The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers


On Saturday afternoon we visited our favorite used book store, a rabbit warren of little rooms and jumbled shelves, with books stacked in every murky nook.  Tucked away in a dusty corner, its spine almost too frayed to be read, was an old bound volume of Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, Volume V, for July through December, 1832—not rare or valuable, but a lot of fun to look through. 

We’ve remarked before on the myopia of periodical publishing, a business that focuses only on the present:  the current issue… the current budget… the current rate base.  The past blurs and fades away.  This is a shame, since magazine publishing has quite an interesting history, and, as someone once said, it’s possible to learn from the past.

But back to the weekend discovery.  The Lady’s Magazine, published by Louis A. Godey of Philadelphia, was in its third year in 1832.  Probably the biggest news of the day was Jackson’s campaign for a second term.  Of course, you couldn’t read about that in the Lady’s Magazine.  Godey’s stock in trade was light essays, sentimental poetry, lots of short stories, humor, biographical sketches of famous women, a few reviews, recipes, and songs—all of it chaste as a Sunday school tract and none of it tainted with anything as unladylike as politics.

One historian has said that Godey’scontents ran the gamut from mawkish, moralistic fiction to mawkish, moralistic poetry, but that's cruel.  Godey showcased many outstanding writers over the years, including Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, and Poe.  Our volume contains a sketch by Irving that was later collected in Tales from the Alhambra.

Ultimately, it was fashion coverage that made the Lady’s Magazine's reputation.  Godey realized that a picture’s worth a thousand words in the rag trade and his “embellishments,” which is what they called illustrations back then, really are priceless.

Each issue contained multiple engravings, and every third issue had a color picture. In those days, color graphics in magazines were practically unheard of, and Godey's color “reproduction technique” was interesting:  he hired 150 women to tint the engravings by hand, using brushes and watercolors—almost like medieval illumination.  For years it was customary for readers to cut out the colored engravings and frame them.

We held our breath while leafing through our discovery and were very gratified to discover that, after 177 years, one colored plate remains.  The other is missing and presumed hanged, but frankly, we’re happy to bat .500.

In 1861 the magazine added what were called “extension plates,” which unfolded to double- or triple-width.  We could mention that Playboy picked up this technique a century later… although somehow the reference seems to lack dignity.

The Lady’s Book had a Boston competitor, a periodical called the Ladies’ Magazine, and Godey greatly admired the skills of its editor, a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.  In 1837 he bought the competitor and hired the editor, and under Mrs. Hale’s direction Godey’s hit its stride.

Hale was a formidable woman, a tireless advocate of women’s education, and especially for the training of women teachers and doctors.  She’s personally responsible for Thanksgiving, which wasn’t made a national holiday until she persuaded President Lincoln in 1864.  And in her spare time Hale wrote a few poems, among them “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Godey’s was one of the most popular antebellum magazines, reaching 25,000 circulation in 1840, 62,500 in 1850, and a peak of 150,000 in 1860.  In 1869 Rowell’s directory credited the Lady’s Book with circulation of 106,000, which made it one of the largest dozen or so American magazines.

Godey was the first publisher to become a millionaire, an achievement for which his readers can take almost full credit, since the pages of the antebellum Lady’s Book weren’t sullied by advertising.  In those days ads were grouped together on paper covers, removed before issues were bound into a volume.

For many of its subscribers the Lady’s Book really was a book—a book delivered in installments over a period of months, but intended to be bound and saved. Like most of its contemporaries, Godey’s paginated by volume, so that the July issue begins on page one and the December issue ends on page 320. The last two pages are an index to the volume's six issues.

The magazine was laid out in two columns of small, agate type (which must have been a treat to read by candle or oil lamp), and produced as a 6 x 10 octavo, scrawny by the standards of today’s fashion magazines.  Our weekend discovery was printed one side at a time, perhaps on a hand press, but more likely on a press powered by a horse or donkey.  In the 1830s steam presses were practical only for the largest newspapers.  Web and perfecting presses were decades away, barely dreamed of.

As we noted, Godey’s reached its peak circulation just before the Civil War, and after the war was eclipsed first by its Philadelphia rival, Peterson’s Magazine, and then by other, newer women’s magazines, such as the Ladies Home Journal.  Well, ars longa est, etc.

Godey died in 1878 and Hale passed to her reward the following year.  The magazine changed hands a couple of times after that, moved to New York in 1892, and was purchased in 1898 by Frank Munsey, where it became one in a rather large company of publications that expired under his care.  Munsey merged it into the Puritan, which itself was merged into Argosy, which went on to become, of all things, a men’s magazine.

We look back on Godey’s Lady’s Book and think, my, isn’t it quaint, look how times have changed, and so forth… but then again, maybe they haven’t.  The formula that Godey and Hale followed—a blend of practical advice, entertainment, and illustrated fashion coverage—proved timeless, at least until TV and radio began to make inroads on reading for pleasure.  Hale would certainly not be pleased to see sexual techniques promoted on the covers of today’s women’s magazines, and would probably be astonished at how many pictures and how few words are on the inside.  But she’d recognize the blend and balance that the editors aim for.  She could reasonably claim to have had a hand in inventing it.

A quick Web search will turn up lots of digitized Godey’s content, mostly the embellishments, and the entire run is available on microfilm and CD.  But as we turned the pages of our Saturday discovery, we realized that a picture of a magazine isn’t quite the same thing as the magazine itself—the magazine is different than its image.  There may be a small bit of instruction in that observation.

We’re also reminded how durable paper is… and we wonder which of today’s digital formats will still work 180 years from now.

November, 2009