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Mr. Godey’s Lady
Gentle Sarah Hale, widowed at forty, created our first successful women’s magazine and popularized the Paris fashions she regarded with deep distrust
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
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 Her magazine has been replaced by a flossier produit aimed at a much more sophisticated, if not really happier, audience than the huge one that for decades looked to Mrs.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.