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A fashion plate illustration from Godey's Lady's Book, 1863.
A fashion plate illustration from Godey's Lady's Book, 1863.
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Sarah J. Hale, America's First Power Fashion Editor

A single mother of five ran a fashion empire with an iron fist—in the 1800's.

If you are someone who watches The Devil Wears Prada and thinks, "despite some character flaws, that Miranda Priestly really leaned in admirably" then you are going to love Sarah Josepha Hale. The 19th century New Englander is generally remembered for writing "Mary Has a Little Lamb" and petitioning for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. What’s often forgotten is that she was a single mother to five children who ran a fashion magazine empire with an iron fist until she was 90 in the 1800s. If she were a man, instead of talking about her as a sweet natured writer of nursery rhymes, we’d talk about her like she was William Randolph Hearst.


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Sarah J. Hale, 1830. Image: Getty Images.

So, let’s do that. Sarah J. Hale’s life began in 1788, when she was born in New Hampshire to a family that prized education. She said she owed much of her early interest in literature to her mother’s example. It probably also helped that her brother loaned her all of the textbooks he was studying at Dartmouth, and taught her Latin and higher mathematics. However, even as a child she was distressed that, "of all the books I saw, few were written by Americans, and none by women…the wish to promote the reputation of my own sex, and do something for my own country, were among the earliest mental emotions I can recollect."

My earliest mental emotion that I can recollect is crying at an episode of Bewitched on Nick at Nite, probably.

At 24, Sarah married a lawyer who loved books as much as she did, and they had five children. And then, when she was 33, he died. This left her in a terrible position, because, even as a formidably intelligent women, there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for mothers of five in 1822. Sarah herself noted that:

"very few employments in which females can engage with any hope of profit, and my own constitution and pursuits, made literature appear my best resource. I prepared a small volume of Poems, mostly written before my husband's decease; these were published, by the aid of the Free Masons, of which order he was a distinguished member."

It’s still amazing to me that Sarah just decided, "well, I guess I will enter the field of literature, now, seems like a good fit" because that feels like an intimidating goal in 2015, when women have way more freedom to do that. I graduated from a liberal arts school thinking, "I sure would like to be a writer, but I guess it would be more realistic to look for some jobs in PR." If I were a widow in 1822 I think I would immediately decide, "well, I could take in boarders, or, barring that, I guess I could prostitute myself." But no! Sarah was going to be America’s first lady of letters.

And it worked out really well. After her collections of poems received some acclaim, she went on to publish a novel about life in rural New England in 1827. She then published another collection of poetry—which contained "Mary Had A Little Lamb" in 1830.

By 1828, after the success of her novel, she became editor of Boston’s Ladies’ Magazine. She was the first American woman to become the editor of magazine, so if this was where her accomplishments ended, that should be enough for us to say, "What a cool lady."

But that was not where her accomplishments ended. By 1837 she organized a merger between Ladies’ Magazine and Lady’s Book, which was published by Louis Godey. The new magazine was called Godey’s Lady’s Book and it soon became the most popular fashion magazine of the 19th century.

The magazine was perhaps most famous for its drawings of women dressed in the newest and most exciting fashions. Those illustrations were produced by engraving a sheet of flat metal—called a plate—in the shape of that well dressed woman, then using that sheet to reprint the image into the pages of a magazine thousands of times. They’d then be meticulously colored by hand. So if you’ve ever heard a woman referred to as a "fashion plate" that’s the origin of that term—though the person saying it may just think it means she looks good enough to eat.

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Sarah J. Hale, 1850. Image: Getty Images.

But the magazine wasn’t just pictures of pretty women. In addition to the instructional articles about how to run a happy home (think Good Housekeeping), Sarah also ran works by some of the most famous authors of the period. Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Cask of Amontillado," one of his more famous short stories, for Godey’s Lady's Book. They also published Harriet Beecher Stowe (a woman and an American) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (just an American). It was like Vogue, if Vogue combined with the New Yorker.

Throughout all of this she campaigned from 1837 onward pretty relentlessly for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a National Holiday. She explained that it was a good idea for a lot of reasons—she pitched it to President Lincoln as something that would bring the country divided by the civil war together again—but I think that for her the real appeal was that it was supposed to be a holiday that celebrated women’s skills. She remarked, "It belongs to the altar and the hearth, at which woman should ever be present; and the women of our country should take this day under their peculiar charge, and sanctify it to acts of piety, charity, and domestic love."

Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday in 1863 (though Sarah continued to campaign for Congress to pass it as a legal holiday). Just to be clear —that was a holiday Sarah just made up. It would be like if Obama signed off on Anna Wintour’s Fashion Night Out becoming a holiday that everyone in America ought to celebrate.

Sarah finally retired from working as Editor-in-Chief of Lady Godey’s in 1877. She was 90 (she died a year later at 91) and her final words to readers were:

And now, having reached my ninetieth year, I must bid farewell to my countrywomen, with the hope that this work of half a century may be blessed to the furtherance of their happiness and usefulness in their Divinely-appointed sphere. New avenues for higher culture and for good works are opening before them, which fifty years ago were unknown. That they may improve these opportunities, and be faithful to their higher vocation, is my heartfelt prayer.

It seems like a pretty solid life. So if anyone tells you women can’t have it all, you can tell them that not only can they have it all, but that they’ve been having it all since about 1830.

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