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
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.