The most influential American woman of the 19th century: Sarah Josepha Hale

December 10, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When Thomas Edison famously made his first sound recording in 1877 on a machine that he had just invented, the phonograph, his first words had to be something that everyone was familiar with. So, he said, “Mary had a little lamb, . . .”

The nursery rhyme he was quoting wasn’t one that was composed in England or part of something that had been handed down from ancient times. It was purely American, and it had first appeared in print in 1830 in a book of poetry written by one of the most influential women of the 19th century: Sarah Josepha Hale.

In the same year that Edison made his recording, Hale had just retired after 40 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, bringing to a close an extraordinary career that included novel and poetry writing and wide-ranging social activism as well as editing the most influential women’s magazine in the nation. For decades, Hale made decisions about fashion, food, politics, child-rearing, and social issues that many of her readers followed to the letter.

She is credited with being the major force that made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Sarah Josepha Buell was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her father had fought in the Revolution and opened a tavern to provide for his growing family of ultimately five children. Sarah was the fourth child. He and his wife believed in equal education for boys and girls, and Sarah grew up with enough knowledge to become a school teacher. In 1813, she married a young lawyer named David Hale.

Sarah and David began having children quickly, and by 1822, there were five little ones in the household. That was the year that David died suddenly, and Sarah was left to fend for herself. A school teacher’s job was not going to support her family, so Sarah turned to writing. Fortunately, she had the support of her husband’s Freemason lodge, which helped her publish a book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion.

Four years later, she published her first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England. In London, the book was published under the title A New England Tale. The book was noteworthy not only because it made Hale one of the first women novelists in America but also because it was the first novel to deal directly with slavery and its effects. The book idolized the “New England way of life” and argued that slavery dehumanized masters as well as slaves. The book was an immediate success, but many Southerners were not persuaded, and Hale became a despised figure there.

At that time, anti-Union feelings were more prevalent in the North than in the South— especially in New England​​—and Hale, always an ardent Unionist, reminded her neighbors that they were brothers and sisters with those in the South, even those who owned slaves.

Hale may not have persuaded her readers, but she achieved notoriety for herself. In 1828, the Rev. John Blake asked Hale to move to Boston to become editor of a new magazine that he was launching. Ladies Magazine, as the title indicates, would be aimed at a growing reading audience of women. Hale consented and never lost her school teacher inclination toward instruction and wrote that she hoped her editorship would be such that “each individual may lend her aid to the intellectual and moral character of those within her sphere.”

In 1830, Hale published another book of poems, Poems for Our Children, which included the now-famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

She remained editor of the magazine until 1836 when it was sold to Louis Antoine Godey of Philadelphia, who merged it with another magazine he owned to become Godey’s Lady’s Book. He asked Hale to move to Philadelphia, but she insisted on staying in Boston because her youngest son, William, was attending Harvard College at the time.

Godey consented, and for the next 40 years, Hale exercised a vast influence on American readers—women directly and indirectly on men. One of her most significant moves was to open the pages of the magazine to women writers. The list of contributors, both male and female, that she cultivated was impressive. The readership of the magazine grew to more than 150,000 subscribers. Hale’s inclination toward instruction knew no limits. She even published architectural plans for the best way to build a home.

Hale took on many causes. She wrote to state governors arguing that states should institute a Thanksgiving holiday. Many Northern governors thought this was a good idea, but most Southern governors viewed it as an anti-slavery plot.

While other magazines of the time liked to reproduce articles from British publications, Hale advocated developing American writers and American culture. She idealized the American frontier and American history, especially the Revolutionary War period. She was ardently anti-slavery, but she never signed on to the women’s suffrage movement. Thus, she has been ignored by pro-suffrage historians. She believed in equal education for women and was one of the founders of Vassar College.

Hale finally retired from her editorship in 1877. She was nearly 90 years old. She died two years later.

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