Godey’s Lady’s Book is America’s best-forgotten magazine. Sarah Josephena Hale edited the magazine for four decades and was the pioneering matriarch that gave Godey's its success. In times of uncertainty and turmoil, where America is becoming irreversibly tainted by demagoguery, publishers are reviving defunct magazines of the country's past. In 2017 The Washington Post revived suffragist Amelia Bloomer’s The Lily, its sell being “the first U.S. newspaper for and by women”. What they left out is that Hale became the editor of Godey’s over a decade (1837) before The Lily (1849) came into existence.
The Lily was not the first American publication to be edited by a woman, Godey's was. Hale was the first woman to serve as the editor of a magazine. Reviving The Lily is an easy bet with a history that feeds directly into the identity politics-obsession of today’s America. Bloomer, a suffragette, is an easy character to attach to the reason for The Lily’s revival - she is free of controversy.
Reviving a publication with a history free of scrutiny is a safe sell. Godey’s impact on American discourse was farther reaching than The Lily’s. Under Hale’s editorial hand, Godey’s subscriptions peaked at 150K in 1860, Bloomer’s The Lily’s subscriptions peaked at 6,000 in 1853. Hale was not a suffragette like Bloomer, she was a puritanical God-fearing New England woman who, through Godey’s gave women ideas to liberate themselves, but did not come to publicly support their plight. Hale was an imperfect heroine.
America, now, is at a turbulent crossroads - America is in need of something real. Something potentially “imperfect”, yes, but true to itself at all times. America, just like it was during the time of Godey’s under Hale (1837-1877) is struggling to find its identity.
Sarah Josephena Hale edited Godey’s for forty years, stepping down in 1877 at the age of 89, two years before her death. Hale is an unsung hero, her influence on American culture reaches farther than the pages of Godey’s prose and fashion-plate filled pages. Hale can be credited with making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and for writing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. Born in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788 Hale reluctantly left her solitary life to travel to Boston in 1837 at the request of Louis Antoine Godey, who founded Godey’s in 1830. Hale originally declined his offer in 1836, only to accept when Godey offered to purchase Ladies’ Magazine, which Hale was then the editor of, merge it with Godey’s, and appoint Hale as editor.
Hale rebelled within the confines of the society she inhabited. She was a quiet rabble-rouser, working in the shadows of an America divided. For a character, and a woman, that history has cast aside, her life was full of firsts. Aside from being the first woman to edit a magazine and she was also one of the first American female novelists. Her novel, Northwood: Life North and South (which ran under the title A New England Tale in England) was one of the first books to write about slavery in America.
Hale believed in inequality for women, and her often ignored championing of the cause is woven within the lines of Godey’s. Under Hale’s editorship at the end of each issue were pages listing job opportunities for women outside of the suffocating walls of their homes. Some may say that Hale was a feminist, albeit a practical one who favored the power of an editor’s desk over that of a soapbox.
Click on the fashion plates from Godey's to read more about them.
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All fashion plates are from Godey's throuhgout the year of 1887 courtesy of the Boston Public Library's collection.
Hale was skeptical of European fashion and only introduced fashion plates to the pages of Godey’s after years of consideration. She saw them to be too opulent for their own good and made for a woman so far removed from the American women she knew she wrote for.
The clothes weren’t American but every single printed word was. The prose came from the minds of men and women who were trying to write their way to a place of national understanding: from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Edgar Allen Poe and Harriet Beecher Stowe. During the Civil War, Hale filled the pages with unionist symbols, against Louis Godey’s wishes. Hale was a quiet nationalist and under her editorial eye Godey’s spilled out with flowery odes to America, not for who the country was, but for what it could be.
Now is the time for Godey’s revival. There doesn’t have to be a monopoly when it comes to the reviving magazines. Godey’s strengths as a publication in the mid-to-late 1800s are transferable to a different, yet equally chaotic world in 2020, nearly 200 years later. Digital platforms like The Lily have been successful in converting the original message of the publication to a new audience in a new century, but at times what is published is far removed from its namesake, and is instead mirrioring listicle-based publications such as Buzzfeed or digitally-famous lifestyle websites like Refinery 29.
Godey’s is a rare minefield of opportunity in that its original format translates well digitally, and can provide something beyond often homogenous lifestyle publications. Godey's formula was simple, and is still what makes good journalism today: good writers writing poetry, prose, and covering current events, “newsletter” type pages outlining breaking news and other observations, illustrations, and job listings for women.
Nostalgia is one of the most sought after commodities in times of universal chaos and uncertainty, and Godey's has the potential to cater to this often intangible longing. If it were to be revived Godey’s would not have to be altered much from its original form, which is rare. Despite the difference of nearly two centuries, its authenticty can be preserved. Godey’s Lady’s Book revived after nearly two centuries confined to dust-filled library shelves and curious minds: it must be done.