Monday, January 26, 2015

Southern History Department's Book of the Month: The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale

The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale
Ruth E. Finley

What do all of the following have in common?

Thanksgiving as a national holiday
Vassar College
Public playgrounds
The historical preservation of Mount Vernon
“Mary Had A Little Lamb”
Women’s magazines

The answer: Sarah Josepha Hale.

She is perhaps best known for her tenure as editor of the 19th century magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—an accomplishment in itself—but she also championed the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, helped found Vassar College, lobbied for public playgrounds for children, assisted with the movement to preserve Mount Vernon as a historic residence, and wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in addition to many other works. And even this list falls far short of summarizing the numerous claims to fame in her remarkable life.

Widowed in 1822, Hale turned first to writing in an attempt to earn her living, and after the success of her novel Northwood she was offered a position as editor of what would at first be called the American Ladies’ Magazine and later became Godey’s Lady’s Book, named after the publisher Louis Godey. It was a bold step for him to offer an editor’s position to a woman, but one that paid off handsomely; Hale served as “The Lady Editor” of Godey’s for 40 years and under her direction it became one of the most popular magazines of the century. Expensive to produce and beautiful to look at, the Ladies’ Book featured household management advice, social commentary, poetry and fiction, sheet music, clothing patterns, and fashion drawings so rich in color and detail that they remain highly collectible today. As Margaret Mitchell notes in Gone With the Wind:
“The ladies always felt a little odd when they besieged him [Rhett Butler] with questions about styles, but they did it nevertheless. They were as isolated from the world of fashion as shipwrecked mariners, for few books of fashion came through the blockade. For all they knew the ladies of France might be shaving their heads and wearing coonskin caps, so Rhett's memory for furbelows was an excellent substitute for Godey's Lady's Book.”
An illustration from Godey's Lady's Book
However, Hale did not confine herself to editorials on acceptably genteel topics considered fit for women of the period. For instance, when Elizabeth Blackwell sought admission to medical school and became the center of a storm of controversy, Hale, “who had long been hammering away on questions of health and hygiene, appreciated to the full the neglect of woman’s physical welfare that was behind Miss Blackwell’s ambition . . . When it was all over, the fostering of medical progress was a permanent item of Godey’s policy.” Hale was also an advocate of dress reform who considered tight corsets unhealthy and agitated against them during her entire term as editor—with little success, as one glance at the fashion plates in the magazine can confirm. But this was all of a piece with her constant efforts in favor of social and medical reforms, particularly as they affected the lives of women and children.

Finley’s biography gives us a portrait of Sarah Hale that is as vivid as one of the color illustrations from the Lady’s Book. As I read, I couldn’t help wishing that I could have met her and that she must have been a woman of rare courage, intelligence, charm, and determination. Even though Lady of Godey’s ran to over 300 pages, I almost felt that it was too short for her eventful life. Come take a look at our copy in the Southern History Department and see if you agree.

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

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