Mary Mapes Dodge, the Silver Skates, and St. Nicholas magazine (part 1)

September 22, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Mary Mapes Dodge, suffering from the disappearance and then death of her husband in 1857 and facing the need to support herself and her two sons, wrote one of the most beloved children’s novels of all time — Hans Brinkler or The Silver Skates. For that, she will always be remembered.

But what she did beyond the publication of that novel affected children and their reading habits in a far different and more profound way.

Dodge was born in 1831 in New York City. Her father was a professor who advocated the application of scientific discoveries to farming. She married William Dodge in 1851, and they had two children, but by 1857 the family was facing huge financial difficulties. Dodge disappeared and a month later his body was found after he had apparently drowned.

Dodge and her sons retreated to the family farm near Newark, New Jersey, and she began helping her father publish two magazines, the Working Farmer and the United States Journal. This editing experience would prove important for her later career.

During that time as an editor, she continued with her writing, selling short stories and articles to various magazines, and she brought out a book of stories for juveniles titled The Irvington Stories. She also wrote a book titled A Few Friends, about life at home, which got her noticed by the magazine editors at Hearth and Home, who offered her a job as editor of the home and juvenile departments.

But Dodge’s major literary accomplishment during these years was the publication of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates in 1865. The story was a wonderful one for children, and the book was an immediate best-seller. (How that book came to be will be chronicled in a subsequent entry in this newsletter.)

Magazine editing turned out to be Dodge’s forté. Under her direction, Hearth and Home became widely popular and greatly increased its circulation. That, in turn, brought her to the attention of J.G. Holland and Roswell Smith, the directors of the company that published The Century Magazine, one of the leading and most profitable journals of the time. The publishers had become convinced that juvenile readers were an untapped and growing market, and they wanted some of the action. Dodge, they believed, would be just the right person to help them get it.

They were right. They also made the right decision in granting her a free hand with the publication. She had definite ideas about producing a publication that children would want to read — something that would not only engage them but also that they could feel a part of. She didn’t want it to be full of lessons and rules; rather, she wanted her young readers to enjoy it. She even chose the name: St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys.

Dodge proved to be extraordinarily gifted in bringing her ideas to fruition. She took her time in thinking through the magazine, and the first edition did not appear until November 1873, six months after she had first been hired. The magazine was 48 pages and beautifully illustrated, and its press run was an impressive 40,000 copies.

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