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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
There were limits, however, to the kinds of campaigns Mrs. Hale embarked upon. Some she set herself, others were laid down by Louis Godey. With all her crusading for women’s rights, she never came out for women’s suffrage. She thought politics was for men, and while she did not attack the suffragettes openly, she did nothing for them. It was also Lady’s Book policy, as established by Godey, to avoid the discussion of political and social issues—wages and hours, slum conditions, etc. He was no reformer, and even slavery and the oncoming Civil War, the most pressing issues of the time, got scant notice in the magazine. On one occasion southern readers complained—and their complaints got into southern newspapers—because the name of a woman who had written abolitionist articles appeared on the cover of the Lady’s Book as an editor. Hastily, Louis Godey wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia, South Carolina, Telegraph : I have been publishing the Lady’s Book for twenty years, and if in that time one line can be found aspersing in any way Southern institutions, I am willing to fall under your censure . … I send you a January number. You will see that Grace Greenwood’s name is withdrawn from the cover, where it was placed nominally as editor, she never having had the least control of its columns.
After half a century of public service Mrs. Hale’s pen was still busy reviving old causes or introducing new ones: parks and gardens for cities, prison reforms, public playgrounds for children, the abolition of child labor, the placement of women on school boards, the expansion of educational opportunities for the young.
When she could no longer go to the offices of the Lady’s Book , she carried on her editorial duties in her daughter’s house in a sunny upstairs room with booklined walls, a wide, chintz-covered sofa on which her grandchildren were always welcome to curl up with a book, and four cages of canaries. In the center was her large table-desk, neatly stacked with papers and manuscripts, a tray which held her gold pen and an inkpot, and a green-shaded student lamp. There was also a dish of grapes—for she considered grapes a health food, so much so that she would often pay outrageous prices to get them out of season.
“I never saw her when she was not working,” one of her grandchildren remembered, “except at meals and Sunday nights.” Another recalled: “I remember streams of people going upstairs to grandmother’s room. Everybody who came to Philadelphia must have called on her.”
Mrs. Hale must have practiced what she preached about the raising of children, for hers all distinguished themselves. Her youngest son, William, graduated second in his class at Harvard, became a lawyer in Virginia, and later gained fame as the negotiator for Texas in handling Spanish claims. Another son, Horatio, became a distinguished philologist. David, her eldest son, the youngest in a class of 150 at West Point, died at 25 of illness while serving on the Canadian border. She also financed her two daughters’ education at Emma Willard’s seminary in Troy. Sarah Josepha, the younger, became a teacher and opened The Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Hale had a generous heart. Other than publishing literary criticism by Edgar Allan Poe, and such of his stories as “The Cask of Amontillado,” which appeared for the first time in the Lady’s Book , she had befriended and helped support the indigent mother of his child-bride. When Mrs. Hale died at 91 she had given away all of her substantial earnings as an editor and author, except $5,000 that Louis Godey had awarded her on the thirtieth anniversary of her editorship of the Lady’s Book . Somehow she had found time to write some two dozen books, including the goo-page Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women from ‘The Beginning till A.D. 1850 . Yet of all Mrs. Hale wrote, only “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is really known today.
Sarah Hale and Louis Godey grew old together in their long and mutually pleasant partnership. Godey himself retired from active publishing in August of 1877, after running the Lady’s Book continuously for 47 years. The following December Mrs. Hale laid down her pen, at the age of ninety. The Lady’s Book itself, under other directors and other titles, continued until 1898, but it was never the same. For the truth was, as Mrs. Hale’s biographer, Ruth Finley, noted: The country had grown up with her. The men and women who bore the brunt of the Civil War were being born as she was starting to write. She knew and understood them, and they in turn believed in her. She never expected the impossible; her sympathy with human frailty was too deep for that. … Nevertheless, catching sight of goals decades beyond her times, she urged much of striving on her readers and in the main they accepted it. For she was almost invariably right. … All the many movements she promoted, all her forward-looking ideas and proposals are now accepted.