The Story Behind Godey’s Lady Book

I am doing a directed reading this semester with a student who is interested in early American material culture.  Today we discussed Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America.  I read this book in graduate school, but upon reading it again I remembered just how good this book is and just how valuable it was to me as I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

On several occasions throughout the book, Bushman discusses Godey’s Lady Book, a fashion and conduct guide for women that was best selling periodical in Victorian America.

Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, intern Susan Lydon provides some historical context for this very valuable primary source.

Here is a taste:

Leaf through the pages of Glamour or Vogue in mid-March and the inventory will reveal that American fashion designers’ thoughts have turned to the spring line.  Here at the American Antiquarian Society, when our thoughts turn to fashion, they turn to hoopskirts and side curls and to the famed fashion plates of Godey’s Lady’s Book.  As March is women’s history month, we thought it the perfect time to examine this “Lady’s Book.”

As you might know, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the number one selling periodical in Victorian America.  Mr. Godey himself calculated the number of readers at a million by the eve of the Civil War.  You might also know that the colored fashion plates at the beginning of the magazine were its most famed component.  But did you know that the colored plates were hand painted?  That the ‘lady editor’ of the magazine was vehemently opposed to including fashion plates in a woman’s periodical?  That the magazine played an integral role in establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday?  That hoopskirts were gigantic during the Civil War?  All of this information and more can be found in original issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book in the collections at the American Antiquarian Society along with secondary source material on the creation of the magazine.  Godey’s Lady’s Book contains not only a wealth of information about Victorian fashion but also about the culture of bygone America. 

The ‘lady editor’ of Godey’s Lady’s Book was Sarah Josepha Hale, a literary-minded social reformer whose civic-minded zeal rivaled that of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  She edited the magazine along with its owner, Louis A. Godey, from 1837 to 1877.  Many are familiar with Hale solely for her authorship of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but Sarah Hale’s accomplishments reached far beyond a poem for children.  Formal education for women at the time was scant.  Hale derived much of her education from a brother who attended Dartmouth College and tutored Sarah at home.  After losing her husband at a young age, Hale went on to support her family through literary means, successfully submitting novels and shorter pieces to publishers.  She edited the Boston-based Ladies’ Magazine, the first women’s magazine in America.  In the magazine, she included original literary pieces by American authors, an unusual practice at a time when American magazines borrowed largely from those of Europe.  As editor, she promoted women’s education and worthy social causes.  She spearheaded the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and founded the Seaman’s Aid Society of Boston to give monetary relief to the families of poorly paid sailors.

Read the rest here.

3 thoughts on “The Story Behind Godey’s Lady Book

  1. Thanks for the warning! I have had The Age of Comfort on my shelf for a while. I'd better set aside some serious historical reading time!


  2. Janet: You will love it, but be prepared. It is long! My student Katie (who I believe you may have judged with at history day last year) really liked it.


  3. I can't believe I've never read The Refinement of America. It's right up my alley. I see that Messiah doesn't own it, so maybe that's how I missed it the first time, but still! I've got a request on it coming through now though. Thanks for sharing.


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