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The Importance of Godey's Lady's Book on 19th c. Fashion History

Today, when we want to be updated on what the current fashion trend is, you look to social media, celebrities, influencers, popular fashion designers, as well as big fashion magazines like Vogue. Prior to the internet and social media, women got their up-to-date fashion news from weekly and monthly magazines or catalogs, such as Harper's Bazaar, Women's Wear Daily, the Delineater, McCalls, Butterick, Sears & Roebuck, and others. Going back even further, prior to the 1870s, you had Godey's Lady's Book - arguably the most popular and well known of the United States' fashion sources in the 19th century.

Louis A. Godey in Philadelphia, started this publication in 1830, mainly targeted as a 'gift book' for women. It included short stories, poems, and most importantly, fashions. It also included patterns to make the styles portrayed, including crochet patterns, millinery, and other small 'home' items. By 1860, the magazine had a subscription of 150,000 - quite a readership, considering it was a more expensive publication at $3 a year.

In each monthly edition, the magazine provided hand-tinted, colored fashion plates of the in vogue styles. They provided a visual representation of how a woman could create a replica of what was seen, as well as how to style a garment. Since these fashion plates were hand painted after printing, many fashion plates ended up with slight to extensive variations. If one color ran out, it resulted in subscribers getting differently colored plates. In this respect, they are works of art in themselves, as there probably aren't two that are exactly alike.

The fashion plates often included an array of garments: day dresses, outerwear, evening wear, wedding dresses, children's clothes, hats, and more. Today, this is extremely important, as it provides a detailed record of the progression of women's fashion. Even more so, the dissemination and adoption of these fashions to the frontiers and little towns outside of big cities like New York, attested to the power and influence it held over America's women, as well as its economy. Early fashion plates in the magazine were inferior copies of French and English fashion plates often months behind their initial European publication; however, they provided American readers with that connection to European styles.

One of the other more interesting things about Godey's is that it was a predominantly female run organization. It's editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who began her employment with Godey's in 1837, revolutionized the women's magazine industry, still a relatively new thing in the 1830s. In addition to having a woman editor, women were actively sought to write pieces for the magazine, and around 150 women were employed to hand paint the fashion plates each month. Despite these advancements, however, Godey's Lady's Book had several flaws. Being a conservative magazine, it avoided controversial topics, downplayed women's suffrage, and only told stories that reflected its primary market: upper class white women. Despite being a woman herself employed in an extremely influential position, Sarah Josepha Hale felt a woman's place was in the home, and routinely advocated for that in the magazine. She didn't advocate for woman's suffrage, she believed that women’s participation in politics would limit their influence in the home, but she did advocate for equal education opportunities for women.

The magazine was sold in the 1870s, and although it continued to be published until 1898, its decline started when Hale retired as its editor. Its influence on Victorian American was solidified though, informing homemakers and professional seamstresses and tailors on the newest and most up to date fashions for the time period.

Many editions of Godey's Lady's book can be found through HathiTrust, the internet archive, or through the Library of Congress for free. It's a valuable resource for anyone looking to do more research on the constantly changing fashions of the 19th century.

Until next time, happy researching!

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