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Sarah Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book

Born Sarah Buell in Newport, New Hampshire on October 24, 1788, young Sarah was blessed to have parents who were part of the progressive, intellectual movement that was taking root in the New England area at the time. Her parents believed strongly in education and in providing the same educational opportunities to girls as were available to boys, a somewhat radical thought at the time!

Sarah’s love of learning would be a common thread throughout her life as she continued to educate herself, eventually working as a schoolmarm before her 1813 marriage to a lawyer named David Hale. David is reported as having been highly supportive of his wife’s educational aspirations. Unfortunately, in 1822 David died leaving Sarah with four children and another on the way. Summoning her intellectual powers Sarah turned to publishing to support her family. With the help of her late husband’s Masonic Lodge (who underwrote the cost of publishing her first book) she wrote a book of poetry entitled The Genius of Oblivion. The sales from this volume supported her family and enabled her to publish numerous other novels, social commentaries and poetry books. Her first novel Northwood: Life North and South published in 1827 dealt with the degradations of slavery and brought her to the attention of a wider audience. As a result, she moved to Boston and took up the editorship of the Ladies’ Magazine founded by Reverend John Lauris Blake, becoming one of the first women in America (if not the first) to hold such a position. 

In 1830 Hale penned a collection of children’s verses entitled Poems for Our Children. This volume contained the first publication of the rhyme Mary’s Lamb (later to be known as Mary Had a Little Lamb). Although there is still some question as to who may have made up this story, Hale’s publication of it brought the rhyme into the nurseries of America, cementing its place in the memories of childhood for generations to come. 

Many doll making companies and artists would be inspired by Hale’s publication to offer doll versions of Mary and her little lamb over the next almost 200 years. Ralph A. Freundlich Inc, New York City, later Clinton, Massachusetts made composition dolls from 1924 to 1945, including his rendition of Mary and her lamb. This set used his “Trixbe” doll as Mary and came in a cardboard schoolhouse play-setting (doll courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Dollyology Vintage Dolls & Antiques / Collectibles).  Baps dolls included Mary in their line of storybook and nursery rhyme dolls. These little cloth dolls and puppets were made after WWII by Edith Von Arps and Hilde Bartel and many were sold to US military personnel serving in Germany and in the USA. The late American doll artist Dianna Effner sculpted her version of Mary to be made in vinyl for the company Maru and Friends. The dolls shared here are representative of the many, many doll versions of Mary and her lamb that have been made in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

1830 was also the year that Louis Antoine Godey of Philadelphia began publishing his own magazine called the Lady’s Book. In 1836 Godey purchased the Ladies’ Magazine from Reverend Blake. Godey merged his two magazines which he now called Godey’s Lady’s Book and in 1837 he made one of the best decisions of his life when he asked Sarah Hale to take over the editorship of his magazine. (Another smart choice made by Godey was to copyright each issue, which was a relatively new concept in the publishing of periodicals at the time).

Under Sarah’s direction the magazine included fashion advice and beautifully engraved fashion illustrations along with household advice, moral contemplations, architectural plans for the ideal home, as well as fiction and non-fiction contributions from many of the top authors, male and female, of the 19th century. Sarah’s taste and advice was emulated by the magazine’s subscribers, as Godey’s became the most widely circulated magazine in the USA rising from 70,000 in the 1840s to 150,000 in 1860 under Hale’s leadership.

Godey’s lady’s book’s fashion illustration set the standard for proper dress in 19th century America and chronicled the history of fashion for the era. Shown here (L to R) are plates from July 1842, August 1855, and July 1864. 
Here we see plates from May 1870, March 1874, and May 1880.
The plates from Godey’s are a perfect resource to the collector of antique and reproduction dolls, educating us on hairstyles, fabrics, color combinations and designs from each decade of the magazine’s publication. This information is invaluable both for dating antique dolls and costumes as on the doll on the left (doll courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Nancy McCray Dolls), or for recreating the costumes of the past as seen on the right (doll costume courtesy of Ruby Lane shop La Sacra Famiglia). 

Along with goals of expanding educational and professional opportunities for women Sarah would also champion a number of causes which she felt improved the common good. In 1833 she helped found the Seaman’s Aid Society in Boston, serving as its first President. She was instrumental in the drive to save the American national heritage by supporting the building of the Bunker Hill Monument and actively participating in the drive to preserve Mount Vernon. Hale began a campaign in 1846 which culminated in the 1863 establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale’s letter on the topic to President Lincoln has been cited as the impetus for his decision to signify a day for thanksgiving and praise throughout the nation.

Among the many causes and public services championed by Hale is her efforts to bring the custom of using the Christmas tree to American homes. Although the use of the Christmas tree originated in Germany and was brought to American by German immigrants, it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s introduction of the custom to the British nation that captivated Hale. Using an illustration originally published in 1848 in the Illustrated London News, Hale “Americanized” the family by removing Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s mustache and sash. She published this image along with instructions on how to set up a Christmas tree in 1850 and again in 1860 helping to popularize the tradition.
 Inspired by the china dolls of the 19th century Ruth Gibbs of Flemington, NJ elected to call her doll line “Godey’s Lady Book Dolls.” She made her sweet little dolls beginning in 1946. Shown here (L to R) are an early 7″ Godey’s Lady Book doll (courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Fourty Fifty Sixty), a boxed set of Little Women dolls (courtesy of  Ruby Lane shop Madame Jezabelle’s Little Ladies Dolls & Antiques), and another 7″ doll in her original box whose label reads: Precious Little Lady/PLAY FRIEND/No. 403 PA/Ruth Gibbs, Inc./Flemington (courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Nostalgic Images).
As part of the 100th anniversary of the G. Fox & Co department store in Hartford, CT Gibbs made a special series of her 12″ dolls dressed as representations of famous Hartford women of the past. The doll and her original documentation shown here represented “Mrs. David Watkinson in Winter Afternoon Gown” (courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Gandtiques).
In conjunction with the Gibbs doll project G. Fox also contracted with the McCalls pattern company to design a pattern with outfits that would fit the Gibbs dolls. The envelope also included a pattern for a cloth doll who could wear the costumes. Although this pattern included wonderful instructions, the finished dolls created with it do vary with the skill of their makers, but the clothing designs are easily recognizable when the dolls are found today.

Beatrice Behrman, aka Madame Alexander, loved fashion and was inspired by Godey’s fashion prints to do her own version of Godey’s fashion dolls in many sizes and styles over the years of her company’s history. The dolls shown here are model 1172 which used the 10″ Cissette basic doll. The pink version was from 1968, and the yellow one from 1969.  

In her later years Hale resided in Philadelphia, PA. Sarah Josepha Hale would continue as editor for Godey’s Lady’s book until 1877. She died on April 30, 1879 and is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

 In 1953 Charlotte Eldridge’s book The Godey’s Lady Doll was published. During a convalescence that left the author confined to bed for a while, she was inspired to make dolls based on the fashion illustrations in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Charlotte made her dolls of cloth with paper mache faces. The project led to her developing room boxes to stage her dolls, to lecturing for women’s groups about the history of Godey’s and the dolls, and to writing her book which told her story and included instructions for making the dolls plus clothing patterns and scale drawing for making miniature Victorian furnishings for the dolls. One more instance of Sarah Josepha Hale’s influence on the world of doll collecting!

Author – Linda Edward


Arlene M. Coleman Ruth Gibbs Godey’s Little Lady Dolls. Doylestown, Purple Turtle Books, 2017

Charlotte Eldridge The Godey Lady Doll. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1953Arlisha Norwood “Sarah Hale.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017