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Mr. Godey’s Lady

May 2024
18min read

Gentle Sarah Hale, widowed at forty, created our first successful women’s magazine and popularized the Paris fashions she regarded with deep distrust

Mention the words “women’s rights” and much the same picture storms into the avrage American recollection: the grimlipped, podium-pounding suffragette of the late nineteenth ccntui-y. She lias three resonant names (very likely one of them is Carrie) and you cannot by the wildest stretch ol the imagination conjure up an image ol her reading nursery rhymes to the young. Is not the gap between social reform and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” too wide and too dramatic to bridge?

In fact, it is not. For the lady who invented Mary in i860 and saw her pass into folklore via McGuffey’s Readers probably had more influence on women’s status than her noisier sisters. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for forty years, she sel a pattern for today’s women’s magazines and deeply influenced two generations of American wives anil mothers in her own lifetime.

Her reward, of course, has been to be generally forgotten, both lor the rhyme and for the remarkable career. Her magazine has been replaced by a flossier produit aimed at a much more sophisticated, if not really happier, audience than the huge one that for decades looked to Mrs. Hale for advice on fashions, homeinaking, health, and child-rearing. The old Lady’s Books , where they survive, are to be found in old-fashioned attics, themselves rapidly vanishing under the assault ol’ a kind of residential architecture thai Mrs. Hale would have disliked immensely.

Sarah Male seems, at first blush, to have been a perlect contradiction, not only in her looks and actions but in what she said and did. A wholesome, soft-spoken mother of five children, she was the antithesis of the seriocomic suffragette. With a clear conscience Mrs. Hale could announce that “the most important vocation on earth is that of the Christian mother in her nursery,” and at the same time be leading campaigns for women doctors, nuises, professors, missionaries, sales clerks, and waiters. The editor of a magazine for elegant women, she could decry the wasp wirst and drive lier readers out ol their parlors into the sunshine (but not—Heaven forbid! —in bloomers).

She was born Sarah lkiell on a l’a nil near the little village of Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788. Schools lor girls were almost unheard of in those days, and young Sarah received her carly education from reading the Bible and the English classics; lroni the instruction of lier mother, whom she remembered as a woman witli “a mind clear as rock-water”; and later from an older brother who went to Dartmouth. On the strength of these attainments, she started a small private school when she was only eighteen and kept it for several years. Then, in 1811, David Hale, a young lawyer, opened an ollice in Newport, and two years later he and Sarah Kuell were married.

It was a happy marriage, and one which had a good deal to do with Mrs. Hate’s subséquent career. Though new members ol the family started putting in their appearance almost at once, their arrival did not extinguish the young housewife’s intellectual interests. One day a Ii lend dropped in with a new book, and AJrs. Hale, who had been in the midst of cleaning house, put aside her broom and read on lor hours. In the evenings she and her husband studied together, lor regular two-hour periods, subjects like Krencli, botany, and geology. David Hale seems also to have encouraged his wile to write articles and stories for local newspapers; some time later, in a brief autobiographical note, she remembered with gratitude that he had helped direct her away from the pompous, rhetorical prose style characteristic of the time.

And then in 1822, suddenly, “as with a stroke,” David Hale died, a few days before the birth of their fifth child, leaving his widow with very little in the way of material resources. With the help of his Masonic friends, Sarah Hale and her sister-in-law tried the millinery business for a while, but her mind and heart weren’t in it. She had written a few poems, and these, plus her first novel, Northwood, A tale of New England , published in 1827, brought her to the attention of the Reverend (ohn Lauris Hlake, an Episcopal clergyman in Roston who wanted to start a women’s magaxine. He offered Mrs. Hale the editorship, and despite the warnings of her friends, she accepted.

The warnings were based on hard economic facts. Many women’s magazines had bloomed and as quickly faded. Advertising, the bread and butter of most modern magazines, was in its infancy; not until the 1870’s would it become a prime factor in publishing success. In addition, no one knew for certain how big the audience lor a women’s maga/ine might be, and no one had succeeded in achieving the right editorial balance to keep that audience interested.

Mrs. Hale thought she knew the combination. Her predecessors in the field had, according to a biographer, Lawrence Martin, writing in The New England Quarterly , “dedicated themselves to fashion and pleasure and a gentle dalliance and frivolity that never trespassed morally.” Mrs. Hale’s pages, by contrast, were to be “consecrated to duty and domesticity, and the preparation of woman for a larger and more serious sphere.” She saw her public, Martin continues, as an untapped and as yet inarticulate group of Mrs. Hales- middle-class women: women of the sewing circle rather than of the salon, and ol the lyceum rather than of the theater: women coping with IiIe on serious terms, earnest about philanthropies and progress, proud ol their new country, busily endowing the old-fashioned religion with a new outlook—not the pampered and oxer-leisured dolls of Boston and provincial parlors, but leaners upon domestic broomsticks and supporters of books: women interested in extramural activities but for intra-mural ends.

When in 1828 she moved her family to Boston and entered upon the national stage as the editor of the Ladie’s Magazine , Mrs. Hale was a woman of forty, just under middle height, with a fair, pink and-white complexion, sparkling hazel eyes, and brown hair which she continued to wear in the side-curls her husband had so much admired. She dressed conservatively but was always exquisitely groomed; she walked briskly and carried herself very erect, and this, in combination with the full, sweeping skirts of the day, made her a formidable figure. She was a High-Church Episcopalian, and years later, when she had grandchildren, one of them remembered that “when dressed for church she was an imposing spectacle, rather like a duchess of fiction.”

The magazine that she put together carried poems, stories, and literary criticism—much of it written by Mrs. Hale herself. But what gave it character were the crusades for which its editor soon became famous and which she never abandoned for the remainder of her long editorial career. Her principal campaign, undoubtedly an outgrowth of her own hard experience, was for the education of women and their eventual acceptance into the teaching profession. But she embraced other causes which brought her equal fame.

The first, conducted in 1833, more outside the collumns of the Ladies’ Magazine than within them, was the founding of the Seaman’s Aid Society. By improving the wretched life of the mariner, she reasoned, she might in turn better the lot of his wife and children. Since a seaman’s family could not subsist on his monthly earnings of $10 to $18 (part of which he might squander for grog), many a wife toiled in a sweatshop for a wage of a dollar or less a week making uniforms, which were then sold to her husband at inflated prices. Conceiving the idea of “the workbasket,” Mrs. Hale and her enthusiastic Boston coterie paid seamen’s wives much higher wages for uniforms they made and then sold them at cost to the sailors. The plan worked beautifully. Soon the Seaman’s Aid Society was operating a store that could not begin to handle the business. The operators of the competing “slop-shops” and the proprietors of the seamen’s boardinghouses, who had always received a cut on uniforms they sold to their tenants, protested bitterly but could do little. Seaman’s Aid was underselling them.

With the opening of Mariner’s House, the first sailors’ home, it was clear to all hands that Mrs. Hale and her ladies knew how to steer in heavy weather. With its clean rooms furnished with castoffs from their attics, its wholesome food, and modest prices, Mariner’s House was the ladies’ antidote for the water-front clip joints. It was the model for all the Snug Harbors that have succeeded it.

Mrs. Kale’s next and totally different Boston crusade was the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument. Lafayette had laid the cornerstone in 1825 before a huge concourse of people, while the air rang with patriotic phrases from the lips of Daniel Webster. Within ten years after the dedication, the monumenthad risen only eighty feet out of the 220 the architects called for. Its promoters had given up for want of funds, and in Boston a promise to be fulfilled “when the Bunker Hill Monument is finished” became a sorry public joke. But the all-male Monument Association’s shame was even hotter when Sarah Hale volunteered the services of her Ladies’ Magazine .

Declaring that “we offer our assistance as helpers only,” she reassured the association that everything would be done with modesty and decorum. The association could not at first bring itself to accept but finally did so in desperation. Ingeniously, Mrs. Hale set up a “committee of correspondence” composed of Boston society women (was this the forerunner of the list of “sponsors”?) and the Ladies’ Magazine became the first in the country to engage in a public fundraising campaign. Despite the hard times of the mid1830% Mrs. Hale managed to raise $3,000, a significant sum in those days, although far short of her goal. In 1840 (she was now editor of Godey’s but had not yet moved to Philadelphia) she crowned ten years of effort in behalf of the monument with a great bazaar for which her readers and the Seaman’s Aid Society, by then the largest women’s organization in the country, had pickled, canned, knitted, and embroidered for months.

Early in September their goods started pouring into Quincy Hall, and in the week of the ninth crowds of thousands, filling aisles, carried away the handiwork of women all over the nation. Mrs. Hale noted the exciting events of the hour in a daily paper called The Monument . “On the last night,” Richardson Wright has written, “when the final embroidered bertha had been sold, and the remaining hug-metight knocked down to the highest bidder, the treasurer announced that the bazaar had rolled up a $30,ooo profit. The monument was assured. Boston’s honor was saved. Two years later, in 1842, the final capstone was set in place.” Mrs. Hale witnessed the ceremony “with gratified and kindling eyes.” It was a personal triumph, but it was an even greater one for the thousands of American women she represented. Awareness that they had done something that the men alone had been unable to do had a tremendous effect, not only on women, but on men. Psychologically, the climate for women’s organizations and the advancement of women’s rights was a little fairer and warmer from that time on.

Not so the prospects for the survival of the Ladies’ Magazine . Then as now, the staple of most periodicals aimed at women was news of feminine fashions. Mrs. Hale thought it unimportant, and though she was forced to compromise to some extent, she did so reluctantly. Whether for that reason or because of the general financial troubles of the middle 1830’s, the Ladies’ Magazine found itself in difficulty, and Mrs. Hale’s appeals failed to persuade her delinquent subscribers to pay their bills.

Help arrived in the person of a plump, genial Philadelphia!! named Louis Antoine Godey, one of the authentic geniuses of American publishing history. Since 1830 he had been putting out The Lady’s Book , a potpourri of fiction and poetry, much of it borrowed from English magazines, and “embellishments” like colored fashion plates, illustrations, and songs (sample title: “The Heart of Thy Norah Is Breaking for Thee”). But though Godey was a shrewd businessman with a good idea of what his readers wanted and a determination to give it to them—he originated the idea of special departments on art, cooking, household hints—he was no editor; he needed someone with a point of view to give his magazine individuality and character. In 1837 he approached Mrs. Hale, offering to buy the Ladies’ Magazine and install her as editor of the combined publication, to be entitled, somewhat formidably, Godey’s Lady’s Book and American Ladies’ Magazine . She accepted.

Under the enterprising Godey as publisher and Sarah Josepha Hale as editor, Godey’s Lady’s Book , as it was soon called, was to gain, over the next forty years, 150,000 subscribers, an astounding total for a women’s publication in the middle iSoo’s. The Lady’s Book was to become the alpha and omega of the world of women’s rights, fashion, etiquette, and cookery. However old-fashioned it may seem today, it was the first successful women’s magazine and the direct ancestor of all that have followed it.

Mrs. Hale took over the editor’s chair with two strong prejudices: she was opposed to “borrowing” material from other publications, and she still had little use for fashion plates. As for the first, she felt it was a shameful reflection on America that the Lady’s Book and other U.S. periodicals had been depending so heavily on literary material imported from England. We had good writers here. The Lady’s Book was going to publish them and, what was more, it was going to pay substantial rates. While great numbers of dreary stories (some of them her own) appeared under Mrs. Male’s editorship, and dozens of sentimental poems by indefatigable poetesses like Lydia Sigourney, it is not surprising to find also original contributions by Hawthorne, Longfellow, Poe, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mrs. Hale would pay up to $25 for a poem—a good fee for the time—though James Russell Lowell held out for $30, and got it.

To this policy and the financial outlay it involved, Louis Godey raised no objection. But Mrs. Hale’s dislike for fashion plates failed to move him. As early as 1830 a fashion plate had appeared in her own Boston magazine, but she had publicly admitted that “There is no part of our duty as editor of a ladies’ Journal which we feel so reluctant to perform, as to … exhibit the fashions of dress.” She did believe in good grooming, and in her personal appearance was most fastidious in her plain gowns of silk, adorned with costly lace at the neck and wrists. Her readers learned that she disliked earrings and that she made up her own hand lotion of cocoanut milk, rose water, and lard. (What they did not know was that tucked away on the top of her dressing table were brownpaper pads and a bottle of vinegar which she used before retiring to stave off the wrinkles of age.) Mrs. Hale felt that “the result of the finest toilet should be an elegant woman, not an elegantly dressed woman,” and despaired cf the practice of American designers of imitating “every frippery ornament invented by French and English milliners.” Indeed, she wondered why a becoming and convenient mode could not be retained for centuries, thus saving all of the energy, concern, and expense of keeping in style. In despair she wrote: It is related in history that at the time it was customary for ladies and gentlemen to wear shoes with toes a foot and a half long, and turned up like sleigh runners, the clergy preached a crusade against these ornaments without effect. From hence we may learn that whatever may be said against fashion, it is little more than a waste of time to decry it … we are still rocked in fashionable cradles, and buried in fashionable coffins.

If fashion was to be featured she determined to Americanize it, as she had the editorial content. She employed every possible device to do so. Isaac Singer’s ingenious new sewing machine was her ally in this cause, for it helped to keep fashion in the home and out of the hands of the couturiers . The creaking of treadles and the clacking of shuttles outlining designs suggested by the Lady’s Book were soon to be heard through every other open window.

It is doubtful if any magazine offered a “shopping service” before the Lady’s Book , which first did so 106 years ago. With a view to economy and taste, it volunteered to buy and ship to subscribers almost any article of clothing, including “lingerie,” a euphemism popularized by Mrs. Hale. This service must have been the forerunner of the mail-order catalogue. Among other columns that her readers anticipated eagerly each month were those devoted to household hints or aids. She pleaded with inventors to produce a competent washing machine. Evidently her prayers were answered, for in April, 1854, she ran a picture of a strange barrel-like device turned by cogwheels and a lever. “For ourselves our spirits fall with the first rising of steam in the kitchen, and only return to natural temperature when the clothes are folded in the ironing basket. We rejoice that a better day is at hand and consider the invention described below as full of deepest interest to our sex as housekeepers.”

The Lady’s Book also illustrated the newest model cottages and modes in furniture, some of them quite ghastly, though Mrs. Hale herself had grown up in- and admired—the good old four-square New England house with its serviceable country furnishings. Like the fashion plates, these seem to have been largely Louis Godey’s idea. He once advocated the erection of thatched cottages for indigent farmers. He did not think it necessary to include a barn, since the cow would presumably be in the pasture all summer; in the winter, it could live indoors with the family and help warm the house. In February, 1850, Mrs. Hale warned against the onrushing Victorian era with a prophetic, if oblique, protest against lace curtains. She declared that she enjoyed “the honest sincerity which still lives in the shadow of wall-paper curtains,” but felt it her duty to report the advent of lace.

A liberal in conservative clothing like so many others from the rugged and enigmatic New England countryside, Mrs. Hale was sane, practical, and, above all, ingenious in her approach to women’s rights. Since any concessions to women obviously had to be made by the men, who were not disposed to make concessions, she used not the axe nor firebrand, but the tools of psychology to achieve her aims. She often began a campaign for her many women’s rights projects by admitting that men are the stronger sex.

Men have the mechanical ingenuity which discovers natural laws of science, and how to apply these to their own inventions and constructions. What wonderful talents of power and usefulness God has entrusted to men! And what wonderful things they have done in the world during the last hundred years!

Swelling with pride and magnanimity, her male readers did not sense that they were about to be induced to share some cherished, centuries-old privilege. While such tactics suggest a calculating woman, an appraisal of Mrs. Hale’s nature shows that she actually believed in the men as leaders. Although she was interested in freeing woman from her role as a voiceless domestic drudge, she certainly had no notion of interfering with men’s prerogatives. Giving woman the rights she pleaded for would be, she insisted, of great value and service to men.

What a vastly more interesting companion and “help-meet” a wife would make, she declared in her campaign for the education of girls and young women, if she were intelligent enough to talk sympathetically with her husband after a day’s work. In this light, it appeared to the men that they stood to gain more from the education of women than women themselves did, and they could not justify opposing it.

Mrs. Hale, in other words, had no objection (as did some feminists) to the word “obey” in the marriage ceremony. All she felt was that women ought to be able to read it and write it—for 50 per cent of her generation of women were illiterate. The average woman, a slave to the hearth, was subject always to, the caprice of her husband. She could neither hold property nor vote, nor was she considered worthy of an education or even capable of acquiring one.

“The time of action is now,” declared Mrs. Hale in November, 1846. “We have only to sow the fields- the harvest is sure. The greatest triumph of this progression is redeeming woman from her inferior position and placing her side by side with man, a helpmeet for him in all his pursuits. …” Scarcely an issue of the Lady’s Book was published during the forty years of her editorship in which she did not have something to say about education for women and in behalf of educated women in schools and colleges as teachers and professors. She warmly supported Emma Willard’s pioneer seminary in Troy, New York, helped Matthew Vassar to found his college, and fought for state-supported normal schools.

During the 1840’s she gave Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive a degree in medicine, her most resolute, even militant, support. In the public furor that followed one critic charged Mrs. Hale with attempting to starve men out of the field of medicine. She replied, uncharacteristically, that the men might as well starve as the women. “If men cannot cope with women in the medical profession, let them take an humble occupation in which they can.” In 1850 the Female Medical School of Philadelphia, largely her creation, opened its doors. The following year she organized and became president of the Ladies’ Medical Missionary Society of Philadelphia. In a glowing editorial about Florence Nightingale she urged that nurses’ training schools be established, but the Civil War had long since ended when, in 1873, the first ones were opened.

Meanwhile the persistent editor of Godey’s was advocating women as clerks in department stores and as waitresses. “Why should women do the harder indoor work of washing, ironing, scrubbing, cooking … and men be employed to carry in the food and wait on table? … Is such an arrangement just or good? Has not man intruded into woman’s sphere in this domestic service?”

But Mrs. Hale was devoted to causes which were not just those of her own sex. She had much to do with the preservation of Mount Vernon as a national shrine and for three decades expended gallons of printer’s ink in behalf of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She had to wait until President Lincoln’s administration, when a proclamation from the White House fulfilled her heart’s desire.

As the years passed she became more and more critical of the Victorian era and what it was doing to women. Woman needed to be emancipated from her heavy costume. Anyone’s health was bound to suffer from imprisonment in all the layers—the flannel petticoat, the under-petticoat, the petticoat wadded to the knees, the white starched petticoat, then the two muslin petticoats, and at length the dress. Mrs. Hale despaired of the wasp waist, hoop skirts, and the swooning parlor-type of lady who wore them. As an antidote she published lessons in calisthenics for ladies and recommended outdoor activities such as the graceful new game of croquet, “Picnics,” swimming, and, above all, horseback riding as “beautifying to the human figure.” She was sure that “amusements of this sort will do more to restore the roses to the cheeks of our young girls, faded by a campaign in a winter’s ballrooms, than all the doses which the materia medica can suggest.”

She was never afraid to fly in the face of fashion—even men’s, and in the height of the Victorian era put on a campaign against beards. “Whiskerandos,” she called men who wore them, and dismissed the whole fad as an “immense waste of bear’s grease.” Whiskers so hid the faces of those who wore them that a young lady was not able to distinguish her brother from her cousin. Furthermore, “Persons who carry their faces behind a mask of this sort cannot be supposed to possess clear consciences, for honesty and fair-dealing have no motives for any such concealment.”

There were limits, however, to the kinds of campaigns Mrs. Hale embarked upon. Some she set herself, others were laid down by Louis Godey. With all her crusading for women’s rights, she never came out for women’s suffrage. She thought politics was for men, and while she did not attack the suffragettes openly, she did nothing for them. It was also Lady’s Book policy, as established by Godey, to avoid the discussion of political and social issues—wages and hours, slum conditions, etc. He was no reformer, and even slavery and the oncoming Civil War, the most pressing issues of the time, got scant notice in the magazine. On one occasion southern readers complained—and their complaints got into southern newspapers—because the name of a woman who had written abolitionist articles appeared on the cover of the Lady’s Book as an editor. Hastily, Louis Godey wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia, South Carolina, Telegraph : I have been publishing the Lady’s Book for twenty years, and if in that time one line can be found aspersing in any way Southern institutions, I am willing to fall under your censure . … I send you a January number. You will see that Grace Greenwood’s name is withdrawn from the cover, where it was placed nominally as editor, she never having had the least control of its columns.

After half a century of public service Mrs. Hale’s pen was still busy reviving old causes or introducing new ones: parks and gardens for cities, prison reforms, public playgrounds for children, the abolition of child labor, the placement of women on school boards, the expansion of educational opportunities for the young.

When she could no longer go to the offices of the Lady’s Book , she carried on her editorial duties in her daughter’s house in a sunny upstairs room with booklined walls, a wide, chintz-covered sofa on which her grandchildren were always welcome to curl up with a book, and four cages of canaries. In the center was her large table-desk, neatly stacked with papers and manuscripts, a tray which held her gold pen and an inkpot, and a green-shaded student lamp. There was also a dish of grapes—for she considered grapes a health food, so much so that she would often pay outrageous prices to get them out of season.

“I never saw her when she was not working,” one of her grandchildren remembered, “except at meals and Sunday nights.” Another recalled: “I remember streams of people going upstairs to grandmother’s room. Everybody who came to Philadelphia must have called on her.”

Mrs. Hale must have practiced what she preached about the raising of children, for hers all distinguished themselves. Her youngest son, William, graduated second in his class at Harvard, became a lawyer in Virginia, and later gained fame as the negotiator for Texas in handling Spanish claims. Another son, Horatio, became a distinguished philologist. David, her eldest son, the youngest in a class of 150 at West Point, died at 25 of illness while serving on the Canadian border. She also financed her two daughters’ education at Emma Willard’s seminary in Troy. Sarah Josepha, the younger, became a teacher and opened The Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies in Philadelphia.

Mrs. Hale had a generous heart. Other than publishing literary criticism by Edgar Allan Poe, and such of his stories as “The Cask of Amontillado,” which appeared for the first time in the Lady’s Book , she had befriended and helped support the indigent mother of his child-bride. When Mrs. Hale died at 91 she had given away all of her substantial earnings as an editor and author, except $5,000 that Louis Godey had awarded her on the thirtieth anniversary of her editorship of the Lady’s Book . Somehow she had found time to write some two dozen books, including the goo-page Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women from ‘The Beginning till A.D. 1850 . Yet of all Mrs. Hale wrote, only “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is really known today.

Sarah Hale and Louis Godey grew old together in their long and mutually pleasant partnership. Godey himself retired from active publishing in August of 1877, after running the Lady’s Book continuously for 47 years. The following December Mrs. Hale laid down her pen, at the age of ninety. The Lady’s Book itself, under other directors and other titles, continued until 1898, but it was never the same. For the truth was, as Mrs. Hale’s biographer, Ruth Finley, noted: The country had grown up with her. The men and women who bore the brunt of the Civil War were being born as she was starting to write. She knew and understood them, and they in turn believed in her. She never expected the impossible; her sympathy with human frailty was too deep for that. … Nevertheless, catching sight of goals decades beyond her times, she urged much of striving on her readers and in the main they accepted it. For she was almost invariably right. … All the many movements she promoted, all her forward-looking ideas and proposals are now accepted.

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