Godey’s Lady’s Book
A few weeks ago, while doing research on when Thanksgiving was made a national holiday, I was surprised to find out the woman who spearheaded the campaign for a national day of celebration, Sarah Josepha Hale, was also the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. If that weren’t enough, she is also the author of the famous poem, Mary Had A Little Lamb. Prior to the Civil War, Godey’s was a wildly successful women’s magazine in the United States, with a circulation in excess of 150,000 and a readership of close to a million. It was printed in Philadelphia, but its reach was from coast to coast. Not only was the magazine full of hand-tinted fashion plates, for which it is still widely known, but it also included etiquette advice, house plans, short stories, poetry, book reviews, and other material geared toward informing women how to be “ladies.” It was a costly publication. Each issue cost $105,000 to produce, of which $8,000 was the cost of hand-tinting the fashion plates. Every issue contained detailed instructions and a pattern, so the garment could be replicated at home. Subscribers paid $3.00 a year for a subscription. By comparison, the Saturday Evening Post cost only $2.00.
A bit of background on the remarkably talented Sarah Josepha Hale is helpful to understand how Godey’s became the benchmark magazine against which all other ladies’ magazines were judged. Born in 1788, she was a well-educated woman, who married David Hale, a lawyer and Freemason. She became a widow in 1822 with five children to raise. She owned a millinery shop and published a book of poems, followed by her first novel. Northwood, published in 1827, the same year she became editor of Godey’s. She remained editor until 1877 and became the unofficial arbiter of American taste, taking full advantage of her position.
According to Sarah Josepha Hale, Queen Victoria of England was the epitome of feminity and good taste, so it was not surprising that the British influenced much of the day’s taste in clothing. Mrs. Lydia Sigourney was hired by Godey’s to report on the royal activities in London. When Victoria decided to wear a white gown for her marriage ceremony to Albert, a new fashion was born, which is still in evidence today. Godey’s also published a variation of a woodcut of the British Royal family around their Christmas tree. Victoria’s tiara was removed, as was Albert’s mustache, in an attempt to Americanize the picture. The image appeared in 1860 and by 1870, the tradition of decorated Christmas trees in America had become commonplace.
Because of the rift in the country caused by the Civil War, Godey’s was especially sensitive in its subject matter, to not offend either side of the argument. It shied away from politics, not taking an official position on the war, and instead focused on the right of women to achieve a proper education and to gain equal rights with men. There were many imitators to Godey’s, such as Peterson’s Magazine, Atlantic and Harper’s. Over time, the fashion plates grew more expansive and the editorial content dwindled, until it finally folded in 1898.
My own love affair with Godey’s fashion plates began thirty or so years ago. My mother was visiting one of my sisters in Maine and helped her clean up under her porch one day. She unearthed a fashion plate, still in its original frame, from November 1858. My sister had no interest in it, so my mother gave it to me. I went on from there to collect original Godey’s as well as French fashion plates, for several years, until they became too expensive for me to continue.
The first plate in my collection is still my favorite, though, and I often think about how it ended up under a porch in a tiny house on a rugged island off the coast of Portland, ME. I’ve made up stories about how the woman who was the original owner wanted to replicate one of the dresses and hung onto the plate for years, knowing the actuality of getting such a gown was beyond the realm of her life and times. But the harsh reality of eking out an existence on this tiny island didn’t deter her from dreaming of having a fine gown to wear to a holiday dance with her lobsterman husband. I think she would have liked the blue one.
That’s part of the charm of Godey’s and the fashion plates. The Civil War was a trying time to live in America and without a dream for a better future, many women would have fallen into melancholy. In its own way, Godey’s helped many make it through the worst war Americans had ever endured.
The Tempestuous Debutante, book 4 in the Cotillion Ball Series, features Jasmine Fitzpatrick, a Godey’s devotee who ends up opening her own ressmaking shop based on the fashions she finds in Godey’s. This fashionable tale makes numerous references to Godey’s, as Jasmine and her mother, Charlotte, devour each issue when it gets delivered to the home.