Before ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Glamour’ there was “Godey’s Lady’s Book”

By: Sydnee C. Winston, Project Coordinator

Quick…name as many popular lady’s magazines as you can!

Chances are that popular magazines like Cosmopolitan, Glamour and RedBook immediately came to mind, right? While these magazines have unique features and are read by millions, there is one pioneering lady’s magazine that made it possible for magazines like these to exist. Godey’s Lady’s Book was hands-down, the most popular and widely read lady’s magazine during its heyday from the 1840′s to 1860. The magazine set the standard for etiquette and culture and its influential editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was regarded as a connoisseur of all things fashion, cooking, literature and morality for middle and upper class woman.

Sarah was born on a New Hampshire farm in 1788.  Like most girls of the era, she received a limited education from family members and what she could teach herself.  After she married lawyer David Hale in 1813, they formed a small literary club with many of their friends and Hale began writing.  After the death of her husband in 1822, Hale turned to writing to support herself and her five children.  Her first effort was to co-publish a book of poems with her sister-in-law called The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems.  The book was relatively well-received and Hale went on to write a novel called Northwood, which also sold well.  Due to the success of the book, Hale was solicited to become the editor of a new magazine aimed at women.  Leaving behind her children temporarily in the care of relatives, Hale accepted the position and moved to Boston in 1827.

At her new job, Hale began a successful career as a magazine editor.  The magazine was called Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette,

Sarah Josepha Hale

which was then changed to American Ladies Magazine.  Hale hoped she could use the magazine as a way to further the education of women.  She wrote about half of all the material in the magazines.

In 1836, Louis Godey convinced Hale to become the editor of his magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book.  The magazine reached a wide audience and covered topics ranging from health, beauty, cooking, gardening, and architecture.  In her continuing effort to help educate women, Hale included the works of famous authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  She published articles about proper writing techniques and proscribed reading lists similar to ones given at college courses to further educate her readers.  Hale published lists of schools that accepted women and advocated for women’s education.  Over the years, Hale became bolder in suggesting that not only should women be educated, but they should receive a similar education to men.  When Vassar College, a college for women, opened in 1865, Hale continually praised it in her magazine and helped fund it.  Hale was also an influential advocate for female teachers, whom she believed were more ideally suited to teach children than men.  Hale also suggested women should rightly be in other professions, such as medicine.

Godey’s Lady’s Book was one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century.  Although Hale was somewhat radical in advocating for equal education for women and men and suggesting that women should be in professions like teaching and medicine, she did so within the popular ideology of the time.  Many people believed that women were more pious and pure than men and thus should be the moral educators of children, in the home and in schools.  Strongly supporting this idea and that a woman’s primarily place was in the home, Hale advocated that the best way for women to fulfill their mission was by receiving an education first.

Hale spent much of her spare time in advocacy and charity work.  She supported women’s efforts to become overseas missionaries, raised funds to save historic Mount Vernon, supported various educational institutions, and supported women’s economic independence.  One of her most lasting contributions to American culture was her lobbying for a national day of thanks.  Hale published numerous editorials urging several American presidents when they were in office to nationalize the celebration of Thanksgiving.  A New England resident, Sarah had always celebrated Thanksgiving because it had been a holiday in that part of the country since the 17th century and she thought it was important for everyone in the country to celebrate it.  Hale’s hard work finally paid off when in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Hale also continued to write poems and novels while she served as editor and published nearly fifty volumes of work throughout her life, including an extremely popular nursery rhyme, Mary had a Little Lamb.

Hale remained editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book for forty years, until it was sold in 1877.

One Response to “Before ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Glamour’ there was “Godey’s Lady’s Book””

  1. Susan Hotchkiss says:

    I used articles from Godeys when I wrote my master’s thesis on military widows. During the Civil War, the magazine carried articles on widowhood decorum and of the latest in mourning attire.

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