- 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
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.