Marissa’s collection of fashion plates from Ackermann’s Repository, La Belle Assemblée, and Phillips’ Fashion are enough to make any history-loving lady swoon. But as my stories moved from early nineteenth century England to mid-nineteenth century America, I discovered another publication that was the go-to magazine for the fashion-conscious young lady: Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Godey’s was the brainchild of Louis A. Godey, who saw the growing need for a magazine tailored specifically to the lady of the house. He hired a female editor, Sarah J. Hale, herself an author (often remembered for writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), who also ensured the rest of the staff was predominantly female. In fact, Godey boasted at having a corps of 150 female colorers who hand-tinted the fashion plates that started every issue.
Godey’s started out by carrying articles from British women’s magazines. In fact, the magazine had its own reporter simply to chronicle royal activities across the Pond. Though Sarah Hale (the young woman on the left) was purportedly a huge fan of Queen Victoria, she wanted more of an American angle for the magazine. She was also a staunch supporter of women’s rights, believing that women must be redeemed from their inferior position and placed as an equal help-mate to man in every way.
She therefore commissioned articles, essays, stories, and poetry from American writers including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also contributed. Articles covered health and science, crafts, dancing, horseback riding, home decorating, hairstyles and fashion, and recipes. Every issue included two pages of new sheet music for the pianoforte. And women paid for the privilege of reading it. Subscriptions ran at three dollars a year when other popular magazines of the time were only two dollars.
Despite its broad coverage, Godey’s steered clear of politics. The Civil War was never mentioned in its pages. One source I consulted claimed that readership was cut by a third from its high of 150,000 subscribers during the war, implying that it was because of Godey’s non-political stance. I’m more inclined to believe that the magazine’s subscriptions fell during that time because women were counting pennies as husbands and fathers went off to war. Regardless, Godey’s popularity led it to become a major force in America. The magazine is credited with popularizing a white wedding in America (after Victoria did so in England), the use of a Christmas tree to crown that celebration, and the creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Godey and Hale died within 5 months of each other (Godey in 1878 and Hale 1879). The magazine continued on until 1898 when the next owner passed away.
But the literary legacy of Godey’s crossed the plains and helped settle the West. Beth Wallin, the younger sister of my hero Drew in Would-Be Wilderness Wife, was a particular devotee. And now you know why.
So what about you? Do you think you'd be an all-American Godey's girl or an Anglophile for Ackermann's?