Godey's Ladies Book

Godey's Ladies Book




Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

Godey's Lady's Book was perhaps the premier lady's publication of the nineteenth century.  It's publisher, Mr. Louis A. Godey made publishing history when he chose as the magazine's editor, the widowed Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, and in July 1830 together they set out on a publishing journey that would last sixty eight years.    

Sarah was a remarkable woman whose accomplishments outside of editing the Lady's Book were many.  She championed for women's rights and a national holiday when women were considered inferior in every aspect to their male counterparts, and were given scarcely any respect or recognition in a male dominated society.  Sarah knew no fear and tirelessly pursued her beliefs until her death.

Mrs. Sarah Hale is a case study in perseverance and she proved to the world that a woman could be a lady and yet achieve anything she set her mind to.  She may have had moments of doubt, but she never lost site of her goals, and she never gave up her efforts to see them through to fruition.    
Godey's Lady's Book might be described as the nineteenth century's equivalent of Good Housekeeping.  It contained articles on fashion along with elaborate fashion plates, some of which were in color, housekeeping hints, tips on caring for the sick, the latest receipts for foods and beverages of all sorts, and a generous supply of stories and poems.

While the fashion plates are interesting to look at and study we should remember that these were not what the average woman of the period was wearing.  They were extravagant and lavishly trimmed - expensive to make, difficult to impossible to launder, and a luxury to own.  They might be compared to the Paris fashions of top designers today - certainly not something the average woman wears.

Some Southern journalists of the period recorded in their diaries they had not seen such a magazine for the duration of the war, and those of lesser means might not have had the luxury of subscribing either prior to or following the war.

The reasons Southerners did not have the luxury of enjoying Godey's on any regular basis throughout the war varied but included difficulty with delivery, and a devastated economy.  
One of the first things the blockades did was to interrupt mail delivery in the South.  Diarists just about always recorded passages about the difficulty of getting mail delivered to loved ones caught on the other side of the blockades.  They went to great lengths to find people with passes to travel outside the blockades who were willing to smuggle their precious letters out and mail them from outside the blockades.  These were sometimes sewn into the lining of garments so they wouldn't be found if searched.

Godey's was published in Philadelphia so once the blockades went up delivery to women in the Confederacy was interrupted almost immediately.  One of the first tasks the Confederacy had to do was establish its own postal system, design its own stamps, and try and restore mail delivery, but this still did not eliminate the problem of mails coming into the Confederacy from other parts of the country.  

There were over a million square miles of territory in the Mississippi Valley between l830 and l850 that were so sparsely settled, and so remote that there was no regular mail delivery even prior to the war.  Many families could not communicate with loved ones in other areas because of this.  Travel to these areas included a combination of rail, water way, stage, and even horseback and walking.  Hard working pioneer women in such remote areas would have had no use for the elaborate fashions found in Godey's.

Because of the difficulty getting mail and packages through the blockades it is feasible to think that most Southern women did not see such magazines during the war and that their clothing during the war was what they'd last seen discussed - styles from the late l850's, and l860.  A small percentage might have had access to a rare issue carefully brought through the lines but this would have been rare, and such issues would have been passed around and shared with family and friends until they were ready to fall apart.  

We also have to take into consideration the reduced circumstances in the South during the war years with most of the Confederacy dressing in homespun from the skin out.  Homespun and linsey woolsey would not have produced the elaborate fashions featured in Godey's.  Silks were so rare that precious wedding dresses were cut up to make flags for the Confederate troops and clothing being taken or destroyed by the Union troops is recorded in the majority of the Southern diaries.  The loss of such pre-war garments would have made even remaking existing dresses difficult.  
Foods found in the covers of Godey's were fairly typical of what was being consumed in the mid-nineteenth century, however,  the foods found in the magazine would not be typical of what the average Southern civilian ate during the War Between the States.

Godey's was published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and by 1861 claimed some l50,000 readers.  This number, however, declined by some 50,000 subscribers by 1873.  Subscriptions through l865 cost three dollars per year, and this figure dropped to two dollars per year following the war when other magazines came on the scene to compete with Godey's for subscribers.

Before the days of color printing the colored fashion plates in Godey's were tinted with water colors by hand by ladies hired for the job.  The fashion plates varied from issue to issue due to different techniques used by the l50 ladies whose job it was to color them and the availability of paints.  When one color ran out they simply used another.  A common complaint of readers was that the color plate found in an issue might not match the print in their friend's issue.

Stories and poems in Godey's were contributed by various authors - some of whom were so mundane as to be lost to history, while others achieved greatness.  Edgar Allen Poe, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorn were among those who contributed works to the magazine.

Godey's did not get caught up in the sensationalism of war, in fact, if one depended solely on the magazine to study history it is conceivable one might never know there was a war.  Even the death of President Lincoln received only a simple mention.

Godeys instead published recepits for foods, patterns for clothing ranging from underpinnings and nightgowns to dresses and outer wear, crafts, instructions for crochet and knitted accessories, and gardening.  There were often features on such things as hair jewelry, day caps, bonnets, fichus, wraps of all kinds, sacques and walking dresses, embroidery, children's clothing, games, and timely information on etiquette and mourning.  Whatever your interest, editress, Mrs. Hale, offered something for you.

Using instructions found within the covers of Godey's an enterprising young lady could fashion a pin cushion, knit a sontag or shawl, stitch up work stays, knit or crochet a hood or slippers, make a needle case or craft a sewing kit, learn where to send hair to be made into jewelry of all kinds, perhaps even use directions found within the magazine to make a simple piece of jewelry herself.  She might follow directions to tat a dainty piece of lace, craft a work bag, or knit a stocking or sock.

The person responsible for the content of Godey's Lady's Book was Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale - a progressive thinking woman who felt women were equal to men in society and profession.  Her views as printed in the Editor's Table made this perfectly clear to her readers.    
Mrs. Hale was widowed in 1822 at the age of 34.  With four children to support she initially took in sewing and established herself in a successful millinery business.  She began to write poetry partly as self-expression, and partly to help supplement this income.  It was soon apparent to all that Sarah possessed an incredible talent for writing poetry and at the age of 39 she saw her first novel published.

While we associate her with being Editress of the world-famous Godey's Lady's Book this was not her first attempt at being editor.  She had served as editor for The Ladies Magazine and established herself as a talent to be reckoned with when Louis Godey approached her regarding the possibility of her serving as editor of his Philadelphia based Lady's Book.  Through hard work and devotion to the publication Sarah saw subscriptions rise to approximately l50,000 making it the most successful publication of its time.

Through it all Sarah continued to champion for a national holiday of Thanksgiving from l827 until her death.  In her first novel, Northwood, she voiced her fervent desire that the American people have a nationally recognized holiday in which they could gather family and friends and give thanks for the blessings of the preceding year.  It is difficult to imagine given the Victorian code of morals and widespread acceptance of religion that establishing such a holiday was so many years in the making.

If you thought the Pilgrims established the custom of giving thanks you are mistaken.  That first thanksgiving dinner was not the first of many and was also not the beginning of a warm relationship between the Pilgrims and the Natives. In 1621 conditions in Plymouth were harsh and not all survived.  They faced many obstacles in settling a new land and establishing a new home so when they gave thanks it was in essence for their very survival and no doubt heart-felt by all.  They had faced religious persecution in their homelands and were willing to face the dangers of an unsettled world to gain the freedom of religion.  The new world exacted a toll for her freedoms and many of those first settlers were interred within her soil before the first season passed.  
Fully half of those who made that first voyage had departed this life before the end of the first year, and those who survived would remember the hardships to their dying day.  They had finally seen their first crops harvested and in celebration of life they planned a feast - a one of a kind celebration to thank God for delivering them through their trials.

Ironically the Pilgrims and the Indians they invited to share their feast did not live happily ever after.  In fact the need to free this country of its native inhabitants was present shortly after that first Thanksgiving and culminated in the Pilgrims using existing tribal rivalries to their advantage, and l7 years after Squanto welcomed the Pilgrims they burned an Indian village while its inhabitants slept.  Land fever had reared its ugly head.

Despite this turn of events such feasts of thanks were occasionally organized throughout the years, but never on any steady basis or on any certain date.  Days for recognizing the blessings received were approved by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, and in l789 the Father of our country, George Washington, declared a day of thanks to celebrate the birth of a new nation.  This was repeated in l795.  The next great event in our history following the American Revolution was the War of l8l2 and to celebrate its end President James Madison again proclaimed a day of thanks in l8l5.  

By l863 America had seen other days of thanks but still nothing on a regular basis.  This is where a remarkable woman was instrumental in establishing the holiday we know as Thanksgiving.  Perhaps in the midst of America's bloodiest conflict seems a strange time to give thanks, but her people on both sides of the Mason Dixon were paying a heavy price for freedom and with death all around them they turned to God in their hour of need.  Giving thanks for what they did have brought some solace for the losses all around them, and gave them hope when all seemed hopeless.

Mrs. Sarah J. Hale was known by all as the Editress of Godey's Lady's Book, and possibly her fame as such worked in her favor when she approached government officials about the possibility of establishing an annual holiday to count our blessings and reflect on the events of the preceding year.  She published editorials in which she promoted the concept of such a holiday and also began the tradition of publishing traditional receipts for foods which would become synonymous with the holiday.  

By the time President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a nationally recognized holiday in l863 Sarah had lobbied since l827 to see this accomplished, and had petitioned several governors and prior Presidents.  The battle was not won in l863, however, as it would be 78 years (l94l) before Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  

Sarah did not live to see her efforts come to fruition having died in l879 at the age of 9l.  She had lived a long and productive life by then, having continued to write through the age of 89.  Sarah having been born in l788 saw many changes - both successes and failures - in this country during her life time.  She, herself, helped pave the way for women to hold lucrative productive careers.  Sarah was a pioneer who opened doors for other women to enter the field of writing and publishing - at that time very much a  male dominated field.  She was educated by her mother while her brother, Horatio, was a student at Dartmouth - in and of itself proof that women commanded little respect from their male counterparts.  Sarah became a teacher and eagerly learned perhaps more than her students until she met and married David Hale.  Hale was an attorney and a supporter of the equal education of men and women movement.  Hale died of pneumonia in l822, having seen little, if any, recognition of his own writings.  Sarah initially wrote much of the American Ladies Magazine herself yet found time to champion several causes.  When Louis Godey combined two magazines and retained Sarah as Editor she used her position to champion for women's rights. Sarah ceased to serve as Editor of Godey's when it was sold to Frank Munsey in l877 - two years before her death.

Sarah Josepha Hale should serve as a role model for women who may become disillusioned with the politics involved in living history, or discrimination in their 2lst century personal lives.  Sarah died without seeing her dream of Thanksgiving a reality, yet every November we sit with our family and friends and thank God for the blessings of life.  Sarah's face must surely beam with a Heavenly countenance when she sees this scene played out over and over again at dinner tables from coast to coast.

Had she given up when the battle seemed lost we would all be denied that special day when we come together and lift our hearts in prayerful thanks.  When the world seems to have stopped in its tracks, and humanity to have lost the ability to care for one another I think of Sarah and realize our lives are but a short period of time in the scheme of things, and just because we don't see our dreams become reality overnight, doesn't mean we haven't left our mark on the world.  Perhaps our dreams will come true, as Sarah's did, even after we've departed this life.

Sarah and women like her made it possible for women today to own property, to have a voice in the rearing of their children, to vote for political leaders, and to pursue meaningful careers.  These are rights that did not come without a great deal of sacrifice, but then nothing worth fighting for ever came without a price.    

Sarah through the pages of Godey's Lady's Book helped to make the world a better place.  She made a difference in the lives of thousands of women yet she died never fully realizing the impact she had had upon the world.  Humility is a virtue as is patience, kindness, honesty, and generosity.  Sarah possessed these qualities and should inspire us all to reach for our dreams while all the while exhibiting a nobility of character that would do the Victorians proud.

Copyright March 2001 - Reprint with permission only.
Vickie R. Rumble


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