It might seem to some unlikely that the creator of that charming ditty “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would have had much to say concerning women’s rights and issues….or that as we approach the millennium, anyone would be collecting anything associated with her. But if Sarah Josepha Hale were alive today, it’s indisputable she would have had much to say, and would have done so eloquently with the written word. For in her own time, this former New Hampshirite did exactly that, using her position as editor of the country’s most successful women’s magazine for over forty years to further her own causes and change the face of the nation.
Her early life growing up on a farm in Newport, in New Hampshire’s “other Lakes region” however, gave little inkling of the future to come.
Born in 1788, home-educated Sarah Buell read the classics and picked the brain of her older, Dartmouth-educated brother. Indeed, initially Sarah seemed destined to spend life as a spinsterish schoolmarm. She founded a private school at age eighteen, where – against the prevailing professional hierarchy of male teachers – she also taught. At age 25, however, Sarah’s love match was struck by intellectual lawyer David Hale, who had moved to Newport two years earlier.
From all accounts, their marriage was a happy one and resulted in five children. No couch potato, Sarah continued to study evenings with her husband, who encouraged her to put her ideas down in writing. This she did, developing a style and constraint all her own as she wrote short stories and pieces for local newspapers and tended to her growing brood.
Then, quite suddenly, in 1822, the idyllic New Hampshire existence ended. Thirty-four-year old Sarah found herself a widow. Just days away from giving birth to her last child, not only was Sarah on her own, but she was almost penniless when her husband quite literally “dropped dead.” The “Masons” helped for a while as Sarah tried several unsuccessful financial endeavors, including millinery (making hats and bonnets), but it was her first book, Northwood, A Tale Of New England, which launched her on her editorial career.
The Reverend John Blake of Boston, MA, upon reading her novel, offered her the editorship of the woman’s magazine he hoped to found.
In 1828, at the age of forty, Sarah uprooted her family to Boston, where within a few short years she was making waves from the pages of Ladies Magazine. Her primary goal, one which she espoused for the remainder of her life, was the education of women. She supported the founding of Emma Willard’s seminary in Troy, New York, sending her own two daughters there. She also helped in the founding of Vassar College, urged that the field of education and teaching be opened up to women, and almost single-handedly created the Female Medical School of Philadelphia, and the Ladies Medical Missionary Society as her way of opposing the exclusively male-dominated medical field.
When Louis Godey of Philadelphia bought the financially ailing Ladies Magazine in 1837 (and combined it with his own The Lady’s Book, with 50-year-old Sarah Hale at the helm), he had no way of predicting what success their partnership might bring.
Yet by the time they both retired, some forty years later, Godey’s Lady’s Book had over 150,000 subscribers. Despite numerous inevitable copycat competitors, such as Peterson’s Magazine, Godey’s was the word, the “only word” in women’s fashions, education, etiquette, physical education, child-rearing and homemaking, cooking, and that all important issue, “women’s rights”.
Sarah espoused the opening of the workplace to women in such male-dominated fields as nursing, clerking, and eateries. Her logical arguments in that day and age swayed the masses. If women were strong enough to wash floors, weren’t they good enough to wait on tables? When you look at the number of jobs that women in our century quite often dominate, I guess they have Sarah to thank…although many might argue that what she wrought was more curse that courtesy.
Yet strangely, Sarah never supported women’s suffrage. Apparently believing politics should be left to men, she had no interest in obtaining the vote herself. Throughout her long life, Sarah’s vision wasn’t limited to strictly female concerns either. She founded the Seaman’s Aid Society, which enabled many sweatshop workers to form their own “workbasket”, an early forerunner of today’s food cooperatives (co-ops). She was almost single- handedly responsible for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, which after years of work was 140 feet short of its goal for want of funds. In the span of five years, Sarah raised more than $30,000, using the pages of her own magazine to rally society women as sponsors and enlisting the help of the members of the Seaman’s Aid Society for fundraisers.
In addition, she actively supported the purchase and preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. In the 1859 Godey’s issue pictured in this article, “Mount Vernon Record” is offered for purchase to subscribers for the price of $1. Funds raised in this manner were “devoted to the purchase of the Home and Grave of Washington.”
But perhaps as we enter into this year’s holiday season, and sit down to turkey on Thanksgiving Day, we should perhaps “give thanks” to Sarah for so patiently and persistently urging across decades that the holiday of Thanksgiving be observed by national proclamation…Starting in 1827 as the editor of Boston’s Ladies’ Magazine and then from the pages of Godey’s, Sarah crusaded for a national Thanksgiving Day.
While celebrating Thanksgiving had grown into a New England tradition by the late 1700s, and had been spread westward by New Englanders, it was not recognized in much of the south and indeed, the whole concept was resisted by many state governors who held staunchly that separation of church and state must be upheld – because Thanksgiving was viewed as primarily a religious event, (giving thanks to God), a federal proclamation was vigorously opposed by some.
However, Sarah prevailed after some thirty-five years and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed August 6th as a national Thanksgiving Day.
Yes, that’s not a typo…August!!! Thank goodness Sarah was a persistent and powerful woman during the Civil War or we might not have this national holiday in November.
On Oct. 3rd, 1864 the second Lincoln Thanksgiving Day proclamation was issued, establishing “the last Thursday of November” as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Yet, for all her many accomplishments, most of them long forgotten, it is the hand-colored fashion plates which adorned the pages of her magazine that people recognize and collect today. Interestingly, these fashion plates were not Sarah’s idea, but instead a concession to Louis Godey, who reportedly spent money on them lavishly. If it had been up to Sarah, such “fashion news” would have been excluded as worthless gossip. But Godey was apparently adamant from the beginning of their partnership about including fashion plates in the magazine. Of course, the magazines which are eagerly sought by collectors today, are not bought for articles like “How I Came To Be Married The Second Time” or “Lessons in Broad Line Drawing”. While social historians collect and refer to them often as a statement on morals and social conditions of that time, most collect them for those hand-colored fashion plates that Sarah spurned. Fortunately for them both, Godey prevailed. Magazine sales soared, and the rest, as they say, is history…
In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November; the idea at the time was to help the national economy by giving businesses one extra week of Christmas sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas (remember the days when CVS didn’t have their Christmas decorations up the day after Halloween?!?)
For three years there was such a hue and cry over “early” Thanksgiving, that the U.S. Congress passed a Joint Resolution in Dec. 1941 changing the date back to the last Thursday.
While the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was held in 1924, actual Thanksgiving Day “processions” date back to the 1860s and Sarah Josepha Hale; BUT the very first Thanksgiving procession may have been held by Captain Miles Standish and the Pilgrims in Plymouth, MA, in October of 1691 (Yes, it would appear from records of the time that the first Thanksgiving was held in mid-October, and by some accounts, went on for three days!). Supposedly, Miles Standish paraded what few of his men had survived the previous winter before the Wampanoag Indians, who out- numbered the Pilgrims at this event. Accompanied by one drummer and one trumpet, this “parade” was followed by games of competition between the Pilgrims and the Indians. By the way, there is no actual record that “turkey” was served at this celebration.
In today’s “politically correct” society we still use the terms “white” meat or “dark” and I wondered why. For the answer, I turned to Listening To America, by Stuart Berg Flexner (1982, Simon & Schuster, NY). According to Flexner, “When eating turkey or other fowl, early Americans were asked if they wanted a leg, thigh, or slice of breast. In the late 1850s, however, these words seemed immodest to Victorian sensibilities and the terms white meat and dark meat became common.”
Hmm. I wonder if Sarah had something to do with this…
As for the word for that “stuff” we fill the bird with…Well, once again, Victorian sensibilities prevailed. In early American cookbooks, you’ll find recipes for forcemeat. Until the 1880s, Americans were calling it stuffing; then dressing seemed more genteel. I wonder what they’ll call it in the next century?