Godey’s Lady’s Book – A Gilded Age Fashion Guide and More

Godey's color plate, January 1859
Godey’s color plate, January 1859

Godey’s Lady’s Book, published from 1830 until 1898, was the most widely circulated American magazine before the Civil War. It was best known for its hand-tinted fashion plates, illustrations, and original writing. Even though the price was high for the time ($3 for a yearly subscription), by 1860 it had a circulation of 150,000.

Louis A. Godey began publication of the Lady’s Book in June 1830. It was patterned on other magazines of the time from both American and British publishers. Much of the content at first was taken from other periodicals. This was a common practice of the time and didn’t seem to hurt Godey’s circulation.

By 1836, Godey had a circulation which rivaled any other publication in the country, but he decided he wanted to make a change. He wanted to publish only original work. This would distinguish the magazine from most of the other periodicals of the time.

Louis A. Godey
Louis A. Godey

“The publisher of this work, with a view of securing original contributions for its columns, will give for such articles as he may approve and publish the highest rates of remuneration offered by any periodical in this country.” ~Louis A. Godey

Although most publications at the time were a compilation of articles from other periodicals with some original material thrown in, there was one magazine that was different. The American Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette edited by Sarah Josepha Hale was made up of entirely original material.

When Reverend John Lauris Blake, a minister and headmaster of a school for girls, approached Sarah Hale about editing a new magazine devoted to women, she was a widow with five children to support. Although it meant leaving all but one of her children with relatives, she accepted the challenge and moved to Boston. Self-educated, Sarah saw the American Ladies’ magazine as an opportunity to educate and support women. She decided to include only original work by American authors. This did however, mean that Sarah had to write much of the material herself, at least at the beginning.

Sarah Josepha Hale
Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

Godey approached Hale early in 1836 about hiring her as editor of the Lady’s Book. Sarah wanted to continue her work with American Ladies’ and turned him down even though economic difficulties of the 1830s made keeping it going a challenge. Godey didn’t give up and later offered to buy her magazine and combine it with Godey’s Lady’s Book. This and the offer to let her edit from Boston convinced her and she went to work for Godey. (Hale eventually moved to Philadelphia.)

The new magazine was a combination of both Godey and Hale’s ideas. She wanted to discontinue the fashion plates; he insisted that they remain. She wanted to highlight women authors and issues; and at least three issues contained work only by women. They had a great combination and circulation soared. By 1860, the circulation was 150,000.

Even though Hale was concerned with women’s issues, she thought that women should confine themselves to the “women’s sphere” of influence. As with any individual, however, her views changed somewhat over the 40 years that she edited the Lady’s Book. In 1852, she began a section entitled “Employment for Women” and she was a great supporter of Elizabeth Blackwell in her career as a physician. Her position, as a widow needing to make her own income, would have moderated her views, but the magazine’s focus remained primarily on women in the home.

Hair styles and accessories for July of 1863
Hair styles and accessories for July of 1863

In addition to the fashion plates, a typical issue contained sheet music for the latest dances, poetry, short stories, essays, patterns not only for dresses, but for knitting, crochet and embroidery, and even occasional house plans. It informed, educated and provided entertainment.

Hale was a great admirer of Queen Victoria and considered her a model of femininity and decorum. She hired Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney to report on royal activities from London. But of course, the magazine was American and reflected American values. In 1850 a woodcut of the royal family published in the Illustrated London News, was modified and published in Godey’s. In it Queen Victoria’s crown and Prince Albert’s mustache were removed to make it look like a typical American family Christmas.

Modified woodcut for December 1850
Modified woodcut for December 1850

Of course the magazine met with criticism. With Hale’s belief in the “women’s sphere” she did not support women’s suffrage and Godey made it a policy to avoid politics. Throughout the Civil War, it was not mentioned in the magazine. The Lady’s Book was promoted as being an “oasis” in the midst of the country’s turmoil.

In 1845, Godey made a decision which received much criticism, but that changed publishing from then on. He decided to copyright each issue. For editor’s who mined other publications for their own copy, this was a terrible set back. He did have defenders though. One of the most prominent was Edgar Allen Poe, who had been one of the magazines earliest contributors with at least five submissions between 1834 and 1844. Other contributors were Catherine Beecher, Emma Willard, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Godey and Hale were a great combination and when they left the magazine it seems to have faded. Godey sold it to John Hill Seyes Haulenbeek in 1877 the year before he died at the age of 74. When Godey sold, Hale quit her job as editor. Born in 1788, she was 89 years old at the time of the sale and was more than ready to retire. She died in 1879 at the age of 90.

Not much is known about Louis A. Godey apart from the magazine, but Sarah Hale was the author of many volumes of both fiction and non-fiction. Probably the most familiar thing she authored is the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins
Godey’s Lady’s Book website, a project by Hope Greenburg at the University of Vermont

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