Sarah Josepha Hale
19th Century Editor/Author
By Anne Adams
While today we celebrate Thanksgiving as an annual holiday or sing Mary Had a Little Lamb we would probably never think of the woman behind these American traditions. Yet in the 1800s Sarah Josepha Hale was a major figure not just as a prolific author but also editor of perhaps the most influential women’s magazines of her time. It was in this capacity that she published many influential authors of her day—both male and female—and all the while stressing the importance of a woman’s role as a homemaker and social arbiter. For while Mrs. Hale was not a feminist by modern standards and her opinions were standard for her era, she was unique because she demonstrated a driving ambition and entrepreneurial spirit unusual in a woman of her time.
Sarah Josepha Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788, the daughter of a mother who insisted on educating Sarah herself. Her father was a Revolutionary War soldier whose patriotism she absorbed, and she learned Latin and philosophy from an older brother who attended Dartmouth . This education enabled her to teach for several years before she married David Hale in 1813. For several years after her marriage she was a homemaker while her husband always encouraged her writing and studying. David Hale’s unexpected death in 1822 left Sarah with five children and no profession in a time when respectable women could not “properly” earn money—even if they needed to.
Sarah’s brother-in-law helped her begin a millinery business but since her real desire was to support herself with her writing she dedicated her entire energy to that end, publishing a volume of poetry in 1823, followed by a novel in 1827. It was this latter publication that persuaded Rev. John Lauris Blake to ask her to become editor of a new women’s magazine he was beginning in Boston . While there had previously been several attempts at “Ladies’ Magazines” which failed, this one survived and prospered. In 1837 Louis A. Godey acquired the publication and changed its name to “Godey’s Ladies’ Book” and while Godey’s sales skills helped, it was Sarah’s skill as an editor and writer that assured its success. She remained editor until she retired at age 89 in 1877 before her death two years later.
In her magazine, Sarah reflected the general belief that women were not equal to men, but actually superior and because they were they should demonstrate this “superiority” by inspiring men to greater purpose and accomplishment in their private and public lives. In her 1868 book Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round she wrote that woman “was the last work of creation. Every step, from matter to man, had been in the ascending scale. Was this last step downward?”
Yet women need not seek political and social equality to exercise this influence—in fact they did it best as wives and mothers and to help her readers to do so Sarah and her magazine encouraged the elevation of the homemaker’s position. She always used the term “domestic science” for the housewife’s job, and encouraged this image in her cook books and housekeeping guides. Yet while she was a great advocate of higher education for women, as demonstrated in her work in helping organizing Vassar College , she was resolute in her belief that the place of college-educated women was in the home, not in the business world.
Another important book was Woman’s Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women from the Creation to A.D. 1854, Arranged in Four Eras, with Selections from Female Writers of Every Age. The book went through three editions, and even to the modern reader it is an amusing evidence of Sarah’s personality. Sarah described many different women in history, even malicious figures, but not necessarily with condemnation. She described Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia: “Whatever might be her own irregularities, she strictly discountenanced violations of decorum.”
Yet perhaps it could be said that it was Sarah’s position as editor of such a prestigious publication that she was able to accomplish all she did, and it was in the pages of her magazine that she contributed to the literature of the time. She was one of the first to publish Edgar Allen Poe, and became an important sponsor of that troubled writer. She also published Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as prominent women authors, This included such important figures as Lucretia Mott, Emma Willard, Susan B. Anthony and other women activists of the time.
Sarah also campaigned for support of the Bunker Hill battle monument, the preservation of Mount Vernon , and was a major force behind the drive that ended with President Abraham Lincoln’s institution of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
There had previously been officially proclaimed days of thanksgiving, but Sarah began her crusade for a regular national celebration early in her editorial career. She worked hard to encourage her 150,000 plus readers to join her in petitioning their government leaders and other public figures. For many years she published a steady stream of petitions, articles, and editorials requesting that the last Thursday in November be established to “offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.”
Then in 1863 after the important Union victory at Gettysburg national optimism combined with Sarah’s energetic editorials persuaded Lincoln to issue the proclamation on October 3, 1863 establishing the holiday.
Another contribution to American folklore was her creation of the children’s classic rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. When Sarah heard of how a little girl’s pet lamb had followed her to a country schoolhouse, she created the verse and published it in the September, 1830 issue of a children’s magazine she edited. It endured as a classic and by 1857 had become so standard that it appeared as a lesson in a McGuffey reader.
Though she may not be as familiar as other writers of her time, Sarah Josepha Hale was a major figure in publication and literature of her time and as such he used her influence for the benefit of both her readers and her era.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”