Sarah Josepha Hale

1788-1879

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Sarah Josepha Hale was born on October 24th, 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire to Revolutionary War Captain Gordon Buell and Martha Whittlesay Buell. Well educated in the classics, Sarah continued her private studies after her marriage in 1813 to David Hale, a lawyer and Freemason. Sarah was widowed in 1822 with five children to support, four under the age of seven. After a brief stint with a millinery shop, she published her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion, with David Hale's Freemason lodge paying for the publication. Her career was firmly established with her first novel, Northwood, released in 1827. That same year, she began her most remembered literary position - that of editress.

Hale served as editor of Ladies' Magazine from 1827-1836 and Godey's Lady's Book from 1837-1877. Hale continued to write poetry, novels, and children's literature, while serving as a major editorial force for the next fifty years. Over her lifetime, Hale produced nearly fifty volumes of work (Cane 194). An excellent place to begin basic biographical research on Sarah Hale is the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Hale is included in three volumes: DLB: The American Renaissance in New England, DLB: American Writers for Children Before 1900, and DLB: American Magazine Journalists, 1741-1850.

Godey's Lady's Book Overview:
Godey's Lady's Book appeared under seven different titles during its sixty-eight year history (1830-1898). Sarah Hale was its editor for forty of those years (1837-1877) and is credited with having a great influence over the reading, learning, and even political consciousness of women across America. Godey's was the highest circulating and most popular women's magazine of the era. Between 1839 and 1860, circulation rose from 25,000 to 150,000 (Bardes and Gossett 18). The editorials wielded considerable influence over a large readership; Hale used Godey's to campaign for Thanksgiving as a national holiday until Lincoln made it official in 1863 (Kaplan 593). The magazine was both literary and conventional (what Mott terms a "class" magazine), containing fashion plates, sentimental songs, recipes, and household hints. Hale's editorial policy was conservative. Godey's avoided serious political debates, sticking to less divisive topics. The Civil War was never mentioned (Boyer 112). However, the magazine did have a significant impact in promoting contemporary American literature and selectively promoting women's issues.


Godey's place in American culture with respect to women's issues is ambiguous. Hale's editorial policy was to provide quality material to benefit and educate the female reader (Greenberg). Current critical ambiguity regarding Godey's value stems from Hale's selective promotion as to what was beneficial to readers and the purposes of education. Hale marketed the magazine to the fathers, brothers, and husbands of female readers by encouraging the men to buy a subscription and ensuring them that their daughters, sisters, and wives would be not only grateful but also better able to please as a result (Greenberg). Thus, the magazine's espousal of education for women was to make better wives and mothers. Educated women would lead the human race upward through their reign on the domestic front, also known as the "woman's sphere" (Boyer 111). In her editorials, Hale promoted the idea that women were the champions of the spiritual, domestic realm (Boyer 112). She opposed the women's rights movement as an attempt to take women away from the empire of home, writing against it in the 1840s and 1850s (Kaplan 585). However, the magazine was not wholly opposed to women moving outside of the domestic realm. Hale promoted outside careers for women in the 1850s when industrialization made it necessary and promoted the medical missionary concept of women doctors in Africa (Boyer 113). Godey's appears to have taken a pragmatic, not a liberal, approach to women working outside their "sphere." This ambiguity regarding Hale's idea of the woman's sphere fuels critical debate.


Hale made a major contribution to American literature by choosing to publish original, American manuscripts and to copyright the magazine. "In a day when editors shamelessly lifted entire articles from rival publications, [Hale] printed only original contributions" (Boyer 111). Respected American male writers such as Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, and Hawthorne, were among the contributors. Additionally, women writers, such as Lydia H. Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Sedgwick, and Alice B. Neal were heavily promoted. During Hale's editorship, Godey's published at least three special issues that included only female writers (Bardes and Gossett 24). Hale provided a substantial literary diet for her readers as opposed to the ephemeral poetry and fiction that clogged most women's magazines at the time (Boyer 111-3). This decision to showcase American talent proved popular with readers, but a decision to copyright the magazine sent competitors howling in complaint (Greenberg). Edgar Allen Poe came to Godey's defense, citing author's rights, and eventually the rest of the magazine industry followed suit (Greenberg).


Although Hale strove to educate and promote women, ultimately, Godey's was too conservative with respect to the women's rights movement to retain its position. When women's rights gained support, Godey's began to decline. The literary level of Godey's dropped in the 1850s and lost ground to vigorous imitators like Peterson's Magazine, Atlantic, and Harper's (Boyer 114). As it lost readership, it went to an even more conventional and popular note; the fiction declined in quality and the fashion plates grew more expansive (Boyer 114). Hale resigned in 1877 and the magazine floundered until it folded in 1898.
Hale's final words to her readers in the December 1877 issue:

And now, having reached my ninetieth year, I must bid farewell to my countrywomen, with the hope that this work of half a century may be blessed to the furtherance of their happiness and usefulness in their Divinely-appointed sphere. New avenues for higher culture and for good works are opening before them, which fifty years ago were unknown. That they may improve these opportunities, and be faithful to their higher vocation, is my heartfelt prayer.


Images from Godey's Lady's Book copyright Hope Greenberg,
University of Vermont. Used by permission.

Biographical information written for Domestic Goddesses by Lisa Niles,
University of Central Oklahoma

Last update: May 2003