Booth, Mary L. (1831-1889)
Mary L. Booth (1831-1889)
Self-Educated. Born in Mill-ville (later Yaphank), Long Island, New York, Mary Booth was an exceptional reader witl a remarkable aptitude in French. She reputedly read the Bible at age five and at seven read the works of Jean Racine in the original. She moved at eighteen to Manhattan and found work as a vest maker, writing articles for literary and educational journals at night. The New York Times soon hired her to cover education and women on a piece-rate basis. Starting in 1856 she translated books from French into English, especially abolitionist tracts; eventually she would translate nearly forty volumes. In 1859 she wrote the first complete History of the City of New York from its Dutch settlement to its role as a financial capital.
Harper’s Bazar. In 1867 publisher Fletcher Harper decided to start Harper’s Bazar, a new periodical to act as a family-oriented counterpart to his successful Harper’s Weekly. (It became Harper’s Bazar in 1929.) It would carry serials and humor like its progenitor but dispense with politics in favor of fashion and home features. Unlike most American fashion magazines, which printed European designs a year or more after their introduction on the Continent, the new magazine would show dresses at the same time that women in Paris and Berlin saw them. Booth was reluctant to accept the position of editor when Harper offered it to her in 1867, but she took it nonetheless and soon showed her remarkable aptitude for the position. Working throughout her twenty-two years as editor without a typewriter or a secretary, Booth built up great personal power. After its first six weeks, Harper’s Bazar reached a circulation of one hundred thousand.
Convention. Booth targeted Protestant middle-class women who aspired to improve themselves and their families. She offered advice on household management, decorating, food, etiquette, and health. Subtitled A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction, Harper’s Bazar aimed to combine the practical and the beautiful. While Boot advocated woman suffrage, she refused to allow the slightest discussion of the topic in the magazine. Writing to one of her contributors, she said: “It surely involves no sacrifice of principle to be silent on a topic specially adapted to aggressive reform journals in writing for a paper with a wholly different purpose, especially as there is so much else to be said therein of the most vital importance to women that you will find noble work to do.” According to Booth, the Bazar was not the place for political agitation.
Leading by Example. Booth believed that the obstacles to women’s political equality would fall away naturally as women proved themselves capable of surviving in a male-dominated world. She had a reputation as a shrewd businesswoman as well as a skilled editor; yet she never acted in an unladylike manner. Sarah Bolton, author of Successful Women (1888), wrote of her: “To show other women that a woman may have consummate bility, and yet be gentle and refined and warm-hearted,. . . and that if one woman can stand at the head of a great journal it must be logically true that other trained women may come to stand at the head of the business they select—these, too, are public lessons of a life and a character worthy of study by our noblest girls.” Booth died suddenly in 1889 of a heart ailment, a few weeks short of her fifty-eighth birthday.
Maurine H. Beasley, “Mary L. Booth,” in American Magazine Journal-’ists, 1850-1900, edited by Sam G. Riley, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 79 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989);