This is the biography portion of my thesis regarding Sarah Josepha Hale and 'true womanhood'. I may end up sharing more bits and pieces of that paper as I find her words and thoughts on domesticity to be inspiring for me, as I am coming into my own as a mother as well as a wife.
I hope you enjoy reading about this incredible woman and maybe you'll get a sense of what I love her so.
When Sarah Hale sat down to write her cookbook full of practical and stern advice to American housewives, she made sure to tell her readers, “I …write what I know to be true…I have been a housekeeper, both in the country and the city, and have had a practical knowledge of those rules of domestic economy which I shall recommend. And I have brought up a family of children, without the loss, or hardly the sickness, of one of them during infancy and childhood. I can, therefore, claim some experience” (Good 11-12). She knew that it was important to establish her credibility when giving ‘rules of domestic economy’ and even more so, when instructing women on True Womanhood. Sarah Josepha Hale was, in fact, one of the leading authorities concerning True Womanhood and “no one has had greater influence, or become more universally popular among her countrywomen” (Woman’s 686).
If truth be told, the works of Sarah Josepha Hale seem to have been passed over by many scholars interested in True Womanhood. The majority of writing concerning Hale focus on her work with Godey’s Lady’s Magazine and little else. This is a phenomenon that would surprise most nineteenth-century women because she was instrumental in the formation and continuance of True Womanhood. In her time, she was well-known for being a champion of women’s education and philanthropic causes, as well as, an authoress of novels, advice annuals, and cookbooks. True, Hale was not the only woman writing about women and for women. For example, women like Catharine Beecher and Margaret Fuller have interesting writings concerning True Womanhood, both for and against it. What makes Hale unique is that she was the complete package—a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and career woman—unlike Beecher, for example, who never married or had children. Given her wide influence and her personal experience, Hale is a qualified candidate for study and research that has been disregarded for far too long.
In 1788 Sarah Joespha Buell was born in small town in
Hampshire. Her father, Gordon Buell, had been a
farmer but abandoned farming after years with little success to be an
innkeeper, which would prove to be just as unsuccessful. For Sarah, this meant
that “poverty and home-schooling [would be] the two major elements of her
childhood” ( Montgomery
63). Concerning her education, Sarah would go on to write much later in life:
I was mainly educated by my mother, and strictly taught to make the Bible the guide of my life…The books to which I had access were few, very few, in comparison with the number given children now-a-days; but they were such as required to be studied—and I did study them. Next to the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, my earliest reading was Milton, Addison, Pope, Johnson, Cowper, Burns, and a portion of Shakespeare (686).
This education may have been homespun but it opened Sarah to the world of language, imagination, and religion. She was eternally grateful to her brother, Horatio, who was attending
Dartmouth, for “supervis[ing] his sister’s
progress in a course of study paralleling his own, and which included ‘Latin, and
the higher branches of mathematics, and of mental philosophy’” (Tonkovich 20, Woman’s
687). Her brother’s help and influence allowed Sarah to continue her education
above and beyond normal standards for a nineteenth-century girl. She flourished
under Horatio’s tutorship and the education she gained was near equal to her
brother’s college degree.
These quaint anecdotes of Sarah’s early life show that “although Gordon and Martha Buell were not among…[the] social or intellectual elite, their home life was rich in intellectual stimulation. The details of Sarah’s childhood reading and the fact that her brother Horatio met
admission requirements, suggest, that her family was well read” (Tonkevich 29).
Poverty was not a prohibition to Sarah’s success, even in her early years, she
learned to surpass difficulties and strive for improvement, especially the
improvement of her mind.
While still living at home and helping to make ends meet, Sarah became a schoolteacher at a local school. She expanded her curriculum to include unconventional subjects including Latin, higher mathematics, and philosophy. She took her students on nature hikes and picnics so that they might study botany and other natural sciences. Sarah also insisted on teaching boys and girls together in order that girls might be able to have the same education as boys; this was an ideal she believed in and never relinquished. She had great success as a teacher, and for the rest of her life, Sarah would campaign for better educational opportunities for women.
While still a young woman, Sarah suffered the pain of tremendous loss. Her brother Charles tragically died at sea, her sister and mother both died from tuberculosis on the same day in 1811, and her father died shortly after. Yet, if every thunder cloud does have a silver lining, David Hale was Sarah’s glimmer of hope. Biographer Barbara Venton Montgomery explains, “she did not consider matrimony while providing for the members of the family, always her first concern. Without them, she turned to David Hale who wanted to care for her. They married in 1813” (64). David had stayed often inn the family inn, clearly captivated by the beautiful Sarah, and now her married her.
Their marriage was remarkable; “they had five children within nine years. They studied French, botany and geology together in the evening and with friends began a small literary society. They hiked the New England countryside together and discussed events of the day and her poetry which David encouraged her to write” (
Montgomery 64). The
literary society “included women as well as men, family members (David Hale and
his sister Hannah) as well as other men of substance in the community…Its
membership bespeaks class privilege, or so one must conclude from the rather
florid account of the group, which notes the members’ ‘well-sustained
complacence at their advanced social position’ (Tonkevich 30-31, Parmelee 267).
The society provided Sarah with her first outlet for writing and expressing
herself, and her inclusion in the society indicates that David respected Sarah
not only for being his wife, but also his friend and his equal. In fact,
Sarah’s inclusion in the literary society would prove to be a means to an end when
Sarah was dealt yet another massive blow.
David, the love of her life, passed away “on
September 25, 1822, after a short illness [of]
pneumonia”, just two weeks before the birth of their youngest son, William
(Finley 37). The stun of losing a man that had cherished her as a wife, a peer,
a friend, and a lover was devastating. Sarah “wore black mourning for David the
remainder of her life and never considered the possibility of remarriage”( Montgomery 67). By
nineteenth-century standards she should have remarried or moved in with her
nearest male relative, but instead, Sarah pushed her pain aside and made a life
for herself. The Hales had not been rich, although they might have lived
comfortably on David’s earnings as a lawyer had he lived. However, Sarah soon realized
that she would be raising her children in poverty as the few fees from David’s
practice could not provide for them as they needed. Thus, “it was in the hope
of gaining the means for their support and education that she engaged in the
literary profession”(Woman’s 686).
The members of the literary society used their individual influences and collective resources to get a book of Sarah’s poetry published. The book sold well and encouraged her to write her first and only novel Northwood; or Life North and South. Her novel was an “instant success” in both
America and in England, and went to press multiple
times. In 1830, soon after the publication of Northwood,
she was soon asked to move from New Hampshire
to Boston, with
her family, and begin a ladies’ magazine. By accepting this invitation Sarah
became the first American lady editor, a “pioneer in this species of
literature” (Woman’s 686). Then, in 1837 Louis Godey, the “Prince of
Publishers” bought out The Ladies’ Magazine and merged it with his own
magazine, creating Godey’s Lady’s Book and making Sarah editor (Finley
difficulty was that Godey’s magazine was published in Philadelphia, which would have required
another move for Sarah and her children.
The decision to move from
was impacted by the unimaginable loss of her eldest son David—named for his
father—when he passed away suddenly. Her son’s tragic death understandably
caused Sarah to feel a surge of motherly protection and concern for all of her
children, and so she requested that she be permitted to edit Godey’s in Boston until William, her
youngest, graduated from Harvard. Louis Godey was sympathetic to her needs as a
mother and allowed for her to edit the magazine long-distance. Given the
difficulty of travel and the unreliability of the postal system, editing a
magazine in Boston and publishing in Philadelphia was a very
stressful and complicated procedure. Despite the difficulty, Sarah had amazing
success; her “writing was emphatically personal and approximated conversation
caught in print. This combination made her writing accessible to the readers,
men and women alike, who enthusiastically responded to the magazines she
edited” (Tonkevich 30).
Sarah worked on Godey’s Lady’s Book for forty years. Under her direction Godey’s became one of the most widely read magazines of the nineteenth-century. She included recipes (which were then called ‘receipts’), fashion plates, sheet music, clothing patterns, poetry, short stories, and scholarly essays. She supervised its production through the Mexican War, the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. She retired in 1877 and died that same year at the age of eighty-nine. Her success was considered “richly deserved, and her energy, devotion, and perseverance under circumstances the most trying, afford a cheering example to her sex” (Woman’s 686).Sarah Josepha Hale was a woman with an interesting and exemplary life. She lived what she wrote. She had been a devoted daughter, a beloved sister, a cherished wife, and a self-sacrificing mother. Her picture of domestic bliss seemed attainable to her, because she had lived it with David. Sarah did not make impossible demands or set-up unlikely standards for her readers; she wrote what she knew, what she believed, what she felt was right. Sarah began life as a poor young girl in