Hale, Sarah Josepha (1788–1879)

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Hale, Sarah Josepha (1788–1879)

Novelist, poet, advocate of women's education, and editor of Godey's Lady's Book, the most popular American magazine of the mid-19th century . Name variations: Used "Cornelia" as a pseudonym very early in her publishing career; sometimes signed articles "S.J.H." or "The Lady Editor." Born Sarah Josepha Buell on October 24, 1788, in Newport, New Hampshire; died on April 30, 1879, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; daughter of Gordon and Martha (Whittlesey) Buell (farmers and innkeepers); married David Hale, on October 23, 1813 (died 1822); children: David (b. 1815); Horatio (b. 1817); Frances Ann (b. 1819); Sarah Josepha (called Josepha, b. 1820); William (b. 1822).

Became editor of The Ladies' Magazine (1828); published children's poem "Mary's Lamb" (1830); became editor of Godey's Lady's Book (1837); began Thanksgiving holiday campaign (1846); published 900-page women's biographical dictionary (1853).


The Ladies' Magazine (Boston, 1828–36); Juvenile Miscellany (Boston, 1834–36); Godey's Lady's Book (Philadelphia, 1837–87).


Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827); The Lecturess; or, Woman's Sphere (1839); Keeping House and Housekeeping (1845); Boarding Out: A Tale of Domestic Life (1846); Harry Guy, the Widow's Son: A Story of the Sea (1848); The Judge: A Drama of American Life (1850); Northwood; or, Life North and South, Showing the Character of Both (1852); Liberia, or Mr. Peyton's Experiments (1853). Nonfiction: Sketches of American Character (1829); Traits of American Life (1835); The Good Housekeeper; or, The Way to Live Well and to Be Well While We Live (1839); Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round (1867).

Poetry collections:

The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems (1823); Poems for Our Children (including "Mary's Lamb," 1830); Alice Ray: A Romance in Rhyme (1845); Three Hours; or, The Vigil of Love, and Other Poems (1848); Love; or, Woman's Destiny: A Poem in Two Parts, with Other Poems (1870).

Wrote lyrics for two children's songbooks, The School Song Book (1834) and My Little Song Book (1841). Edited more than 30 children's books, household advice manuals, and volumes of verse, including Flora's Interpreter; or, The American Book of Flowers and Sentiments (1832) and The Ladies' Wreath: A Selection from the Female Poetic Writers of England and America (1837). Edited a 900-page women's biographical dictionary, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" Till A.D. 1850 (1853, revised and reissued in 1855 and 1870). Wrote thousands of articles, many of them unsigned, for Godey's Lady's Book (1837–77).

The life and career of Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific editor and author, represents one model of womanhood and female achievement in 19th-century America. A widow forced to work to support her five children, she rose to national fame and influence while maintaining her belief in a separate sphere for women in American life, a philosophy evident in the books she wrote and the magazines she edited. Yet the woman who signed her articles "The Lady Editor" staunchly supported women's education and property rights, and her varied accomplishments during her 50-year career in publishing opened doors for other women journalists.

Sarah was the third of four children born to Gordon and Martha Buell , a rural New Hampshire couple who valued education and patriotism—Gordon had fought in the American Revolution. Martha Buell was a positive role model for Sarah, who later explained, "I owe my early predilection for literary pursuits to the teaching and example of my mother. She had enjoyed uncommon advantages of education for a female of her times—possessed a mind clear as rock water, and a most happy talent of communicating knowledge." At home, the teenaged Sarah read classical literature, including all of Shakespeare's plays, and studied Latin, Greek, geography, and philosophy. She also was tutored by her older brother Horatio, who attended Dartmouth College and believed it was unfair that women were denied higher education. In 1806, the 18-year-old Sarah began a private school for children, where she taught reading, writing, math, and Latin to girls as well as boys for the next seven years.

In 1813, Sarah married David Hale, a New Hampshire attorney. Though she stopped teaching, she continued her own education at home, with David's encouragement. Every evening the couple spent two hours together studying literature, French, and botany. David's devotion to Sarah and appreciation of her intellectual abilities may well have been reasons for her later editorial view that women's first priorities should be their husbands and children. Hale began writing prose and poetry, publishing some verse in a local newspaper, though most of her time was spent caring for their four children. She struggled with her health, coming close to death in 1819 but ultimately surviving tuberculosis, the disease that had killed her mother and sister eight years earlier.

It was David who succumbed to illness, dying of pneumonia on September 25, 1822, two weeks before Sarah gave birth to their fifth child. Hale suddenly found herself sole provider for the family. After working briefly in her sister-in-law's millinery shop, she turned to writing to earn a living. She was quickly successful, publishing a book of poetry in 1823 and a novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, in 1827. During the intervening years, she contributed regularly to the Boston Spectator and Ladies' Album, work that attracted the attention of Boston publisher John Lauris Blake. In 1828, Blake offered the 39-year-old Hale the editorship of his new Ladies' Magazine.

She filled the pages of the Ladies' Magazine with works by American writers—in contrast to the common practice of reprinting articles from English periodicals—and included not only fiction, but also articles about women's education, employment opportunities, and civic obligations. Among the contributors were Lydia Maria Child and Lydia Sigourney . Hale herself wrote much of the text, republishing her articles in two collections, Sketches of American Character (1829) and Traits of American Life (1835).

The Lady's Book was the first avowed advocate of the holy cause of woman's intellectual progress.… We intend to go on… till female education shall receive the same careful attention and liberal support from public legislation as are bestowed on that of the other sex.

—Sarah Josepha Hale, 1850

During these years, she also published the volume of children's verse, Poems for Our Children (1830), that contained the poem for which she is best-remembered, "Mary's Lamb" ("Mary had a little lamb…"). In addition to the two books of children's poetry she wrote in the early part of her career, Hale had a hand in the production of several other works for children. She served as editor of a ten-volume children's library series and as lyricist for two books of children's songs written by music-education pioneer Lowell Mason. From 1834 to 1836, she briefly took the helm of Juvenile Miscellany, a children's magazine previously edited by Lydia Maria Child. Many of Hale's verses for children were reprinted, most without attribution, in McGuffy's Readers.

During the 13 years she lived in Boston, Hale began her long involvement in civic projects. Her own experience of widowhood led her to found the Seaman's Aid Society, a women's group that raised funds for the support of the families of men who were away at sea or had died at sea. This organization provided day-care for children and vocational training for women and girls. Hale spearheaded a campaign to complete the American Revolution monument at Bunker Hill, organizing an 1840 "women's fair" at Boston's Quincy Hall where women sold homemade food, clothing, quilts, and decorations, raising more than $30,000 and ensuring the monument's completion. She also led a literary club, as she had in New Hampshire, and encouraged a young doctor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his early attempts at writing.

The Ladies' Magazine, which was briefly rechristened the American Ladies' Magazine, failed in 1836 but was absorbed by Philadelphia publisher Louis Godey's seven-year-old fashion magazine, the Lady's Book, which would be retitled Godey's Lady's Book four years later. Offered the top position on the combined publication, Hale accepted on the condition that she work from her home in Boston until her youngest child graduated from Harvard in 1841. That year, she moved to Philadelphia.

While she had little personal interest in fashion, Hale made no attempt—nor would Godey have allowed her—to change the magazine's focus. The Lady's Book had already attracted considerable attention because of its fashion illustrations, which pioneered sophisticated woodcut (plus some copper and steel) engraving techniques and color printing in American magazines. The new editor contained her remarks on women's clothing to repeated editorials about the pain and ill health caused by the tight lacing of corsets (she instead urged women to get out in the fresh air and exercise in order to stay thin). The bulk of Hale's editorial work lay in procuring non-fashion editorial for the magazine. During the 1840s, she bolstered the magazine's literary reputation by commissioning the work of major American writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hale herself wrote a great deal of the magazine, contributing fiction, poetry, editorials, features, and book reviews. Some of her articles dealt with issues such as physical fitness, parenting, and homemaking—a set of skills to which she assigned the label "domestic science." While maintaining that women's greatest achievement lay in marriage and motherhood, she defended women's rights within that sphere, particularly their property rights. In 1837, she wrote:

The barbarous custom of wresting from woman whatever she possesses, whether by inheritance, donation or her own industry, and conferring it all upon the man she marries, to be used at his discretion and will, perhaps wasted on his wicked indulgences, without allowing her any control or redress, is such a monstrous perversion of justice by law, that we might well marvel how it could obtain in a Christian community.

Hale's primary editorial theme, however, was the importance of women's education, a position partly attributable to her own upbringing but also greatly influenced by her friendship with education pioneer Emma Willard . In the pages of the Lady's Book, Hale supported Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell , the first American woman to earn a medical degree, and endorsed the idea of medical schools for women. She believed in the establishment of separate colleges for women in all fields, and during the early 1860s she served as an advisor to Matthew Vassar as he planned his new women's college, not only supporting the project but insisting on the hiring of women faculty. In her magazine, she wrote about the many women entering the field of teaching in elementary and secondary schools, especially as the country expanded westward, and argued that they deserved college-level training and adequate pay. For her editorial support of these positions, Hale was named an honorary vice president of Emma Willard's Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers.

Hale defended women's education not as a challenge to conventional femininity, but rather as a natural responsibility dictated by women's role within the home and by their moral superiority within society. In 1837, she wrote that rather than "there being any danger that the intellectual and moral progress of woman will make her, what is termed, masculine, we hold that her enlightened influence… will, by making men better Christians, make them more like women." Consistent with her belief in a separate, domestic sphere for women, however, Hale criticized women's involvement in politics and opposed the idea of women's suffrage.

Nevertheless, she provided a new national forum that advanced discussion of women's social issues. She also provided a new forum in which American writers could advance their careers. She continued to publish only original material, copyrighted those works in an effort to prevent unauthorized republication elsewhere, and paid her writers—not yet a standard practice in the periodical business. She provided steady work for authors in the early stages of their careers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Harriet Beecher Stowe . Stowe wrote almost exclusively for the Lady's Book before the 1852 publication of her bestselling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was only one of many women writers

whose work Hale bought and published; others included Catherine Sedgwick, Ann Stephens , Grace Greenwood (Sara Clarke Lippincott ), and the sisters Alice and Phoebe Cary . Hale also staffed her magazine largely with women editors and artists.

Even during the peak years of the magazine's success, Hale continued to produce books, all targeted toward women. In the mid-1850s, she edited two volumes of household-management advice and two cookbooks. At the same time, she was compiling and editing a 900-page reference book titled Woman's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women from "the Beginning" till A.D. 1850. Published in 1853 and updated in 1855 and 1870, this biographical dictionary included entries on more than 1,600 women. Looking back on this work in the December 1877 issue of the Lady's Book—her final issue as its editor—she explained that "My object was to prepare a comprehensive and accurate record of what women have accomplished, in spite of the disadvantages of their position, and to illustrate the great truth that woman's mission is to educate and ameliorate humanity."

Hale probably also had a female audience in mind when she published her 1852 novel North-wood; or, Life North and South, Showing the Character of Both, an expanded version of her 1827 novel; its anti-slavery (yet pacifist) theme was directed at essentially the same women's readership that made Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin a bestseller the same year. In both North-wood and Liberia, the novel she published in 1853, Hale warned that economic differences in the American North and South needed resolution and that slavery was morally wrong. Unlike Stowe and other abolitionists, however, Hale believed that the solution to the problem of slavery was the education of Southern slaveowners, who in turn would educate their slaves, free them, and encourage their colonization in Africa. Hale's opinions about slavery and the Southern economic system were expressed only in her fiction, however, and never in the magazine. Louis Godey feared that any mention of the conflicts leading to the Civil War—indeed, any mention of the war itself once it was underway—would offend his Southern readers.

During her 40-year tenure at Godey's Lady's Book, Hale was involved in several prominent philanthropic, educational, and civic projects. She helped to organize the Ladies' Medical Missionary Society of Philadelphia and lent her support to the establishment of the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia. She endorsed the founding of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She used the Lady's Book as a platform for publicizing Ann Pamela Cunningham 's campaign to preserve Mount Vernon. But her best-known project was her drive to make Thanksgiving—an idea that had originated with George Washington—a formally recognized holiday celebrated across America. For nearly two decades, she wrote hundreds of editorials on the subject and mounted a letter-writing campaign to public officials. Largely due to her efforts, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (though it did not become a legal holiday until 1941).

Under Hale's editorship, Godey's Lady's Book prospered during the mid-century, becoming the most widely read magazine in America. By 1860, its paid readership totalled 150,000—six times what it had been when Hale first arrived, and more than 20 times the average magazine circulation of the day. Hale remained at its helm until December 1877, when she retired at age 89. She died a little more than a year later, on April 30, 1879.


Beasley, Maurine H., and Sheila J. Gibbons. Taking their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism. Washington, DC: American University Press, 1993, pp. 77–90.

Finley, Ruth E. The Lady of Godey's: Sarah Josepha Hale. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1931.

Hale, Sarah Josepha. Northwood; or, Life North and South. 1852 (NY: Johnson Reprint, introduction by Rita K. Gollin, 1970).

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, 1741–1850. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 580–594.

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Rogers, Sherbrooke. Sarah Josepha Hale: A New England Pioneer, 1788–1879. Grantham, NH: Tompson & Rutter, 1985.

Woodward, Helen. The Lady Persuaders. NY: Ivan Obolensky, 1960.

suggested reading:

Entrikin, Isabelle. Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey's Lady's Book. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Press, 1946.

Fryatt, Norma R. Sarah Josepha Hale: The Life and Times of a Nineteenth Century Career Woman. NY: Hawthorn Books, 1975.

Tarbell, Ida. "The American Woman: Those Who Did Not Fight," in American Magazine. Vol. 69, March 1910, pp. 656–669.

Carolyn Kitch , Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and former editor for Good Housekeeping and McCall's

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Hale, Sarah Josepha (1788–1879)

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