteenth anniversary, he wrote about Grapevine: "It is our great means of intercommunication: a magic carpet on which each of you can ride to the more distant reaches and watch new brothers and sisters emerge from darkness into light. On this happy occasion I send my warmest affection to Grapevine readers and staff alike. May God prosper the Grapevine always."

Jo P, Road to Recovery group, Plymouth, Nov 2011