When Philadelphia ruled American fashion

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When Philadelphia ruled American fashion

2016-01-26 11:42

In an era before Instagram fashionistas, where did trendy Americans turn for news on emerging styles? For nearly 50 years in the 19th century, one publication trended above the rest: Godey's Lady's Book.

Published by Louis Godey, the idea of a monthly magazine targeting women was not the former newspaper editor's own. Female readers on the other side of the Atlantic had long been entertained by British periodicals filled with sartorial advice. As one might expect for a product designed by men for women, the Lady's Book struggled to gain a readership when it first appeared in 1830.

It was not until Godey's poaching of Boston-based "editress" Sarah Hale - who penned, among other things, "Mary had a little lamb" - that the magazine began to resonate with readers. Published at 113 Chestnut St. on a flatbed press with the printed sheets sewn by hand, the Lady's Book soon became the chief arbiter of taste and fashion in antebellum America.

Readers learned of the newest fashions, from hoopskirts and flared sleeves to "gentleman's mitts" and "mantillas and mantelets." Each issue also included sheet music, recipes, embroidery patterns, drawing lessons, dancing instructions, and other helpful practical counsel for male and female readers.

It was through the Lady's Book that traditions such as white wedding dresses and decorated evergreen trees at Christmas first circulated in the United States. The campaign for Thanksgiving - a brainchild of Hale's - was also inaugurated in its pages.

The magazine's fashion plates documented the latest trends, quickly becoming readers' most beloved feature. As Godey liked to boast, the production of these hand-painted plates employed more than 150 women working from home, with the color selection often left to the artists' discretion.

Perhaps to provide an example of the boorish men female readers should be leery of, Godey also filled several pages of each issue with his own ruminations. These "Armchair" thoughts ranged from the invective Godey reserved for operagoers who cluck during the performance, to reminding readers (again and again) that he was the fashion editor, not Hale.

The Lady's Book, however, concerned itself with more than clothing. Indeed, it was only over Hale's objection that the fashion plates continued to be featured - she deemed them frivolous. With Hale at the helm - and with Godey's promise of high remuneration for well-known authors - the Lady's Book featured original works of American fiction by Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The literary-minded social reformer Hale also used the Lady's Book as a platform for promoting the property rights of married women, and railed against the near-suffocating bodices then in vogue. For many issues of the magazine, nearly all of the contributing writers were women.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Godey and Hale adopted a neutral editorial stance, often ignoring the conflict. Readers anxious for wartime news and perspective turned elsewhere. The magazine's readership declined, eventually shuttering in 1878.

HSP's latest document display, Fashion: "The Fastest Moving, Most Fragile, and Fickle Fleeting Business," explores the way new fashions have been marketed, from hand-colored fashion plates to window displays. Runs through Feb. 12. Free and open to the public.

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2016, Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP's weekly series, Memory Stream.

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