Godey's Lady's Book (American History Through Literature)
When the Philadelphia entrepreneur Louis Antoine Godey (1804878) launched the Lady's Book in July 1830, nothing in its initial numbers suggested how important it would become to nineteenth-century American literature. It was neither the first American women's magazinehat honor belongs to the Lady's Magazine, founded in 1792or was it particularly innovative. Like the other women's magazines of its day, Godey's Lady's Book was a miscellany of stories and poems, musical compositions, and fashions. But while other such magazines, like the Ladies' Literary Portfolio and the Intellectual Regale or Ladies' Tea-Tray, quickly disappeared, Louis Godey's publication lasted until nearly the end of the century and at its peak in the 1850s it enjoyed a readership of more than 150,000, making it the most popular magazine before the Civil War. Influential in both literary and cultural matters, the Lady's Book played a key role in nineteenth-century fashion, launched the careers of many of the century's most popular writers, and served as a vehicle for countless middle-class trends, from hair-styles to house designs. Generally published under the title Godey's Lady's Book title first used in 1840he magazine was often identified simply as the Lady's Book and even more audaciously as "the Book," suggesting not only its size (anywhere from fifty to more than one hundred pages each month) but also its central place in popular nineteenth-century American culture.
A MARRIAGE OF POPULARITY AND RESPECTABILITY: LOUIS GODEY AND SARAH J. HALE
Louis Godey's most important decision as publisher was arguably his hiring of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788879) as editor in 1837. Author of the 1827
Although Hale's and Godey's approaches to attracting women readers differed significantly, Godey hired Hale as the editor of the Lady's Book beginning in January 1837, when the two magazines officially merged. Hale's motives in accepting Godey's offer are not certain, but the Ladies' Magazine apparently faced serious financial difficulties, and Godey agreed to let Hale edit the Philadelphia magazine from Boston until 1841, when her youngest of five children graduated from college. The ultimate success of Godey's Lady's Book is largely explained by the complementary talents of Godey and Hale. After the merger Godey's fashion plates became even more prominent, but Hale's influence was apparent as well in the growing number of original stories and poetry, in the book reviews, and in the educational and literary essays. Together they created a truly miscellaneous magazine with features on all sorts of topics, from sewing and cooking to history and science and to fashion and music. Although the magazine underwent numerous changes during its long run (before eventually folding in 1898), the editor-publisher duo sustained their vision of the magazine, one based on a marriage of popularity and respectability, throughout most of its existence. Hale and Godey retired together in December 1877, when she was eighty-nine and he was seventy-three.
Engravings and fashion plates played a pivotal part in the overwhelming success of the Lady's Book. Described as the magazine's "embellishments," these illustrations were a source of considerable pride, and Louis Godey frequently boasted to readers of their expense, particularly of the relatively new technology of engraving on steel, which allowed much finer detail than the older method of engraving on wood. Landscapes and religious scenes were especially common, as were illustrations created specifically for the magazine's poetry and fiction. John Sartain, William E. Tucker, Joseph Ives Pease, and Archibald L. Dick were some of the engravers.
Although Hale had initially opposed an emphasis on fashion while she was editor of the Ladies' Magazine, steel engravings of the latest fashions proved to be a defining feature of the Lady's Book. Initially Godey published one fashion plate every few months, but he soon offered at least one per issue and often more, and the 1860s saw the introduction of "extension plates," which were wide enough to necessitate folding. Still sought after by collectors, the fashion plates were hand-colored, and at one point Godey employed more than 150 women to complete the painting each month. Generally depicting small groups of women in often intimate and carefully decorated settings, the fashion plates reinforced the middle-class perspective of the magazine.
GENDER, POLITICS, AND SEPARATE SPHERES
If Louis Godey shaped the Lady's Book primarily through his financial commitment to "embellishments," then Hale's greatest influence on the magazine was in terms of its gender politics and literary offerings. In large part because Hale objected to suffrage for women, the Lady's Book has been widely described as antifeminist, and the magazine has been criticized for supposedly ignoring political events. Other scholars have offered a more nuanced view of the magazine's representation of both gender and politics, one that recognizes both its deep conservatism and its commitment to certain kinds of social reform.
At the center of Hale'snd thus the magazine'sdeology of gender was a belief that men and women are essentially different. Though she never endorsed the idea that women were incapable of rational thoughtndeed women's education was one of Hale's favorite causeshe repeatedly asserted that women were essentially more moral and more compassionate than men. As she explained in her first essay in the Lady's Book, the "strength of man's character is in his physical propensities," while "the strength of woman lies in her moral sentiments" (January 1837, pp. 1).
While this popular understanding of sexual difference was used to severely restrict women's roles in the nineteenth century, it was flexible enough to serve other agendas as well. Indeed, in Hale's version popularized in the Lady's Book, this notion of an absolute sexual difference proved to be empowering both for Hale and her middle-class white readers. Unlike some of her contemporaries who used this same understanding of sexual difference to argue that women's responsibilities were entirely familial and domestic, Hale argued that because women were more moral than men, women should have increased influence in the world. Thus Hale could argue, for example, as she did repeatedly, that women, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, should be medical doctors. As she explained in one essay, "The study of medicine belongs to woman's department of knowledge; its practice is in harmony with the duties of mother and nurse, which she must fulfill. It is not going out of her sphere to prescribe for the sick; she must do this by the fireside, the bedside, in the 'inner chamber,' where her true place is. It is man who is there out of his sphere" (March 1852, p. 187). In its advocacy of increased opportunities for women based on a conservative notion of women's supposedly natural domestic tendencies, this statement is typical of much of the Lady's Book. The notion of women's essential difference from men proved especially appealing to editors and publishers in the periodical industry, in large part because it supported the existence of a separate women's culture, an idea on which women's magazines are largely based.
But while it empowered middle-class white womenuthors, editors, and readers alikehis notion of a separate women's culture proved limiting in other ways. Most notably, the magazine maintained a fairly conflicted stance toward politics. The magazine's official policy was that "polemical, political" topics were forbidden, and the Lady's Book has been repeatedly scorned for supposedly ignoring the Civil War. In fact, however, as several other scholars have suggested, the magazine did address political subjects, although generally with a domestic perspective. In the years preceding the Civil War, for instance, Hale occasionally suggested that the solution to the nation's sectional debates could be found domesticallyy sharing a national Thanksgiving meal or by sending personal letters to family members in distant regions of the country. Other political subjects that were already explicitly linked to women, private homes, and familiesuch as women's educationere addressed more frequently and more directly.
Literaturespecially fiction (both short stories and serialized novels), poetry, and occasionally dramaas a key feature of the magazine. One sign of the magazine's literary importance is the number of nineteenth-century authors who published in the Lady's Book. Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Sigourney, William Gilmore Simms, Nathaniel P. Willis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Caroline Kirkland, and T. S. Arthur all published in the Lady's Book, at least occasionally.
Scholars continue to debate the merits of the magazine's fiction and poetry. Some have dismissed the magazine's contents as little more than sentimental trash, with selections like Poe's "The Literati of New York City" and "The Cask of Amontillado" seen as anomalies. In this view, the magazine's fiction, for example, is seen as relying on intrusive and moralistic narrators, stock characters (especially fainting women and saintly, dying children), and formulaic plots. More severely criticized even than the magazine's fiction, the poetry in the Lady's Book has been denounced as nothing more than the morbidly sentimental "light" verse of the poetess.
Other scholars, particularly feminists interested in new interpretations of sentimental and domestic literature, have offered alternative views. The magazine's fiction has been compared to the popular novels of the day, particularly those which, as Nina Baym has described, feature stories of heroines who must make their way in the world, depending primarily on their own efforts and virtues. Similarly Laura McCall's analysis has found that the women characters in the Lady's Book tend to be intelligent, independent, and physically strong. The magazine's poetry has also been reinterpreted, with some scholars suggesting that Hale urged women poets to avoid the "light" verse associated with the poetess and instead promoted an idea of the woman poet as having considerable public authority, based on her supposedly innate moral sense.
Though debates about the merits of the magazine's literature continue, scholars are increasingly recognizing the extent to which the Lady's Book influenced literary culture, particularly in regard to its support of American authors. Hale was well connected with writers. She published and reviewed their work, and she consistently earned their respect and friendship. Moreover, as she had done previously with the Ladies' Magazine, Hale insisted on original submissions. She also avoided anonymous submissions, preferring instead to identify her contributors, and supported the idea that authors should be paid for their work. In 1845 the magazine strengthened its support of professionalization of authorship by becoming the first American magazine to copyright its contents. Also key was the magazine's payment rates, frequently described as some of the most liberal in the periodical industry. These conditions as well as the magazine's strong readership proved appealing for many of the century's authors. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, published more in the Lady's Book before Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) than in any other periodical. Like many other authors of the time, the Lady's Book offered Stowe not only reasonable payment for her work but also access to a large audience.
Overall, then, the reputation of the Lady's Book within American literary history continues to evolve. While never part of elite literary culture, the magazine was seen in its own day as a respected literary magazine for women. Throughout much of the twentieth century the Lady's Book was largely dismissed as a quaint Victorian artifact, but that reputation too has changed, and Godey's Lady's Book is increasingly recognized as an influential part of antebellum literary culture.
See also Book and Periodical Illustration; Domestic Fiction; Editors; Education; Fashion; Female Authorship; Periodicals; Publishers; Reform; Sentimentalism; Suffrage
Godey's Lady's Book. 1830898.
Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820870. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Bulsterbaum, Allison. "Godey's Lady's Book." In American Literary Magazines: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Edward E. Chielens, pp. 14450. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Entrikin, Isabelle Webb. Sarah Josepha Hale and "Godey's Lady's Book." Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Press, 1946.
Lehuu, Isabelle. "Sentimental Figures: Reading Godey's Lady's Book in Antebellum America." In The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Shirley Samuels, pp. 731. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
McCall, Laura. "'The Reign of Brute Force Is Now Over': A Content Analysis of Godey's Lady's Book, 1830860." Journal of the Early Republic 9 (1989): 21736.
Mott, Frank Luther. "Godey's Lady's Book." In his A History of American Magazines, 1741850, pp. 58094. New York: D. Appleton, 1930.
Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Tonkovich, Nicole. "Rhetorical Power in the Victorian Parlor: Godey's Lady's Book and the Gendering of Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric." In Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric, edited by Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran, pp. 15883. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.