This article is copyrighted May 2005 by Virginia Mescher. It may not be reproduced or reprinted in any way, either printed or electronic and regardless of whether for fee or gratis, or posted to a website or mailing list without the written permission of the author.

Portions of this article previously appeared in the April/May 2001 issue of Citizens' Companion.


by Virginia Mescher

Period magazines are great research tools in giving us a glimpse into the lives of the readers and a large number of people collect these magazines published in the nineteenth-century, such as Godey's, Peterson's, Arthur's or Ladies' Friend. We find them in all manner of condition -- from being bound and in pristine condition to tattered single issues and everything in-between.

Sometimes the price is perfect for our circumstances and at other times the price is astronomical but we persist in finding copies of these magazines and gleaning what information we can from these parts of history.

With the years that have passed since the magazines were printed and the amount they were read, it is incredible that any of the magazines exist today. The individual issues are usually more worn and tattered than those that are bound. Although the bound issues, done in either six or twelve month volumes, are handy to have and generally more complete, there are drawbacks with the bound volumes. Usually the covers and advertisements in the back were removed by the binder so those parts are lost to us. Often we find volumes where the colored plates have been removed but it is not always the result of modern cannibalization of the books for the plates. The author has several volumes of plates that were removed by the original owners and bound as "coffee table books." It has been observed that children have used the engraving or plates to make paper dolls or they used pencils to mark in the books. With all the abuse of the magazine, it is a wonder that any exist today and we are truly blessed to be able to have them available for us to use as a glimpse into past lives.

Probably the most recognizable feature of these magazines is the hand-colored fashion plates but they are only a small portion of this treasure trove of history. The magazines also contained scientific related articles such as, how steam engines worked or how perfumes were made, and popular serial stories, poetry and works by new authors such as Edgar Allen Poe were introduced to the readers. The latest inventions, from sewing machines to self-sealing preserve jars, were described for the readers and sections on needlework were included in each issue. In some issues there were sections for juvenile science using, what we would consider dangerous chemicals and processes and examples that ladies and young girls could use in making items for fancy fairs. There were sections giving young girls directions for making doll clothes and furniture and, in the November, 1859, issue of Godey's, the first paper dolls to be included in a magazine debuted. [A reproduction set of the Godey's paper dolls are available in the doll section on

Due to the varied nature of the magazine, Godey's Lady's Book was the most popular magazine of the time period with a publication base of 150,000 copies in the year 1860. Although Sarah Hale, the editor, is most often associated with Godey's, Louis Godey was the publisher. In each issue, there was an "Editor's Table" column from Sarah Hale and another one by Mr. Godey titled, "Godey's Arm Chair." In this section, he introduced new technology, advertised the shopping services of the magazine, chastised the readers for not including money for subscriptions and items ordered, and extolled the virtues of his publication. Louis Godey was one of the supreme marketers of his time and could be compared to P. T. Barnum as a showman and self-promoter. The excerpt below is just one example of Louis Godey's advertising methods and how he promoted his magazine. It was not part of "Godey's Arm-Chair" but it is an advertisement nonetheless; the piece proposed that each reader should purchase their own copy of the magazine instead of sharing it with others.

This article appeared in the November, 1855, issue and recounts the life and trials that one issue of Godey's endured only to disappear into oblivion. Thank goodness not all the magazines suffered such a fate.



You must not suppose that I was always the wretched, coverless, soiled, dog's-eared, and torn object you see. I was as fair a creature when I lay in sheets, after having my birth at the printer's, as ever was seen; and when I left the binder's, who had dressed me with a deal of skill, a more fashionable, respectable, and attractive piece of literature, "though I say it who shouldn't say it," was not to be found. My engravings were admitted to be unique and inimitable; my music was sparkling and delicious; my model cottages were fit for the residence of any family; and there was no limit to my valuable hints on housekeeping and domestic work, to say nothing of my inimitable patterns, as well as the instruction and amusement I was prepared to impart to all honored by my acquaintance. I was an intellectual individual. I knew it; I surveyed my own cover with a proper degree of pride, a little abated, however, by the reflection that I could be bought and sold for twenty-five cents. I felt that I was worth, at least, a dollar; and to dispose of me for less was a poor reward for all my wit and wisdom.

After having been dressed by the binder, myself with eighty thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine companions were carried over to the publication office, where we were enveloped in substantial wrappers, legibly directed. Shortly after, I was placed, along with many others, in a mail-bag, to be taken to the post-office. I speedily found myself on my way, and after the usual vicissitudes of travel, arrived at my spot of destination. I cannot detail any incidents on the road, being obliged to keep very quiet, lest my cover might be crumpled or creased. You may see that I was anxious, from a pardonable dash of coquetry in my composition, to make an impression.

I arrived at my spot of destination, but instead of being handed at once to my rightful owner, was quietly put away by one of the postmaster's clerks, who occupied two days in my perusal. This being over, he slipped on my cover very dextrously, and handed me to the gentleman whose name I bore. The latter was the village schoolmaster, a quiet, unpresuming little man, with a large head and an expression of deep melancholy on his countenance. He took me hastily, and quietly thrust me into the capacious pocket of his great-coat, amidst a lot of miscellaneous papers. All of these I found to be quite respectable and unassuming, except a tailor's bill, that took great airs upon itself because it happened to have a receipt upon it. Before I could do more than exchange the compliments of the day with any of these, I was compelled to leave; for scarcely had the schoolmaster reached the door of his house, than he was assailed by a pert little girl.

"Please, Mr. Slocum," said the juvenile messenger, "sister Lucy says she expects to have the 'Lady's Book' to-day, if it's come, and she'll send it to Mrs. Pinchem, right away, to-morrow or next day."

"Tell Miss Lucy," replied the pedagogue, "that as soon as I have glanced over it, she shall have it."

"How soon may I come over?"

"In about half an hour."

"Oh, sir! couldn't you let her have it sooner?"

"Well, I'll try;" and, on receipt of this promise, away sped the child.

"Upon my word, Miss Ashgrove," said the schoolmaster, as he sat down at his desk, and began to open the tops of my pages with the blade of a very stout but exceedingly venerable jack-knife; "upon my word, Miss, you are a nice young lady! Here you are, an heiress in a small way, spending yearly, on folly, more money than would suffice to support me; and yet, you borrow my monthly copy of the 'Lady's Book,' the copy I have to pay for. Well, well, it can't be helped, I dare say."

So saying, the unfortunate schoolmaster began to read, and was soon immersed in one of my articles. In this employment, which, by his sparkling eyes, appeared to be a pleasant one, he was several times interrupted by Miss Lucy's messenger, who came to inquire if I could be had yet, and, towards the close of his task, by numerous others, bent upon the same errand. At length, he gave up in despair, and resigned all pretensions to me. At that instant I was grasped by two at once -- Miss Lucy's sister taking me by the top, and another by the bottom, and so zealously did the combatants pull, that I felt myself not only in pain, but in great danger. Mr. Slocum settled the matter, by giving me according to promise, and I left him, never to look on his face again.

After many stoppages to examine my pictures, my bearer carried me into the presence of Miss Ashgrove. No sooner had the young lady seen me, than she uttered an exclamation of delight, and seizing me hastily, managed to tear a piece of my cover, to my great discomfiture. However, I forgave her even this, for my vanity was gratified at the admiration she bestowed upon my plates, and the delight she evinced on the perusal of my stories and essays; though, I must confess I felt an uneasy sensation as I looked at her, arising doubtless from the schoolmaster's previous remarks. The dislike thus infused into me, received further strength, from a conversation which occurred between her and a young lady visitor, who entered the room a few minutes after.

"I came to ask you," said the new-corner, "to assist me in making dresses for poor Mrs. Bird's little girls. You know they are nearly destitute of clothing, from their mother's long sickness; and Mr. Lenox has given me enough calico from his store to clothe them decently. Can you spare the necessary time?"

"Not just now, Mary, because I want to finish the 'Lady's Book,' so as to send it to Miss Pinchem, who is waiting for it."

"Indeed, Lucy, you are very kind, though as Mrs. Pinchem is a reading woman, and can afford it, she ought to subscribe for a copy of her own. I intend to subscribe for the 'Book' myself, in January. Father says that he has seen it, and approves of it so much as to permit me to become its monthly recipient."

"Why, Mary Field, I am astonished!" exclaimed Lucy. "Are you going to spend three dollars for the 'Lady's Book,' when there are so many other purposes to which the money can be applied?"

"I certainly am; I wish the 'Book,' which contains abundance of useful and entertaining-matter; and I cannot get it without paying for it."

"What folly! Do as I do -- borrow it. This is Mr. Slocum's copy, and I have it first, then Mrs. Pinchem, and so on down. I believe there are twenty-eight on Mr. Slocum's list; but you can always come over here, and we can read it together before any one else."

"No, I thank you, I prefer reading my own copy. But how does Mr. Slocum take this summary appropriation of his goods and chattels?"

"I'm sure I cannot tell; but he knows better than to say anything. He'd soon find himself in trouble; Mr. Pinchem and father are both school directors, and I could soon make him lose his situation."

"Lucy, I am really sorry to hear you speak thus. What! injure a man because he hesitated to suffer you to use his property as freely as though it were your own?"

"But, it is only a book."

"Very true, and that yonder is only a bonnet. How would you like to have that passing from head to head, when it came from the milliner, being borrowed in turn by all the girls of the village."

"Yes, but a bonnet is a necessary."

"And the 'Lady's Book' becomes a necessary very soon; it is mental food. If it be a luxury only, so much the worse. What right have you to indulge in a luxury paid for by another?"

"Why, I declare, how nonsensically you do talk. I won't dispute with you. All I know is that as long as I can get the 'Lady's Book' for nothing, I don't intend to pay for it."

Some desultory conversation took place, sometime after which I was surrendered to the messenger of Mrs. Pinchem.

I have neither time nor inclination to narrate my travels in detail. It is enough to know that at each stage of my progress, I lost some portion of my grace and beauty. At one house, I would find the face of one of my plates, smudged with candy from a child's fingers; at another, the eyes of a lady in the fashion plate was ornamented with an enormous pair of spectacles; at a third, my cover was taken entirely off, leaving me in a distressing state of nudity. One visit would lose me a leaf, another a plate. My model cottages and I parted company at an early stage of my journey; and my music got enamoured of a piano at my fifth stopping-place, and shamefully deserted me forever. The great gap you see in one of my pages was occasioned by the scissors of a young lady, who clipped out a beautiful poem, by Mrs. Neal, for her scrapbook. The brown mark on one of my corners came from the hot ashes of a cigar. Every step that I took was marked with fresh indignity and additional mutilation; while one careful housewife, to complete my degradation, after she had read my contents, used me as a duster, to remove the ashes from the hearth. Thus I have gone, in silent misery, from hand to hand; and here I am, prematurely old, and ready to fall to pieces from continued ill treatment.

But my final words shall not be vain ones. I call upon Mr. Godey to employ a corps of Yankee inventors, to hatch him up some plan whereby scenes of like nature shall be prevented. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for people to borrow boot-jacks, salt, or cucumbers, let boot-jacks, salt, or cucumbers be loaned. But let indignant subscribers to the "Lady's Book" declare their independence of borrowers, telling their tormentors to follow the example of Mary Field, and subscribe for themselves; let them --

Alas! I must cease to declaim. I have long been kept together only by a stitch in the back, and this a mischievous urchin is about to sever. In a few moments I shall become a mere heap of loose leaves, and my dog's-ears and despair will be sent with my remnants to the nearest grocer's. He is undoing the thread -- no! he is about to cut it; the cold steel brings a shiver over my rickety frame; it touches the thread -- Groo-UCH! it is cut.


Finely, Ruth E. The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company. 1931.

_______________. Godey’s Lady’s Book. “THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF A NUMBER OF GODEY'S LADY'S BOOK. Philadelphia: Louis Godey. November 1855.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939.