Do you write for the magazines?" inquired Phoebe.
"Is it possible you did not know it?" cried Holgrave. "Well, such is literary fame! Yes, Miss Phoebe Pyncheon, among the multitude of my marvellous gifts, I have that of writing stories; and my name has figured, I can assure you, on the covers of Graham and Godey..."
House of the Seven Gables - Hawthorne
American magazines directed to women, were not a new idea in 1830 (see Mott, Price). Indeed, these American offerings were themselves fruit of a field already sown, like much nineteenth century literature, by their English forbears. A quick perusal of the names of English magazines in the decades preceeding the advent of Godey's show that American magazine publishers were even indebted to the English for the names of their magazines: the Lady's Magazine, New Lady's Magazine, and various Repositories and Monthly Museums all figure largely. (Adburgham, 128)
Nor was Godey's format or content in any way exceptional. For example, the ever popular La Belle Assemblée contained hand-colored fashion plates and a piece of sheet music. The London Lady's Magazine contained stories, poetry, historical pieces, book notices, and such "embellishments" as plates, costume designs and patterns. Godey patterned his first magazine, then, on these and the annual gift books. Indeed much of the content was lifted directly from these competitors, a common practise of the time. The result was a magazine that survived its first few years quite well.
By 1836 Godey could claim, and probably with fair accuracy, that his magazine "has a much larger circulation than any other monthly in the country." That same year he also began a policy that distinguished his magazine both from its former self and from many others, though it caused much consternation. In an editorial he stated that "The publisher of this work, with a view of securing original contributions for its columns, will give for such articles as he may approve and publish the highest rates of remuneration offered by any periodical in this country."
This desire to obtain original works, more specifically original works by American authors, makes his aquisition of the American Ladies' Magazine and Literary Gazette unsurprising. Sarah Josepha Hale had been publishing her literary magazine since 1828. She had built its reputation on assembling local and national materials and above all on insisting on original work. Her editorial policy was always, clearly, to provide quality material to benefit and educate the female reader. Her marketing sense, no less astute than Godey's, was to originally address herself to the fathers, brothers, and husbands of those readers by encouraging them to buy a subscription and ensuring them that their daughters, sisters, and wives would be not only grateful but also better able to please as a result.
Following negotiations the Ladies' Magazine was acquired by the Lady's Book and, after a brief period editing the magazine from Boston to accommodate family responsibilities, Hale relocated to Philadelphia to act as its new editor. Godey did not relinquish total control and the magazine reflects both their interests. In January, 1840, the list of contributors was entirely female. Overuling Hale's reservations, the fashion plates continued to be included (providing work for 150 female hand tinters) as were steel and copper engravings illustrating the text. Women's health concerns were addressed as was the inclusion of exercises. Plans for items from houses to slippers rounded out the contents.
The decision to showcase American talent proved popular but a decision to copyright the magazine sent competitors howling in complaint. Understandably, weekly papers that survived by clipping from the larger monthlies, were not at all pleased. Poe came to Godey's defense, thus also defending author's rights and eventually the rest of the magazine industry followed suit. These decisions did no harm to the magazine's circulation rate; by 1851 circulation reached 63,000, estimated to be twice that of any rival magazine (Finlay, 47) while by the eve of the Civil War that number was estimated to be over 150,000.
It was the editorial policy of the Lady's Book to virtually ignore the War, describing the magazine as an "oasis" from the struggle. This policy, though decried by many in later years apparently did the periodical no harm and it continued to flourish throughout the decade. Godey sold the magazine and Hale retired as editor in 1877. It passed through several hands and faded into obscurity, ultimately ending in 1898.
Adburgham, Alison. Women in Print: Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria. (London, Allen and Unwin, 1972.)
Finley, Ruth Elbright.The Lady of Godey's, Sarah Josepha Hale. (Philadelphia, London, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1931.)
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1938-68.)
Price, Kenneth M. and Susan Belasco Smith, eds. Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-century America. (Charlottesville, VA : University Press of Virginia, 1995.)