Nineteenth-century Women's Magazines In The United States

“Heaven protect us from such literature!”—so said journalist Charles A. Dana in the August 1846 issue of the magazine Harbinger. He was referring to women’s magazines, a “literature” which, beginning in the 1820s, experienced a surge in numbers and popularity in the United States. Denounced as frivolous and useless by their detractors, women’s magazines nonetheless enjoyed tremendous, sometimes national circulation, usually subsisting on their subscription rates alone. Their impact, too, is not to be underestimated: Helped along by, but also contributing to, increases in women’s literacy, these periodicals played a part in forming women’s reading habits, establishing the middle-class women—“ladies of leisure”—who were their primary audience as a major market force in publishing. While many of these magazines were helmed by men, some were published by women; all, typically, featured fiction and poetry penned by women writers. Many women writers of the nineteenth century were thereby professionalized. Historian Nancy Woloch puts it this way: “While denying that they had invaded the male preserve of commercial enterprise, women authors succeeded in popularizing feminine values, celebrating domestic influence, and feminizing the literary marketplace.” They also earned an income. Other content published was consistent across the genre: Elaborate fashion plates, embroidery patterns, sheet music, household hints, and recipes proliferated.

“Everyday Life & Women in America c. 1800-1920,” Adam Matthew Digital, accessed March 21, 2018, Here is a magnificent database of primary source works related to the popular, social, and cultural history of nineteenth-century America. Most pertinently, “Everyday Life & Women in America c. 1800-1920” contains many women’s periodicals published at the time, several of which were Philadelphia-based, including Miss Leslie's Magazine, The Lady's Friend, and Household News. See the directory for help finding this material, as well as Marquette University's Associate Professor of English Amy Blair’s essay on specific contents.

“Nineteenth-Century Periodicals,” James A. Cannavino Library of Marist College, accessed March 21, 2018, The Marist Library’s guide to nineteenth-century periodicals, with digitized material organized by period, place of publication, and by subject. The section “Journals For Women, By Women and About Women” makes it simple to study high-resolution images from specific issues.

Tucker, David H., Philip Soundy Unwin, and George Unwin. “Magazine Publishing,” Encyclopædia Brittanica, March 8, 2018, The Encyclopædia Brittanica’s wonderful “History of Publishing” includes the extensive section “Magazine publishing.” Women’s magazines are thus situated in a broader context as Tucker, P.S. Unwin, and G. Unwin illustrate the “tapping” of this new market, the popularity of fashion plates within these periodicals, and the most successful titles.

Gerhard, Kristin H. “International Women’s Periodicals: Late 18th Century to the Great Depression,” Cornell University Library, accessed March 21, 2018, Gerhard provides a concise history of British and American women’s magazine publishing, evaluating the factors, such as the rise of the middle class, that converged to make women’s reading habits a profitable market. She surveys the many subjects covered in these periodicals and the emergence of specialized women’s periodicals, as well as the professionalization of women writers and editors.

Price, Kenneth M., and Susan Belasco Smith, eds. Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995.: As a whole, Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America is a useful text exploring key texts and emerging forms in periodicals over the century, but Paula Bennett’s essay “Not Just Filler and Not Just Sentimental: Women’s Poetry in American Victorian Periodicals, 1860-1900” scrutinizes the women’s writing often featured in periodicals, especially women’s magazines, and the processes that made many bourgeois women professional editors or writers for the first time. Price and Smith’s introduction help to contextualize the point.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, Volumes I-V. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938-68.: Each volume of A History of American Magazines offers a comprehensive account of magazine publishing during the period, delving into popular publications, circulation details, trends in format and content, particularly in illustrations, advertising, remuneration for contributors, and so on. Mott also delivers extensive histories of the more prominent magazines.

Endres, Kathleen L., and Therese L. Lueck, eds. Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.: This volume is an alphabetical and exhaustive compendium of women’s magazines in the U.S., with individual profiles of each. Godey’s Lady’s Book, the Ladies’ Repository, Peterson’s Magazine, the Ladies’ Companion, Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, and more are featured, with data on specific volumes and issues as well as circulation history.

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.: An exhaustive resource on Godey's Lady's Book and its woman editor, Sarah J. Hale, in particular, Our Sister Editors recounts the emergence of women editors alongside the growth of American magazines in the 1820s, and the history of female editorship on through the nineteenth century. Okker also maps these developments with increases in women’s literacy and the solidifying of women’s readership during this period.

Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women's Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. : Zuckerman’s history deeply examines several more major titles among women’s magazines—Good Housekeeping, the Ladies’ Home Journal, Delineator, to name a few. She offers a crisp analysis of significant components of production and distribution, including “Price,” “Promotion Methods,” “Customers,” and so on.

Tebbel, John William. The American Magazine: A Compact History. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969.: Tebbel, in The American Magazine: A Compact History, charts the “Golden Age” of periodicals (1825-1850) and its causes: increases in literacy, advancements in printing, and the rise of cities. The development of women’s magazines during this time, he notes, provoked indignation—that magazines catering to women should exist at all.

Stearns, Bertha Monica. "Philadelphia Magazines for Ladies: 1830-1860." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 69, no. 3 (1945): 207-19. Stearns traces a thorough history of women’s magazines over three decades in Philadelphia—a small hub for periodical publishing, and especially of women’s periodicals. She observes shifts in popularity and in content among several titles, including additionally a chronicle of their discussions of the “Rights, Sphere, Duty, and Destiny of Woman.”

Bohleke, Karin J. "Americanizing French Fashion Plates: Godey's and Peterson's Cultural and Socio-Economic Translation of Les Modes Parisiennes." American Periodicals 20, no. 2 (2010): 120-55. Bohleke’s is a useful study of the fashion plates popular in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine, both highly successful women’s magazines of the nineteenth century. She examines their tropes and influences, as well as their production and reception.

Hinckley, C. T. "From the Periodical Archives: 'A Ramble Through the Mechanical Department of the Lady's Book'." American Periodicals 16, no. 1 (2006): 103-14. American Periodicals gives us this delightful essay, written by a contemporary wood engraver based in Philadelphia, about the firm that printed Godey’s Lady’s Book, T.K. & P.G. Collins. The engraver, Hinckley, provides detailed description of the type-setting, stereotyping, printing, and drying. A preface to the essay offers insight into other features of the production of Godey’s Lady’s Book—the hand-painted fashion plates, for one—as well as the types of presses used and their varying efficiencies.

Finley, Ruth E. The Lady of Godey’s: Sarah Josepha Hale. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1931.: Finley has supplemented her biography of the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah J. Hale, with many plates, illuminating archival research, and much information about magazine production at the time. Issues of technical manufacture, copyright, and patriotic content are reviewed.

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.: Woloch’s sections profiling magazine editor Sarah Hale and examining the "women’s sphere" from 1800-1860 supply an enlightening analysis of sea changes in women’s roles and domestic life throughout the century. She asserts that the expansion and enclosure of the women’s sphere during this period is reflected and implicated through these magazines.

“Literature for Ladies, 1830-1930.” Kansas State Agricultural Bulletin XIV, no. 12 (1930). : Two essays contained in this special issue—"Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1830-1898" by Elizabeth H. Davis and "Modern Women’s Magazines" by Lilian Hughes Neiswanger—discuss the types of content in nineteenth-century women’s magazines: fiction, fashion, etiquette, domestic science, etc. Some attention is paid to the content intended to “foster a sense of industry” in these women readers, who were most often wealthy “ladies of leisure” and would not be following the recipes given in these magazines themselves.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.: Zboray offers some powerful contextual material, with his study of “the decentralization of literary life”—how changes in transportations made it possible for periodicals to arrive to their subscribers on a schedule and on time. He also spends time on the increase in women’s literacy, the various realms in which they could read, and the perception of American women as “literary.”