- Historic Sites
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
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 .