There are very few people in the United States who didn’t grow up reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb or celebrating Thanksgiving, but did you know that we can thank a feisty little woman named Sarah Josepha Hale for them? Impossible circumstances are the forge in which remarkable people are made, and Sarah Hale was indeed a remarkable person. Born on a New Hampshire farm in
1788, her early education was limited to that which could be provided by her mother. While Sarah’s brother, Horatio, attended Dartmouth College, she scrounged a college level education by studying the books he shared with her at home. At a time when there were still very few women teachers, Sarah was able to secure a position in a school where she taught for several years before marrying David Hale, a young lawyer who was captivated by her intelligence. Throughout their marriage, David encouraged her to continue her education and worked with her her every night on reading and writing. Sadly, David Hale died unexpectedly in 1822, leaving Sarah with five children to support. As a single mother in the early 1800s, her future looked bleak, but Sarah met the challenge head on.
As occupations for women were exceedingly limited at that time, Sarah faced a bleak future. David’s masonic colleagues stepped in and helped Sarah. and her sister-in-law, Hannah, set up a millinery business. Her passion was for writing, however, and in 1823, her husband’s masonic colleagues also helped her publish a book of poems called The Genius of Oblivion. The book’s modest success allowed Sarah to leave the millinery business long enough to write Northwood, one of the first American novels that dealt directly with the question of slavery. Northwood’s success established her literary reputation and in 1827 was given the unprecedented opportunity to become the editor of a new publication, American Ladies’ Magazine.
In 1836, Louis Godey purchased the American Ladies’ Magazine and merged it with his own Godey’s Lady’s Book. Louis brought Sarah on as co-editor of the magazine, and 1837, and their partnership turned a second rate magazine into the most popular journal of its day. Sarah brought literary substance to Godey’s Lady’s Book and, surprisingly, she staunchly opposed including fashion plates on the grounds that they were frivolous. Louis, however, knowing the art of making a great first impression, insisted on keeping the beautiful hand colored engravings of fashionable Victorian dresses. Each issue was filled with poetry, articles, music, and engravings by prominent American writers and artists of the time, many of them women. Among the distinguished authors regularly included in the magazine’s literary pages were Nathaniel Hawthorn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Sarah used her position to further several causes for women, and her steadfast devotion to purpose and her unwavering editorial principles regarding social inequalities and the education of American women made her one of the most important editors of her time. As editor of Godey’s, Hale promoted women as heads of female boarding schools, advocated for the retention of married women’s property rights, and opposed the current fashion trend of tight bodices for women’s dresses on grounds that they were unhealthy. She championed Elizabeth Blackwell as America’s first female physician, promoted the creation of Vassar College, the first women’s college in America, and was integral in establishing the observance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, which she believed would help unite a country divided by slavery. Louis and Sarah enjoyed a successful partnership for over 40 years, and together produced a magazine which today is considered to be among the most important resources of 19th century American life and culture.